Buy “Runway”



Stress Reduction for Writers


I’ve had insomnia for the past couple of years. Sometimes I’m up from 2-4 or 5 a.m., reading until I fall back to sleep. Other times I sleep through the night but wake up at 5 or 5:30. For a while I took Tylenol PM, then melatonin, but I hate taking sleeping pills. I tried exercising more, which works, but only for the day I exercise, and I only make it to the gym twice a week. (When I do go, I exercise so much that I can’t make it through the day without a nap, and then I have trouble sleeping that night again.)

So when someone at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto said he’d organized a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class to take place at our office during my work hours on a day I happened to be there, I signed up in a hurry. I had no idea what mindfulness was, but I figured stress-reduction might cure my insomnia.

I’m now in the middle of my third week of class, which has turned out to be a combination of meditation, yoga, and doing mindful things throughout the day—”mindful” meaning paying close attention to what you’re doing WITHOUT MULTITASKING. That means when I walk to the bus, I am not checking my email on my phone, I am not calling my friends, I am just walking to the bus, smelling the air, looking around, noticing how I feel. After just one day of practicing MBSR, I began sleeping until 7 or 7:30 a.m. No more waking up at 5 a.m. And because I was more focused throughout the day, I was able to work more efficiently, leaving the office with my work DONE instead of half done, which made me feel more relaxed and able to sleep better.


How does MBSR help me to stay focused? The mindfulness exercises (like taking walks without multitasking) and particularly the meditation are retraining my brain how to focus. Think of your ability to focus as a muscle. If you don’t exercise that muscle, it atrophies. With the gazillion distractions we have today (email, text messaging, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), our focus has severely atrophied. In order to regain our ability to focus, we need to exercise it. And meditation is the best way to do that. Three weeks ago, I was using Mac Freedom to block myself from the Internet so I could work. I was locking my phone in a cabinet on the other side of my office, so I couldn’t check my email every ten minutes. I’m not saying MBSR is a panacea for all workplace ills. I’m sure I’ll continue to use Freedom in the future, but these past two weeks I’ve needed neither Freedom nor the cabinet, and have been so much more calm, focused, and productive.

And today, for the first time in many months, I started doing yoga again. Eighteen years ago, I completed a month-long Asthanga yoga teacher’s training class in India. I was heavy into yoga for years afterward. But then I had kids and stopped practicing. I had gained a lot of weight and was recovering from two surgeries in addition to the birth (wrist surgery and an appendectomy) and just didn’t feel up to all that strain. Now I’m easing back into it, and it feels great to be practicing again—even just 30 minutes every other day.

If you’re like me and you’re overworked and sleep-deprived trying to “do it all” – writing, working, parenting, social media—then seriously consider an MBSR class. To me, it’s better than just taking a meditation or yoga class because it introduces you to both as well as how to be mindful while doing every day activities. In fact, you don’t need an MBSR class to learn that. Just stop multitasking. When you eat, just eat. Really taste the food, smell it, savor it. Pay attention to it. When you’re walking or driving or riding a bike or on a bus or train, do the same. Put your phone down. Put your book down, pay attention to your surroundings, pay attention to how you feel. You’ll see buildings and restaurants and signs that you never noticed before. You’ll realize that you’re slouching, that you’re walking too fast, that you’re squinting … all sorts of things that could be contributing to the stress and anxiety and sleeplessness in your life.

I find that although exercise alone helps me to sleep better, it can also add more stress and tension to my life through sore, tight muscles and the constant go, go, go that it encourages. I’ve found that my 15-45 minutes of meditation are sometimes the ONLY minutes I relax all day, the only time I have to myself to just sit quietly and do nothing. And I really look forward to that.

What about you? Have you ever tried MBSR? Do you meditate? Do you do yoga? What do you do to relieve stress? Do you exercise? Drink alcohol? Watch television? Do those things work for you?

29 comments to Stress Reduction for Writers

  • Kristan

    Great post, Meghan, and I'm so glad you've found something that's working for you! I too am a strong believer in mindfulness and mono-tasking — however, I will say that they take effort to build up as a habit, at least for me now that I've been programmed (or perhaps programmed myself) to be an unmindful multi-tasker. So sometimes I fall off the bandwagon for a while. Still, yes, I'm always happiest when I'm focused and patient.

    Good luck!

    • meghancward

      Kristan – It will definitely be more difficult to keep up the mindfulness tasks once I'm finished with the course. Right now I have to write them down, so it forces me to do them, but it will be so easy to fall back into my old multitasking habits a few weeks from now. We shall see!

  • I'm glad you found something that worked for you. MBSR didn't work for me to break the heightened response and reaction to everything, including pain. I've studied the Alexander Technique for over six years and it's changed my life by teaching me to inhibit my response and reactions to social media, the phone, and any other demands in the world. I've gradually moved from a Type-A person to an A-minus. Swimming helps a lot with stress. I practice dog walking meditation.

    • meghancward

      Wendy, I just got back from swimming! I swim twice a week, but it's not enough to help me sleep every night. I do sleep like a rock on the days I swim, though. And who knows whether MBSR will work in the long term. I noticed results right away, but whether they will be sustainable, time will tell. I do know that I will not be able to meditate for 45 minutes every day the rest of my life.

      What is the Alexander Technique?

  • JoshM

    Hello, Ms. Meghan–

    Joining in the spirit of things–

    To stress-reduce, I make ring tones for all of my friends and family, and I try to base them on someone's personality, or, barring that, what I think of them. So (this person) gets a classic rock snippet because they're a hippie. My mom gets the chopping cellos of Bernard Herrmann's "Pyscho." (this person) gets a cuckoo clock because they are nuts. A quiet person may get a burst of hardcore music, and a blowhard might get a little symphony.

    Gotta laugh, man…it's a natural de-stresser.


    • meghancward

      Josh – Thanks for sharing this. And I hope my kids don't choose the music from Psycho for my ring tone some day!

  • JoshM

    "psycho," that is.

  • This article is addressed to a business context, but as I tweeted, the evidence keeps mounting for the benefits of mono-tasking. Cheers!

    • meghancward

      Thanks for sharing this, Nate. I am finding more and more how many things I notice while walking outside that I didn't notice before because I was always on my phone.

  • denise

    I love this post, M! I'm trying, trying, trying to embrace mindfulness. I'm a Type A and a spaz, so slowing down is a challenge.

    • meghancward

      It's not easy! A class is great because you get homework and feel guilty if you don't do it. And I figure after eight weeks it will become habit – I hope.

  • I have never tried any of those things. It all seems very reasonable, because I've gotten to where I spend 12 hours per day jumping between three computer monitors trying to pack as much into every minutes as possible.

    I don't need to be thinking about writing while I'm driving. I think I'll start using that time to just let my brain relax and watch the road. Maybe I'll even pay attention to the scenery as I drive through it? It couldn't hurt.

    • meghancward

      It's surprisingly refreshing to just look around and not be on the phone every minute. I would call a friend or family member whenever I got in the car – even though I had nothing at all that I needed to tell them. Now I try to call only when I have something to say.

  • Jane Moore

    Multi-tasking!! We do a lot inherently — thinking about one thing while in a conversation about another. But -a mindfulness practice is very calming and focusing. When I remember. But its better to do it sometimes rather than never, I use a sort of "mindfulness" approach to writing that I read about in an
    ellen sussman article: meditate (as short or long as you like) then write 45 minutes and break for 15 during which you do not use computer or make phone calls — but do something very different — household tasks (laundry, make beds) or yoga or walk outside and then write another 45 etc. This helps me stay focused on writing although sometimes its hard to stop after 45 minutes if I think its going well.

    • meghancward

      Jane – Thanks for this. I'd love to read that article. My only fear is that once I begin doing stuff around the house, there's no end. Maybe doing yoga or taking a walk would work best for me.

  • annerallen

    I've never heard the expression "mono-tasking" before, but it's useful. And needed. We multi-task every waking moment these days, and are constantly pressed to do more. It depletes our bodies and souls.

    Yesterday I had to listen to two radio programs at once–while fixing a meal in the kitchen and preparing for an interview. The radio played the local news I needed to hear to make plans for today and the laptop played a series of live interviews leading up to my own. When the interview was finally over, I felt as if I'd run a marathon. I was exhausted and famished, even though I'd eaten. Multi-multi-tasking is bad for our bodies. I'm sure of it now.

    • meghancward

      Listening to two radio shows at once sounds stressful, Anne! I don't think I could do that. It used to drive me nuts that my husband was always on his laptop while watching TV with me. He'd miss half the show and then be asking me questions about why so-in-so was doing such-in-such. He doesn't do that anymore, thank God. For me, I'm enjoying just taking in my surroundings when I'm out walking or driving instead of always being on the phone.

  • lindseycrittenden

    Great post, Meghan, thanks. Fascinating responses, too. (Not sure if the Psycho theme song would reduce my blood pressure…) Like you and Wendy, I swear by swimming, in itself meditative (the forced rhythm of breathing, the back-and-forth of laps). Pretty hard to multi task while swimming laps, though no doubt Google is developing Google Goggles as I type… I find yoga enormously helpful, as well as 20 minutes of morning centering prayer based on the contemplative-outreach guidelines of Fr. Thomas Keating.

    • meghancward

      Lindsey – I've been working on mindful swimming – ie not planning my day while swimming but instead just focusing on the swimming itself. It's hard! It's very much like meditation trying to keep my mind still while staring at the bottom of a pool.

  • Yes, I really understand that when you have kids, self-care seems to dwindle little by little… This time, after my second daughter, I knew that if I was going to be a present, caring mother — and continue to write — I also needed to exercise.
    I walk a lot with the baby. But I also "trade" the baby with my husband to go to yoga. What I mean is: we actually go to back-to-back classes and hand off the baby in the lobby of the studio!

    • meghancward

      Rachel – Great idea to do back-to-back classes! I just found out they started offering child care at my old rock climbing gym, which makes me want to join again (they also offer yoga classes.) Although I exercise, I get a different benefit from meditation and yoga (especially meditation) because it's one time that I'm just sitting quietly and not going going going every minute of the day. As much as I love exercise, I need to give my body a break once in a while.

  • I love this post. I started meditating last fall, and it really helps with not only stress reduction (balancing work, writing, and parenting) but also writer's angst (will I get published?/when will I get published?/do I suck? etc.). Most mornings, I do ten minutes of yoga (sun salutations, mostly), then ten minutes of meditation using Insight Timer. It's been really helpful. Your post reminded me, though, that I'm still hugely guilty of multi-tasking. I walk the streets checking my phone, I email while talking to my son. Thanks for the reminder…

    • meghancward

      It's so difficult not to multitask, Susie! I have to constantly remind myself not to pick up my phone when I'm driving or with my kids. Right now I'm going 30 mins of yoga every other day and a 30-minute "body scan" every other day, plus 15 mins of meditation every day – so we have similar routines. It really helps and when I skip a day (sometimes I WANT to skip a day), I'm really anxious to get back to it the following morning.

  • This is a wonderful and also helpful part of information. I am just pleased that you just embraced this helpful facts around. Remember to stop us updated such as this. Thank you for expressing.

  • Just Reading a lot of your articles. Every one is great. I like writing, designing and coding together. I think this goes well, if you switch them around the week.