How not to return from vacation

Coming back from vacation is always hard. If you’re working for someone else, you don’t really have a choice – you just have to turn up to work, and gradually you accustom yourself to the work routine again. But if you’re doing something like writing, which requires motivation from within rather than outside, it’s more complicated. The funny thing is, I know what works. I just don’t always do it.

Update: this post has been featured at the Third Sunday Blog Carnival

Taking a shower in Martinique

I recently took a month off from writing for a trip around the Caribbean. It was wonderful – I’ve scattered a few photos through this post for you to see some highlights – but I’ve had real difficulty returning to my writing routine since then. I say “routine” because, although it’s a creative act, I’ve found that routine is important. I need to write regularly, at a certain time in a certain place, in order to let the creative inspiration come. It’s a habit, and once the habit is set, I write every day with ease.

Break the habit, though, and it’s very difficult to restore.

Morne-a-l'Eau cemetery, Guadeloupe
Morne-a-l’Eau cemetery, Guadeloupe

When I got back in mid-July, I floundered around for a while and accomplished little. I wrote sporadically, making plans and abandoning them and making new plans again.

Then I did something really crazy. Frustrated with my lack of progress, I made an outlandish goal – to finish my third novel by the end of August. The novel needs a lot of work, and the goal was unrealistic. Some days I worked all day, drank loads of coffee and got a lot done. But it was unsustainable. I fell behind, and felt bad about that, and avoided writing out of guilt. Writing is a creative act. It requires routine, yes, but not misery. You can’t flog yourself into writing a great novel.

Grande Anse, Guadeloupe
Grande Anse, Guadeloupe

As I mentioned, I know what works, and it’s more or less the exact opposite of what I did. What works is to consciously and drastically limit the amount of time I spend writing at first. It’s counterintuitive, but effective.

Volcanic black sand
Volcanic black sand

By limiting myself to half an hour of writing a day, I accomplish two things. I make it easy to fulfil the goal, thus reestablishing the habit of daily writing, and I also create a situation where I’m wanting to write more, not less. Half an hour is so short that when I finish, I’m full of ideas on how to continue. But I force myself to stop for the day.

Mosquito bites
St Lucian mosquitos

That way, the next day I’m chomping at the bit to write again. Gradually I increase the writing time to an hour, then two hours, and finally back up to the full amount (usually around four hours a day, depending on other stuff going on in my life).

I’ve followed this method in the past and it worked beautifully. But because it’s counterintuitive, I sometimes discard it, as I did this time. I rush in and set huge goals and push myself too hard. I wanted to “hit the ground running.” But as anyone who’s ever jumped from a moving vehicle can tell you, hitting the ground running often ends in a painful fall.

Le Diamant, Martinique
Le Diamant, Martinique

So now I’m back on equilibrium. I’m setting small goals, writing regularly but for short times, and building up slowly. I’m being more compassionate with myself, and more patient. The interesting thing is that some days I’ve written more in an hour than I did in a whole day before.

And I’m still amazed at how often I need to re-learn the
same lessons.

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There are 8 comments

  1. I have yet to find a comfortable writing routine that works for me. When I was taking my A-levels I didn’t have the time or the neccesary focus to write often & now that i’m in Uni I have the time but so many other things to focus on. I’ve tried writing often during my summer holiday & it took a long time before I ended up where I am now, writing almost daily. I set goals for myself that i couldn’t keep and was dissapointed with myself for it.
    Your routine of starting off slow with only half an hour’s writing sounds like a really good idea. I will try it out and see if it works for me too!

    1. Hi Lea
      You’re right that it’s not just time you need – focus is critical too. I did very little writing when I was at university, even though I had plenty of time. Hope it works out for you! The key is to make yourself stop after half an hour, even if you really want to do more!

  2. Oh don’t, I have to learn to pace myself over and over and over again. But I also find that two hours a day writing suits me fine. I start to go wrong after that amount of time anyway, like a natural spanner in the works! Building up to two hours sounds like an excellent plan if the habit has fallen away. Why are bad habits so easy to pick up in comparison???

    And are you in Jamaica now or London? I perhaps naively imagine that would make a difference.

    1. It’s funny about good and bad habits, isn’t it? My theory is that by ‘good’, we generally mean things that are good for us in the long run, whereas ‘bad’ habits are things that give us immediate gratification at a cost that’s only felt later on. Deep down, we’re instant-gratification creatures, and so the bad habits are the most natural. The good ones take work.

      I’m still in Barbados, and yes, that makes a huge difference. In my flat in London I had a dedicated desk, and a load of little rituals to help me get started. Here I don’t have a writing space, and so it’s more difficult. The physical space is important. Plus, here there’s much more temptation to forget the writing and go to the beach 🙂

  3. That sounds like a good plan, starting with half an hour and building up. I used to go by word count, at least 500 at one time, but writing every day….I haven’t found my motivation yet, there’s always something else to do, email to check, housework, bla bla. All bad excuses, I know.
    And yes, it’s really hard to get back into a routine after a big break. When I have a lot of time, that’s when I’m the least productive when it comes to writing. It’s probably because I function better under stress?!?
    Very nice pics, was the shower very cold?:)
    How come the cemetery was so high above the ground and did you hear any superstitions about the dead while you were there?

    1. Hi Delia

      That’s interesting – I’ve heard a lot of people go by word count, and I’ve tried that myself but never really liked it. Sometimes the most productive writing days are when I don’t add many words, but have a real breakthrough with a plot point I’ve been struggling with, or just come up with a few sentences that I absolutely love. Conversely, some days I pump out a couple of thousand words, only to discover later that none of them are any good! So that’s why I go by time – number of words just seems the wrong measure to me, unless I’m really on a tight deadline!

      It’s interesting that more time doesn’t really correlate to more writing. Sometimes it can be better only to have a short time, but to be really focused. If you’ve got all day, it’s easy to let it go by with other stuff. That’s why I usually set time limits, and when I’ve done my time I stop and do something else, like read.

      I didn’t hear any superstitions about the dead – the reason the tombs are built up like little houses is apparently because they bury families one on top of the other. We went to a funeral and they buried the person six feet down, as I’m used to from England, but they covered the coffin with cement, not dirt. They said it was because the man’s wife and kids would be buried on top of him when they died. When they reach the surface, they build a big tomb on top. They often had photos of the dead people inside, and candles, flowers, etc, like a shrine. It was really fascinating, and some of them were really ornate.

      And yes, the shower was freezing 🙂 But in Caribbean heat that’s a delicious feeling!

  4. I have to be honest and say that as much as I love going on holiday, the student and blogger in me is always against the idea. Last time I went away I packed all my textbooks even though I knew I’d not get time, just in order to keep up a pretence to myself. I knew that otherwise I’d get back and wonder for a week or so what the point of studying was. A steady routine takes a while to get used to and like you say, it’s difficult to restore the habit. Your limiting method is a good one, having got used to not writing you need to make sure you find the enjoyment in it again. Those landscapes are beautiful, though not so sure about the mosquitoes!

    1. Hi Charlie,
      I know what you mean! I still love going on holiday, though, even if it’s difficult when coming back. The thing is, as I said, I know what works – hopefully next time I’ll remember writing this post and handle it a little better! That’s a funny image, a suitcase full of textbooks! That’s a heavy form of pretence 🙂

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