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May 23, 2012
I’m so excited! I found an answer to my pain condition, a condition aggravated by decades of sitting at a desk. If you’ve read my blog very long (or my Writer’s First Aid or More Writer’s First Aid), then you know I talk about health issues for writers. Even if you have no pain, it’s a big issue, as you’ll see below.
I’ve had headaches, upper back pain, and neck pain (and multiple surgeries)–and all these conditions are made worse by hours slumped at a desk. (Yes, no matter how straight my posture is at the beginning, it’s not long before my shoulders are rounded and my head is forward.)
I wish I had taken out stock in Excedrin years ago. I’m sure I’ve kept them in business.
My New Exciting Work Station
My dear writing friend, Maribeth Boelts, wrote to me a couple months ago about her new treadmill desk. It was helping her with a chronic pain condition of her own, and she urged me try it. I researched the idea (see sources below), read about the benefits, saw how some writers had constructed their own inexpensive treadmill desks, and decided to try it.
Maribeth had assured me she got the knack of typing while walking in less than 15 minutes. I figured I would give it a week–I don’t think I’m that coordinated. But she was right–it took less than 15 minutes!
She also mentioned that the constant walking took care of her “ants in the pants” feeling while sitting at a desk. I have found that to be true too. I think better when I’m moving, and since you’re always walking, you don’t feel the “itch” to get up all the time. In fact, I use a timer now to remind myself after an hour to get off and walk on “dry land.” The first week I had the desk, I worked once for three hours without stopping, and it took a while to get my “sea legs” back when I got off. But what a nice problem to have! Concentrating too long!
Dangers of Sitting
“It doesn’t matter if you go running every morning, or you’re a regular at the gym. If you spend most of the rest of the day sitting – in your car, your office chair, on your sofa at home – you are putting yourself at increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, a variety of cancers and an early death. In other words, irrespective of whether you exercise vigorously, sitting for long periods is bad for you.”
And consider this from “Sitting All Day: Worse for You Than You Might Think”: “If you’re sitting, your muscles are not contracting, perhaps except to type. But the big muscles, like in your legs and back, are sitting there pretty quietly,” Blair says. And because the major muscles aren’t moving, metabolism slows down. “We’re finding that people who sit more have less desirable levels” of cholesterol, blood sugar, triglycerides and even waist size, he says, which increases the risk of diabetes, heart disease and a number of health problems.
Not sold yet? Did I mention that I now have to eat a lot more in order not to lose weight? For someone my age whose metabolism went into a coma a decade ago, it’s been heavenly to eat what I want! (Or you can slowly drop unwanted weight, if you prefer.)
Benefits of Walking While Working
This article lists more than 60 benefits resulting from using a treadmill desk. Here are just the first ten:
- 1.Weight loss of up to 50-70 lbs in a single year without restrictive dieting
- 2.Reduces stress and depression symptoms 30%-47% faster and more effectively than medications (source: Harvard Medical School)
- 3.Long-term Success: Requires no extra time, effort or motivation
- 4.50% reduction in the risk of Type 2 Diabetes (source: American Diabetes Association)
- 5.Reduces the risk of cancers 30-70% (source: National Institutes for Health)
- 6.Improves memory and cognitive abilities as much as 15% in a 6 month period (source: University of Illinois)
- 7.A workout at work with a TrekDesk treadmill desk slows physical and mental aging processes
- 8.90% reduction in risk of initial heart attacks (source: American Heart Association)
- 9.70% reduction in the risk of stroke (source: American Heart Association)
- 10.Strengthens the immune system, prevents disease and restores health.
Practical Tips: Money
If you decide to try this, let me get practical with you. You don’t have to spend much money, even though there are treadmill desks available for several thousand dollars. If you already have a treadmill with straight horizontal arms, you can make this desk for zero dollars. You can also find used (but like new!) treadmills very inexpensively on craigslist. Because my office is very small and already crammed full, we got a treadmill that easily folds up when not in use.
My husband built the wall mounted shelf from scrap lumber in the garage. See photo right below. I think since the treadmill desk is working so well for me that I will get some paint and give the shelf some color. Ditto the keyboard shelf.
The keyboard shelf is just a board laid across the treadmill arms. (Again, the arms must be level.) Because I wanted to be able to fold the treadmill up, my keyboard shelf is removable (held on with Velcro straps underneath). See third photo. Sometimes when I have boring reading to do (like a marketing book), I move the keyboard off and read there. I clipped on a reading light. The walking keeps me from falling asleep while doing necessary reading.
Practical Tips: Clothes
Although I’m wearing jeans in the photo above, I don’t stay in jeans or sweats very long. You warm up fairly quickly, even at very low speeds. Dress in layers so you can peel off as you work. I use a fan later in the day.
And wear good walking or running shoes! I tried it barefoot one day, and my legs really hurt the next day.
Practical Tips: Speed
When you read about people’s experience with treadmill desks, you’ll hear advice that you should start at 1 mile per hour. Go ahead and do that, but if you’re like me (and Maribeth), you’ll be comfortable walking faster. I like it at 2 mph. For some reason, the 1 mph hurt my hip and felt awkwardly slow. Experiment.
Some people recommend standing at a computer desk without walking. I tried that a couple times and got a real backache (probably because I don’t stand up straight any better than I sit up straight.) Walking forces you upright!
Remember to take breaks too. You’ll find your brain working faster when you walk, and so it’s tempting to go for hours and hours without a break. Set a timer for a while until you get used to your own rhythm.
PLEASE NOTE One last thing: there are treadmill desks for laptop computers, where you have to raise your hands higher. I have not tried this with my laptap, and it doesn’t look comfortable to me at all. It might work fine, but I can’t personally recommend it to you. My treadmill desk is for a desktop model.
August 5, 2011
I hear it from writers almost on a daily basis. “I can’t find time or energy to write!” Or “If I take time to write, everything else falls apart!”
The idea of living balanced lives is popping up everywhere. It’s definitely a sign of the times and indicative that many feel out of balance. There are articles online for specific people (finding balance as a lawyer) and even websites for finding balance for your dog!
Take Time to Ponder
For your weekend reading pleasure and inspiration, here are some additional ideas and resources for rebalancing your life. [I'm not endorsing all these websites where I found the articles. Some are good, but some are not my cup of tea. The articles have merit though.]
- How to Live a Balanced Life has some good tips. I tried his “Five Golden Minutes” idea and found it very useful for something so simple.
- What is a Balanced Life? will make you think. I thought the teeter-totter example was good here (although we each must choose what to have at the center, or fulcrum, of our lives).
- When You Have No Margin Left: the Pathway to Burnout–the title tells it all!
- Balanced Lives at “Family Fountain” has some good reminders and tips, especially for people with children at home.
- Living with Less: the Importance of Margin gives the four areas where margin is critical.
- 5 Tips for Better Work-Life Balance has some good strategies! Tip #5 is a winner you can start today.
- Balanced Life website articles include ten articles on various aspects of living a balanced life. There’s even a 12-week e-course you can take for $25.
- Living in the Margin (Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3) is one woman’s experience of living on both sides of the fence and the radical changes in her life by adding margins. She’s a homeschool mom.
Enjoy the articles. Just remember, though, that nothing will change unless we actually put into practice the suggestions and ideas. Start small. Choose one idea and put it into practice for a week or a month. Then add another one.
Even if you only add one new small balancing habit per month, that would give you a dozen new “balanced living habits” in a year. That’s bound to make a difference!
August 3, 2011
Each person has his or her own set of priorities. However, remember that time is finite. It can’t be stretched, saved, or borrowed.
The time devoted to things must be balanced, for if we give too much in one area we neglect our duty in another important area.
Restore Balance Now
Here are Richard Swenson’s suggestions for restoring balance from his book, Margin.
First, you must cultivate the ability to say no. “In life, as in the buffet, our plates fill up sooner than we realize. In attempting to be sociable we try to accommodate everyone’s invitations. In attempting to be good parents we try to give our children more opportunities than we had. In attempting to be compassionate, we want to help with everyone’s problems.” Sometimes you will have to say no, even to some very good things.
Second, you must gain control over your own life. Sometimes your life and time are ruled by other people’s demands or crises. Sometimes your life is ruled by your own out-of-control behavior. Do what is necessary to regain control over your life.
Third, beware of trying to solve the problem of imbalance by becoming even more imbalanced. A doctor warned his patients that we tend to respond to our sense of imbalance by committing more time and energy to the area in which we feel deficient. But if you are already maxed out in time and energy, you can’t give added attention to one area unless you subtract from another area. (That sounds like common sense, but it’s still the mistake I usually make.)
Fourth, accept the no given to you by others. Give others the freedom to find balance in their own lives. Don’t put your expectations on other people.
Margin and Writing
In case anyone thinks I’ve lost the point of this blog–first aid for writers–I haven’t. These issues of finding margin (while maintaining your mental and emotional and relational health) have been the biggest struggles of my writing life for thirty years. Few of us are raised by mental health professionals or counselors, so we come to some of these principles later in life. But if you want to have a healthy writing career as well as a healthy life, these ideas will help you get there.
In last week’s and this week’s posts, I’ve barely skimmed the surface of the ideas, suggestions, and life-changing advice in Richard Swenson’s book, Margin. I hope you will find a copy for yourself. This is one book I would have dearly loved to have about twenty-five years ago.
August 1, 2011
In the Margin book, Richard Swenson, M.D. talked about the tug-of-war in our everyday lives and the challenge of finding balance.
The Balancing Act
I don’t know about you, but I feel a constant tug-of-war between choices. Should I work now, or relax a bit? Should I take action, or should I think about it more? Should I take the lead in this decision, or be a good follower? Should I speak up, or just listen? Should I keep studying and researching and learning, or is it time to apply what I know? Should I judge and confront, or should I give grace here? Should I say yes to this gathering, or retire in much-needed solitude?
It’s no wonder we have difficulty finding balance!
There are so many decisions to make, minute by minute sometimes. Added to that, we know that life requires both. We need to both work and rest. Sometimes we need to speak up, but sometimes we need to listen. We need to both study and apply what we know. We need the company of other people, but writers also require a lot of solitude.
These are not either/or questions. “Balance has always been necessary and will always be necessary. It is just becoming more difficult,” says the author of Margin.
Balance or Excellence?
I believe in high standards. I believe in doing things in an excellent way. In many ways, especially in the past, I’ve gone overboard into perfectionism.
“Much is made today of the virtues of excellence. But what does this mean? Often the excellence described is only in one narrow corridor of life,” says Swenson. He talks of musicians who are virtuosos, executives who live at the office, and other passionate high achievers. Many are not so successful in the rest of their lives though.
Many writers – including myself – have dreamed of the day when they would have time to be passionately high achieving writers. While my children were smaller and I was also teaching, I dreamed of the day when I would have the hours to be one of those high achieving writers I read about. I have met a few of them at conferences, and I admire them a great deal. But each time, when talking to them, I discovered something that I knew I didn’t want in my own life. I didn’t want to ignore my community, give up my ministry at church, lose close contact with grandchildren, or be unhealthy and out of shape. I wanted it all!
“While undivided devotion to one cause can bring great success and vault a person into prominence, such a priority structure often leaves the rest of that person’s life in a state of disorder,” says Swenson. You might excel at your career – like the famous surgeon or performer – yet fail as a parent or neglect personal health in order to achieve it.
I have found this to be true in my own life. I can push through when deadlines demand it. I can do it for months on end if necessary. But to my frustration, something always breaks down. Headaches get bad. I find that I’m out of touch with grown children or grandchildren. Or I put on five pounds because I stopped walking and feel like a slug.
What’s the Answer?
“Doing our best has limits,” says Swenson. “Our rush toward excellence in one quadrant of life must not be permitted to cause destruction in another.” Those who go “all out” for success in one area – even writing – risk failure in other important areas of life.
So what’s the answer? Come back Wednesday, and I’ll give you four tips for restoring balance in your life.
July 29, 2011
The last two posts, I talked about overload, how it happened, and the effect on writers’ lives. Although certain Type A personalities seem to thrive on overloaded lives, most writers don’t.
Our best ideas – and energy to write about them – require some peace and quiet, some “down” time. To get that, we must rebuild margin into our lives.
What exactly is margin? According to Richard Swenson M.D. author of Margin, “Margin is the space between our load and our limits. It is something held in reserve for unanticipated situations. It is the space between breathing freely and suffocating. Margin is the opposite of overload.”
Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?
You might wonder at what point you became overloaded. It’s not always easy to see when it happens. We don’t have a shut off valve that clicks like when we put gasoline into our cars. Stop! Overload! Usually we don’t know that we are overextended until we feel the pain and frustration.
We would be smart to only commit 80% of our time and energy. Instead, we underestimate the demands on our life. We make promises and commit way more than 100% of our time and energy. Consequently, we have no margin left.
A Simple Formula
What exactly is margin? The formula for margin is straightforward: power – load = margin.
Your power is made up of things like your energy, your skills, how much time you have, your training, your finances, and social support.
Your load is what you carry and is made up of things like your job, problems you have, your commitments and obligations, expectations of others, expectations of yourself, your debt, your deadlines, and personal conflicts.
If your load is greater than your power, you have overload. This is not healthy, but it is where most people in our country live. If you stay in this overloaded state for a good length of time, you get burnout. (And burned out writers don’t write. I know–I’ve been there.)
So how do we increase margin? You can do it in one of two ways. You can increase your power – or you can decrease your load. If you’re smart, you’ll do both.
Many of us feel nostalgic for the charm of a slower life. Few of us miss things like outhouses or milking cows or having no running water. Usually what we long for is margin. When there was no electricity, people played table games and went to bed early, and few suffered sleep deprivation. Few people used daily planners or had watches with alarms, let alone computers that beeped with e-mail messages and tweets. People had time to read–and to think–and to write. It happened in the margins of their lives.
Progress devoured the margin. We want it back. And I firmly believe that writers must have it back. Next week we will talk about ways to do just that.
PLEASE SHARE: What do you think so far about this week’s discussion of margin and overload? Do you identify? What does that mean to you as a writer?
July 27, 2011
As I mentioned last time in “Overloaded Lives,” writers need margin in their lives in order to write. However, margin has disappeared for many people.
Frazzled mothers, office workers, retired grandparents, and other writers struggle to find both time and energy to write. Make no mistake: it is harder today than at any other time in history. It’s not your imagination.
It’s also not hopeless. It comes down to adding margin back into your lifestyle.
Before we talk about how to do that, let’s talk about how the overload happens and what it looks like.
Tipping the Scale
Overload in any area of your life happens slowly. It is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It is having one more expectation of you at work or home, one more change, making one more commitment, making one more purchase that you must pay for, facing one more decision.
You can comfortably handle many details in your life. But when you exceed that level, it’s called overload.
Reaching My Limits
All people have limits, and overloading your system leads to breakdown. Some overloading is easy to spot. A physical limit can easily be recognized. For example, I know I can’t lift my car, so I never try.
Performance limits can be more difficult to recognize. If my will is strong enough, I will try to do things I can’t do for very long. I might try to work 80 hours per week every week or lift my refrigerator. The overload can result in sickness or stress fractures.
Reaching your emotional and mental limits can be the hardest to spot. Each person is unique. My overload might result in symptoms like migraines and ulcers; your overload might result in a heart attack or road rage.
Has overload always been with us? No.
Changes are happening faster and faster, and overload can appear almost overnight. Here are some ways you can become overloaded:
- Activity overload: We are busy people, we try to do three things at one time, and we are booked up in advance.
- Change overload: Change used to be slow, and now it comes at warp speed.
- Choice overload: In 1980 there were 12,000 items in the average supermarket; 10 years ago there were 30,000 items. Now there are many more.
- Commitment overload: We have trouble saying no. We take on too many responsibilities and too many relationships. We hold down too many jobs, volunteer for too many tasks, and serve on too many committees.
- Debt overload: Nearly every sector of society is in debt. Most are weighed down by consumer debt.
- Decision overload: Every year we have more decisions to make and less time to make them. They range from the minor decisions at the grocery store to major decisions about aging parents.
- Expectation overload: We believe that if we can think it, we can have it. We think we should have no boundaries placed on us.
- Fatigue overload: We are tired. Our batteries are drained. Most people are even more tired at the end of their vacation than they were at the beginning.
- Hurry overload: We walk fast, talk fast, eat fast, and feel rushed all the time. Being in a constant hurry is a modern ailment.
- Information overload: We are buried by information on a daily basis-newspapers, magazines, online blogs and articles, TV and Internet news shows, and books.
- Media overload: Almost 100% of the American homes now have television, and shows are on 24/7. Images are flashing at us on screen many hours per day.
- Noise overload: True quiet is extremely rare. Noise pollution is the norm. It interferes with talking, thinking and sleeping.
- People overload: Each of us is exposed to a greater number of people than ever before. We need people, but not the crowding.
- Possession overload: We have more things per person than any other nation in history. Closets are full, storage space is used up, and cars can’t fit into garages anymore.
- Technology overload: It has been estimated that the average person must learn to operate at least 20,000 pieces of equipment.
- Traffic overload: Road rage is one byproduct of clogged roadways. Rush-hour is not a rush nor does it last an hour anymore.
- Work overload: Millions of exhausted workers are worn out by schedules demanding more than they can do without breaking down. The earlier predictions of shorter work weeks, long vacations, and higher incomes have backfired. [From Margin by Richard Swenson, M.D.]
Isn’t reading that list simply exhausting? No wonder we feel overloaded. No wonder we have a difficult time writing!
It’s not your imagination! We Americans are overloaded – but we don’t have to stay that way! [Stay tuned for Friday.]
July 25, 2011
Do you have any margins left in your life?
Or is your life marginless?
For a long time, I’ve known that something was wrong. People everywhere, of all ages and walks of life, are frazzled. People are anxious and depressed.
And why is that especially important to writers? Because tired, frazzled, anxious, depressed writers don’t write. Or when they do write, they can’t write well.
This weekend I read a book that spoke to me on every page. It came out several years ago, so many of you have probably already read it. It’s Margin, by Richard A. Swenson, M.D. In this book he talks about the fact that most of us live marginless lives now.
What’s “margin”? Margin is the space that once existed between ourselves and our limits. Margin is having something held in reserve for unexpected situations.
Bring It On!
Instead, most of us live overloaded lives. The cost of overload is seen in health problems, financial debt, family and friendships going by the wayside, and having very little or no time for solitude and renewal.
Because of exponential progress in technology and other areas, things in our culture are changing faster and faster. We have more and more choices. Along with all the progress comes increasing stress, change, complexity, speed, intensity, and overload.
However, despite all this speed and change, human beings have relatively fixed limits. We have physical limits, mental limits, emotional limits, and financial limits. Once the threshold of these limits is exceeded, overload displaces margin.
The book details how many conditions we have at play today that are different than at any other time in history. We have run out of room to breathe. We have run out of time to sit and think. And I think this overload – this living beyond our limits – makes writing extremely difficult.
Can anything be done about this? You can’t stop progress, can you? Maybe not, and maybe we don’t want to, but can we regain our emotional health and physical health and relational health? Is it possible to redirect our over-extended lives? Yes, it is, according to this author.
How About You?
I read this book with great excitement, and in the next several blogs, I will share some ideas with you. Does the description above ring any bells with you?
In the coming days, we will talk about some ways to regain margin so that you have more emotional energy, more physical energy, and more time-when you can write, if you choose to. I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s just what the doctor ordered.
May 11, 2011
Women are givers. Women writers are some of the most giving people I know.
We tend to have stronger relationships because of it–with babies, grown children, friends, and extended family.
But unless you learn how to balance all this giving with replenishment, you’ll find it nearly impossible to write.
Gift from the Sea
It has been a particularly busy family time the last six weeks, with little sleep and even less time to write. I wouldn’t go back and change any of it either–very rewarding times. But there comes a time when you realize you’re close to being drained. Pay attention to those times, or you’ll pay for it later (in your health, in your lack of writing, and in lack of patience with those around you).
This morning I was reading a bit in one of my favorite little books, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book, Gift from the Sea. I re-read it at least once a year. Here are a few snippets that might speak to you giving women:
- What a circus act we women perform every day of our lives. It leads …to fragmentation. It does not bring grace; it destroys the soul.
- Eternally, woman spills herself away in driblets to the thirsty, seldom being allowed the time, the quiet, the peace, to let the pitcher fill up to the brim.
- Only when one is connected to one’s own core is one connected to others, I am beginning to discover. And, for me, the core, the inner spring, can best be refound through solitude.
- One must lose one’s life to find it. Woman can best refind herself by losing herself in some kind of creative activity of her own.
Is That You?
If you find yourself feeling fragmented and agitated today, find a way to steal away from everyone for even ten minutes of total solitude (and if possible, silence). Breathe deeply. Bring the energy spilled on everyone else back inside for a few minutes. Re-focus. Relax.
If you have a couple hours, get a copy of Gift from the Sea and read straight through it. You’ll love it!
And if you have a couple extra minutes, leave a comment and tell us your favorite way to find solitude–whether for a day or just a few minutes. We all need suggestions for this!
March 17, 2011
I was reading an article this morning in Writing World’s monthly newsletter, and the editor revealed her recent struggles with depression–both its cause and rather surprising symptoms.
Could this be you?
Dawn wrote: It came as a huge surprise to me. I thought I was suffering from Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I did not think I was depressed. I mean, surely I would notice feeling depressed? Surely I would, well, you know, feel sad, weepy or blue? Apparently not. The fact that my body had slowed down, and weakened, that my concentration had been blown to pieces and my ability to think became clouded in a fog are all textbook symptoms of clinical depression. Feeling sad doesn’t really come into it. I had, in layman’s terms, overloaded my system. I had tried to do too much for too long and something has to give.
I applaud Dawn for speaking out on this issue. I see writers (and others) overloading themselves terribly these days. I used to think it was just a “young mom writer” syndrome, but I see it in all ages as writers try to work 40 hours at day jobs, juggle children or grandchildren, do volunteer work, run marathons, social networking, attend conferences, you name it! (And I’m preaching to myself here too!)
This editor/writer went on to describe how she’d slowly over-crowded her schedule (with good things!), and what that had done to her creativity. Since she didn’t exhibit classic signs of depression (sadness, crying), she didn’t realize her nervous system was basically trying to shut down.
If you recognized yourself in her description, do something now before you have a full-blown depression to address. Trust me–it’s easier to deal with your schedule before than to crash and burn after you’ve overdone it for way too long.
One fun site she recommended was MoodGYM, which offers online cognitive behavioral therapy. I plan to check it out. If you do too, please leave a comment below for other readers with your opinion of its helpfulness.