Getting your head in the game: the pause before you start work

When I started going to the gym (see Exercising Like a Girl parts 1 and 2), one of the things that was kind of weird, was the pause other people were taking between setting up all the equipment etc for a set of exercises, and actually doing the first rep. As someone new to exercise, I couldn’t really work out what was going on in the pause, and whether it was a good thing I should learn, or a bad habit I should avoid. 3+ years on, I have an answer! AND that answer is really helpful, I think, for academic writing. 

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When you are about to do something hard at the gym, you pause. You breathe. You engage the relevant muscles (usually abs, sometimes obscure muscles you didn’t even know were a thing before you started exercising like the ones between your shoulder blades). You check your posture. You might adjust something about your stance or your grip. You switch your head on. You think about the muscle you are about to work. You talk yourself into doing this counter-intuitive thing: something hard and uncomfortable, multiple times, for no immediate gain. You tell yourself you can. You wriggle your toes. You make the face. You breathe again. Then you do the thing. 

This is all essential. Without all the things you do in the pause, you might injure yourself. The exercise is also much more effective if you think about the muscle you are working out–your brain is as much part of ‘turning on’ the muscle as the action is.

The harder the thing you are about to do, the more important it is to take the time to get set up. If you watch people who lift very heavy weights, for example, they spend a lot of time getting their posture, hold, feet, breath, knees, abs right.  And so they pause, prepare, and then lift–and that’s how they get strong muscles, instead of hurt knees and backs.

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Lots of effective writers also have a pause before they dive into typing words. It can be really effective to have a set of good habits for the seconds or minutes between when you sit down at your desk and when you start typing. It’s probably also a good idea to repeat these habits regularly–say at the beginning of each time box/ pomodoro to keep you focused and avoid damage.

What would you do in your pause? Let me tell you about what I do in mine.

  1. I breathe.
    Remembering to get oxygen into my body is one of the things I’m not super good at, so a deep breath wakes up my brain and helps me get centred.
  2. I have something to drink. 
    It’s usually coffee, but I also try to have water. Staying hydrated stops headaches.
  3. I check the light on my screen or at my desk and make sure I can see well.
    Eye-strain is not fun.
  4. I press play on my music. 
    Music is an essential part of my writing process. I know it is for many other people too.
  5. I check my posture. 
    Bad backs, sore necks and tired wrists are all an issue for people who work at desks all day. I make sure my back is straight and my hands and neck are comfortable.
  6. I do a quick stretch.
    I might roll my shoulders, or do a few twists to help me if I’ve got a bit knotted up. I also do hand, finger and wrist stretches. In a longer writing session I might need to check in on my lower back, hips and glutes.
  7. I consciously set my goal. 
    “I will write a blog post”; “I will make notes about this chapter”; “I will edit this section”; “I will check the formatting for this article”.
  8. I motivate myself.
    I know intrinsic motivation is great, but honestly I’m normally saying something like: “You promised Inger you would write this” or “This is due by Friday so you need to get it done” . Not letting people down and deadlines are effective motivators!
  9. I do a face.
    This one is a bit embarrassing, but it’s true. I don’t do it on purpose, but every time there’s a photo of me at a Shut Up and Write, I’m doing the ‘serious focus face’.  My partner can tell if I’m scrolling through Twitter or writing because of the face. So apparently it’s a thing, and I guess it helps me know I’m writing!
  10. I pause to think about what I’m going to write. 
    I take a second or two to formulate the first sentence or phrase in my head. This is the point I might check my writing plan or notes.

And then I start typing. 

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So: what are the takeaways from this?

Honour the fact that you probably have a pauseand it’s not procrastination, it’s preparation.

Think about what is in your pause, and refine it so it’s full of useful things. For example, if the motivation step is full of guilt, that’s less effective than if it’s full of excitement, or kindness towards your co-authors.

Accept that some bits of your pause are just harmless bits of your process. Making a serious working face might not be something you consciously do, and it might not add much to the writing quality, but it’s not doing anyone any harm, so don’t feel you need to over engineer the process.

Stay safe. In your pause, put in place things that will keep your body, mind and spirit strong and healthy, so you can focus on the hard work of thinking and writing when you are sitting down to do work!

I hope you find this helpful, in being mindful and purposeful about some of the nearly invisible bits of the writing process! Let me know what you do in your pause!

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