6 Lessons for Maintaining Your Sanity

It occurred to me late on Monday night that it has now been exactly a year since I graduated, and I wanted to take a few minutes to look back on the past year and some of the things I’ve learned.

It’s strange to think how much has changed and not changed at the same time.  Last May, when I graduated with my Master’s in Literature, I had resigned myself to the fact that I would not be moving onto to PhD work as I had planned.  Mostly because of the floundering economy, I was unable to get into a PhD program.  My mother kindly offered to let me stay at home without paying rent, and so I took a year off with the intention of writing.  In lieu of paying rent, I would do housework and cooking.  So feeling like a failure, dreading the prospect of turning into a housewife (I mean no disrespect to housewives, it’s simply not what I’d been planning on), and drowning in a depression no amount of writing was going to dig my out of, I started the summer.

Over the past year, I’ve had problems with depression, and been frustrated by my unemployed status, but over all I am grateful for the experience.  I traveled, I visited friends I hadn’t seen in awhile, I discovered that I really enjoying cooking, and have become quite obsessed with trying new recipes.  (But cleaning still sucks.)

But most importantly, I’ve written almost maniacally: starting this blog (which was a spur-of-the-moment thing and has since become very important to me), writing several research papers for literature conferences, participating in NaNoWriMo for the first time ever, and working on my urban fantasy novel with an almost frantic intensity.  Through it all, I have been stressed out, panicked, depressed, and flat-out crazy.  But the fact that I am now almost finished with my first novel makes it all worth it.

Now it’s May again.  I’ve been accepted to a PhD program, I have been offered a Teaching Fellowship, for which I am very thankful.  But I realize now how much I will miss the freedom I have experienced this past year.  And I fear that once I’m in school again my personal writing will fall by the wayside once again, just as it did when I was working on my Master’s.  However, I hope a few of things I have learned (or re-learned) over the past year will help me to find balance, keep me from burning out, and allow me the time to continue working on my personal projects.

"Stress Monster" photo by Richard Scott (CC)

So, what have I learned anyway?  Well, here are the top six most important elements in keeping your sanity:

1)     Time management is EVERYTHING.  Put yourself on a schedule that is efficient and REASONABLE.  And then stick to it as much as humanly possible.

2)     Give yourself goals.  Again, be REASONABLE about your goals (you’re not a robot, after all), but make the goals meaningful and useful.  And then REWARD YOURSELF when you meet them.  It doesn’t matter how, whatever is going to be a nice treat for you will work.

3)     Support systems are VITAL.  Everyone needs a group of people to turn to who will understand what you’re going through, be able to offer encouragement, advice, commiseration when things go badly, and enthusiastic praise when things go well.  I rely almost entirely on the writers I’ve met on Twitter, and two friends who live at opposite ends of the country.  If you have access to writer’s groups or other support systems that you can physically meet with, that’s wonderful.  But there is nothing wrong with relying on social media and the virtual communities online.  The people I’ve met on Twitter are brilliant, funny, and incredibly supportive.  And that’s all that really matters.

4)     TALK ABOUT IT.  Explain to your parents, families, significant others, and non-writer friends what you’re doing and why.  Even if they don’t really GET it, they usually try to be supportive in their own ways.  And if they know what you’re up to, they might let it slide when you forget to laundry, or opt out of that family barbecue in favor of a few quiet hours for writing.

5)     TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF: get your necessary sleep, eat healthy, exercise.  These things can make all the difference for your physical and mental health, both of which are necessary if you want to think clearly and live long enough to finish anything.  This is one I have trouble with myself, as I’m a chronic insomniac, I have a talent for forgetting to eat, and I am so NOT athletic it’s not even funny.  Yet even I am trying to make changes on that front.  Sleep is still pretty hit-or-miss, but I eat more regularly now and much more healthy since I started doing so much of the cooking.  And my mother and I have started tri-weekly walks through trails in the park.  It’s not a lot, admittedly, but it’s a start.

6)     And most importantly, GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK.  Don’t expect perfection from yourself, ‘cause you’re NOT a robot.  Stick to your schedule and goals as much as possible, but not at the expense of necessary sleep, regular meal times, and an occasional breather.  I know that feeling well: when you’re working or doing something you need to do but don’t want to do, all you can think about is writing; and when you’re writing, you continually feel guilty about all those things you should be doing but are slacking on.  Nothing we do every entirely erases that feeling.  But cut yourself some slack! If your schedule is so full you can’t accomplish everything even if you switched to 20 hour days, then its time to prioritize and simplify.  The important thing is to do the best you can without getting an ulcer or working yourself into an early grave.  Just remind yourself: if you’re dead, or in the psycho ward, you’ll NEVER finish that manuscript.

And that’s my two-cents for the week.  I hope these little reminders are of some use to someone.  But if not, I’m still glad to remind myself every once in awhile.

So what about all you writers out there?  What sorts of little lessons do you have to remind yourself of occasionally?  What helps you keep your sanity in times of stress and over-work?  How do you balance your work-life, family-life, and writing?

I’m still learning how to deal with it all effectively, and I have a feeling that in a few months I’m going to need all the help I can get.

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10 thoughts on “6 Lessons for Maintaining Your Sanity

  1. The grass is always greener, right? I feel for ya, Amanda, I really do. I’m so sorry you’ve been battling depression, I have gone through it myself and I know it’s not an easy thing. It never is when your biggest barrier is yourself. *hug*

    I really think you’re being very self aware about your plan. You took a year off for economic reasons, and you wrote. You started up a blog and I know from reading it, you’ve made really good progress on it and have been posting regularly.

    What makes me laugh is how you wish you were working or back at school, and I work a 60+ hour job and wish for nothing more than a prolonged amount of time off! LOL. It’s a difficult balance, isn’t it? All I can say is, you’ll get there in your own time, that’s what I’ve been learning. I let my writing fall by the wayside after I graduated, and I’m picking it back up 3 years later. I don’t always move as fast as I wish I was, but the point is I’m moving, and it is forward as long as I’m learning.

    So put your big girl panties on, Girl, I want to see some more writing from you!

    • I always appreciate your feedback and support, Jess! It is funny how we have the opposite problem, and I try very hard to whine too much about having too much time on my hands because I know how much worse it is when there’s too little. And I have become quite comfortable with my free time lately. At this point, I’m worried I won’t be able to switch back despite how badly I wanted to get into a phd program.

      But don’t you worry. The big girl panties are on, and I am determined to succeed! 😀

    • Yeah, keeping myself on some kind of routine schedule has always been difficult, but I’m starting to get better at it. And I keep all sorts of goal lists and to-do lists to help keep me focused and on task. #6 is still by far the most important.

      Thanks for the comments! Hope you’ll come visit the blog again!

  2. I feel ya on the unemployed thing, and the school thing (although I’m still an undergrad with no intentions of pursuing graduate work…as of yet.) I’ve been unemployed since about January. I was fired the very same day I helped my parents move to their new house about a mile from the one I share with my brother now (Yeah my parents moved out; weird huh?)

    Luckily my bro understands my desire to write and isn’t pressuring me to work. I really don’t want to as I’ve juggled work and school for five years now and was approaching burn out, even in spite of having a massive shift of thought last summer (converting to a new religion will do that to you.)

    Now though I am my own worst enemy. Stressing myself over sales, over writing, over money, over girls. and just about anything else. I’m now having minor health issues because of it, and I’m now learning that I HAVE to stop it!

    And I am. I’m setting daily goals, and looking to my faith to find strength (never thought I’d be saying that about this time last year!)

    I suggest mindfulness to keep sanity. Look at all things in their proper perspective. And find joy in the every day. That is the key to a good life, and good writing.

    • Wow, that sucks! But I’m glad you had an understanding brother who was willing to give you some time. That makes all the difference. And you converted to a new religion? That’s really interesting. Could I ask what?

      I agree that perspective is highly important. But unfortunately, nothing every gets rid of the stress, does it? It’s amazing what we do to ourselves without really meaning to. (Of course, stress over girls never really goes away. 😀 )

  3. I did! I am a Buddhist. We’re all about perspective haha

    I find stress doesn’t help me to be more creative. When I am relaxed, it writes itself. it’s like what Bruce Lee said in Enter the Dragon; in one scene he balled up his fist and said “I don’t hit, it hits all by itself.” haha

    I think of writing as guiding a river. I am the river bank and the work is the water. It flows as it will, I just simply try to guide it. I cannot force it, but I can coax it towards a mutually beneficial direction, if you will.

    I try to look at stress as an old friend. All negative emotions are old friends: they simply tell us in their own way that something is not right; they are a reminder that we need to practice better.

    And no, stress about girls doesn’t seem to go away lol. Unless I’m too preoccupied to think about it that is haha

  4. Ok I know this is hardly related to the question at hand, but I just have to ask.

    “My mother kindly offered to let me stay at home without paying rent,”

    Now, it might be a cultural difference thing…but do people seriously ask their KIDS to pay rent when they live with them? Isn’t that kind of..I dunno – Sick? Absurd? Cruel? Un-parentlike? (that one isn’t even a word)

    • LOL, Jenx. Yes, once children reach the age of eighteen SOME parents will even flat-out kick them out of the house. THAT’S cruel. My mother didn’t do that. Actually, she would probably have flipped out if I moved out. She likes having me around, and I wasn’t required to pay bills during my bachelor’s. But by the time I was 23 and finishing my Bachelor’s, I was expected to help pay my own way, and I’ve been paying a portion of the bills for the last few years. It’s less than I’d have to pay if I was living on my own (apartments are not cheap around here), so I didn’t mind.

      • Nah see I understand helping with the bills and maybe with the shopping and such – ya know, pulling your weight. But forcing your child to pay you rent to live in the home it was born and raised at is just wrong on so many levels.

        (Finding a place to live here in Bulgaria ain’t exactly that easy either. There aren’t that many places for rent, the ones that are there are usually pretty expensive and buying an apartment altogether is even more expensive, and considering the budget most young people live on in Bulgaria…yeah. A lot of people live in the same place they have always lived as a kid. )

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