4 methods writers can use to develop mental toughness

Employing proper breathing techniques, maintaining a positive outlook and understanding the overriding purpose of your career can help you cultivate a resilient outlook.


Have you ever noticed the similarities in writing, making music and exercising?

Each requires practice, commitment and repetition, and we get worse at them when we take a break.

A story on the Runner’s World website discusses how runners can develop mental toughness, but those basic ideas can work for writers, too:

1. Control your breathing.

This tip might seem better directed at people who are exercising, but guess what: It applies to writers as well. Researcher Linda Stone calls the problem email apnea—a term borrowed from “sleep apnea”—a medical condition in which people momentarily stop breathing when they’re asleep.

Stone contends that people who spend time in front of screens often hold their breath or breathe shallowly. Some 80 percent of the people she observed did this, and guess who the remaining 20 percent, apnea-free people were?

  • Dancers
  • Musicians
  • High-performance athletes

There’s that music/exercise connection again. Our breath is a trigger for our nervous system. When we breathe with easy, relaxed inhalations and exhalations, we calm our bodies. When we breathe in short, hungry gasps—or don’t breathe at all—it signals that we’re in flight-or-fight mode, and a crisis is looming. This stressful feeling makes our hearts beat faster.

To control your breathing, Stone suggests improving your awareness. When you write, notice whether you’re holding your breath. Also, attend to how you’re holding your body: Is it stiff or relaxed? Next, take regular breaks. She suggests breaking at least once an hour (and perhaps once every 45 minutes) for a five- to 15-minute walk. This might seem like a waste of time, but you’ll be making yourself more productive. If you’re serious about controlling your breathing, she suggests that you dance or sing to improve your lung capacity.

2. Maintain a positive mindset.

Optimism can improve your performance. Shawn Achor has found that happiness fuels success; that’s the converse of conventional wisdom—that success engenders happiness. Instead, Achor argues, we’ll be successful if we’re happy. He suggests the following steps:

  • Keep a daily list of three things you’re grateful for.
  • Maintain a journal about one positive experience you’ve had over the last 24 hours.
  • Exercise and meditate.
  • Perform a random act of kindness every day.

3. Practice mental imagery.

If you believe you’re a lousy, unsuccessful writer, you’re more likely to be one. If you see yourself as articulate, you’re more likely to hit the high notes.

The Navy SEALS like to say, “We win in our mind before we enter the battlefield.” To win in your own mind, pick a positive affirmation such as, “I can write,” or “I have a good ear for dialogue,” or “I’m an excellent editor,” and repeat it whenever negative thoughts arise.

4. Set the right goals.

Why are you writing? Sure, you have a boss/editor who’s demanding a story or report from you, but why did you take a job involving writing in the first place? Do you get satisfaction out of writing? Do you have something important to say? Why are you doing it? Be clear about this, so you can sustain yourself when the going gets tough.

When you know your “why,” you can focus on smaller goals such as eliminating clichés, using more figurative language, writing shorter sentences or ensuring all your pronouns and antecedents are clear. Never do something just because someone else expects it of you. Instead, find your motivation. Otherwise, you’ll have a difficult time getting through challenging times.

Being a productive and tough writer isn’t something that happens by magic. Tough writers are made—not born.

A version of this post first appeared on Publication Coach.

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