In our annual survey for 2020, we asked participants what would revolutionize their writing lives. Apart from publication, the most common response by far was a consistent writing habit.
Finding time to build up a word count is a widespread need in the writing community. That’s why so many articles offer advice on balancing life and writing (including the ones we’ve published on this site).
But even if you manage to squeeze writing into your days, you may worry that you’re being unproductive. Your ideas trickle out, so you only type a few sentences, or social media distracts you. That’s happened to all of us, including me.
When I began teaching English full time a few years ago, my writing habits underwent a grueling test. Between developing a curriculum almost from scratch, adjusting to leading classes, and grading scads of essays, I couldn’t sit down to write until 9 or 10 p.m. I’d end up staring at a blank screen with little creative momentum. An hour often consisted of ten minutes of writing interspersed with fifty minutes of vacuous social media scrolling.
Time management failed me.
For a while, I beat myself up. But as I began researching how the human mind works, I realized that self-control might not be my true issue. Instead, I was mentally drained—and I’m convinced that writers would struggle with less guilt and make more progress if they could learn how to regulate their mental energy.
What Is Mental Energy?
As peer-reviewed medical journals attest, mental energy can be difficult to define. But Harris Lieberman, a research psychologist at the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, takes a stab at it: “mental energy is a mood, but can also be defined as ability or willingness to engage in cognitive work.”
To be clear, deficient mental energy cannot be equated with nonexistent motivation or plain old laziness. Some of you who are reading this need a reminder that discipline is important and that novices can’t become professionals until they stop relying on “inspiration” as the impetus for their writing.
However, even dedicated writers know that sometimes words can’t be forced out. Before my first semester as a teacher, I’d been writing seriously for years and had ditched the “do it only when I’m inspired” trap. So I believed I could write under any conditions. But I soon discovered that I couldn’t. While some evenings were more fruitful than others, I sensed a distinct difference between moments when I could write (whether I wanted to or not) and when my brain was so exhausted that I couldn’t accomplish much besides mindlessly refreshing my social media feeds.
That’s the result of mental energy.
It’s not an excuse for inertia. But it recognizes that real factors can destroy your ability to write even when you’re fully committed and determined.
Why Your Mental Energy Has Limits
A variety of circumstances can deplete your mental energy. Some are biological, such as lack of sleep, food, or exercise. Others are related to your lifestyle, such as how many previous activities you’ve engaged in, how much stress you’re feeling, or how cluttered your workspace is. The time of day, socialization, location, and other miscellaneous details might affect you too.
To get scientific, mental energy seems to be dependent on how much glucose the brain produces. As a trio of scientists at the State University of New York explain, “glucose levels within specific brain areas can be acutely decreased by cognitive demand calling on those areas, and that such drainage places a limit on cognitive processing.” The more you use your brain, the less glucose you have, which reduces your capacity to think quickly and clearly. And what do you lose when your brain is in this weakened state? According to their study (and others): self-control.
The Hazards of Impaired Mental Energy
Yes, you heard me right. From a biological perspective, self-control becomes a huge challenge when you’re low on mental energy. Not only that, but as Srini Pillay says in the Harvard Business Review, you’ll also become more impulsive.
Fortunately, writing doesn’t require you to make dozens of choices every chapter, right?
This is why I implied earlier that writers are sometimes burdened with false guilt. Because here’s the truth: if you keep succumbing to the temptation to browse Instagram or Twitter, maybe your brain simply doesn’t have the energy to focus on writing. Your problem isn’t motivational as much as it is physical. And since you’re not addressing the latter, you’re fighting a losing battle.
Lest you question the point of trying to ignore social media if you’re doomed to get sucked into it, let me assure you that you do have a recourse. When your brain is worn out, resisting won’t be easy. But you can conserve your mental energy if you plan ahead.
That means changing your routine so you work smarter, not harder.
How to Regain Mental Energy: My Personal Strategy
After two years of dealing with an overtaxed brain, I finally decided that enough was enough. I needed to better steward my mental energy. For me, that involved three steps.
First, I paid attention to whether an activity increased or decreased my mental energy. Web design and research boosted it, whereas teaching and writing had the opposite effect. So I began structuring my day to alternate between energy-giving and energy-taking activities.
Second, I capitalized on the times of day that my mental energy was the highest. As Jacqueline Carter and Rasmus Hougaard mention in One Second Ahead, “our natural mental energy flows throughout the day” (p. 81). The timing of that surge differs from person to person. For me, morning or afternoon is more optimal than late evening. Both are difficult to achieve with a day job, but once I replenish my mental energy through thirty minutes of web surfing, I prioritize writing as my first task after coming home.
Third, I allowed myself more rest. Contrary to popular American belief, humans are not made to go nonstop. As Pillay argues later on in his Harvard Business Review article, idleness triggers the “DMN circuit” in your brain, which equips you to be innovative (an essential skill for novelists!). The thirty minutes I allot for social media after school are not wasted—I’m recharging my mental energy so I can write with vigor. I’ve incorporated reading into my weeks for similar reasons.
As Rose emphasized a couple months ago, rituals are essential to putting yourself in the “writing zone” at designated times. The same principle applies to your mental energy. You have to train your mind to function when you need it to.
How to Regain Mental Energy: Other Assorted Tips
Though my three-step strategy successfully rejuvenated my mental energy, it’s not the only technique that can help. Here are a few more suggestions you can experiment with:
- Avoid multitasking whenever possible. It may seem productive, but as Carter and Hougaard point out, whenever you jump between tasks, you expend more mental energy than if you’d stayed focused on one (p. 81).
- Remind yourself why you care. Even when you’re short on mental energy, you can sometimes push yourself to continue if you’re passionate enough.
- Don’t neglect the value of exercise. I kid you not: running three miles twice a week has significantly improved my mental energy.
- Look for opportunities to express gratitude! While this suggestion may seem odd, several sources claim that thankfulness has a positive impact on mental energy.
- Embrace the stereotypes regarding coffee. I can’t offer scientific certainty, but evidence indicates that caffeine stimulates tired minds.
- Pray regularly. When I began researching this topic, I was surprised by how many secular articles recommended prayer or meditation to revive mental energy. But if you believe that an omnipotent being loves you, and you’re striving to honor Him with your writing, you shouldn’t need the world to tell you this!
Finally Forming a Powerful Writing Habit
You’re addicted to social media. Your cursor keeps blinking because you’re out of ideas. And the self-condemnation drags you down. So you consider quitting.
You may have actual discipline issues that you need to overcome—but sometimes the real culprit is your mental energy level, and you can raise it.
When I started guarding my mental energy, not only did I write longer than I used to but also more prolifically. Taking breaks allowed me to enjoy life more. And after a summer where I felt deeply discouraged about my progress as a writer, I suddenly had renewed confidence.
Your ability to write isn’t just about stubbornly shutting off the Internet for an hour or two every day. It’s about whether you’ve prepared your mind to handle the writing process. When you combine time management with mental energy management, you create a dynamic that will supercharge your career.
Intentionally regulating my mental energy transformed my writing life.
What could it do for yours?
Josiah DeGraaf is the editor-in-chief of Story Embers and the fiction content manager of The Young Writer. He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations and loves to take normal people, put them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then force them to make difficult choices. Someday Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, and themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s. In the meantime, you can find him teaching writers at Ink Slinger Academy or writing short stories at his website as he works toward achieving these goals.