How To Be A Healthy Writer With Dr. Euan Lawson

    Categories: Author Entrepreneur

If you want to have a long and successful writing career, then you need to look after your body as well as your mind. In today’s show, I discuss how to be a healthy writer with my co-author, Dr Euan Lawson.

We talk about why writing is great for your health, as well as the most common issues that writers face in terms of physical and mental health, plus we share our personal stories of pain and recovery – as well as my story of breaking sugar addiction.

You can find The Healthy Writer: Reduce your Pain, Improve your Health, and Build a Writing Career for the Long Term in ebook and print editions. We hope it helps you have a healthy, sustainable, and creative 2018.

Today’s show is sponsored by Draft2Digital, where you can get free ebook formatting, free distribution to multiple stores, and a host of other benefits. Get your free Author Marketing Guide at www.draft2digital.com/penn

Euan Lawson is a British medical doctor and a Fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners. He’s ex-British Army, and enjoys fell running. He’s also my co-writer for The Healthy Writer: Reduce Your Pain, Improve Your Health, and Build a Writing Career for the Long Term.

You can listen above or on iTunes or Stitcher or watch the video here, read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • Euan’s background as a doctor
  • Why writing is good for your health
  • The common health problems that writers face
  • Tips for a healthy work area
  • The dangers of burn-out and how to avoid it
  • Finding a writing community to combat isolation
  • On healthy, sustainable ways to change habits
  • What Euan gave up in order to co-write this book with Joanna

You can find Dr. Euan Lawson at EuanLawson.com and on Twitter @euan_lawson

Transcript of Interview with Dr. Euan Lawson

Joanna: Hi, everyone. I’m Joanna Penn, from TheCreativePenn.com, and today I’m here with Dr. Euan Lawson. Hi, Euan.

Euan: Hi.

Joanna: It’s great to have you on the show. So a very exciting day today.

Euan is a British medical doctor and a Fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners. He’s ex-British Army, and enjoys fell running.

He’s also my cowriter for “The Healthy Writer: Reduce Your Pain, Improve Your Health, and Build a Writing Career for the Long Term.”

We’re so excited to bring it to you, aren’t we, Euan?

Euan: Yeah. I’m buzzing a bit today, already. It’s not just the coffee. Yeah, I’m properly excited.

Joanna: We are, and we think it’s a good book, and today we’re going to tell you about it.

Start off, Euan, by telling us a bit more about your background as it relates to writing and also what kind of doctor are you, so people understand a bit more.

Euan: So as you said there, I’m a GP, a general practitioner. So that will be familiar to people in U.K. and Australia and Canada, but in the rest of the world, it’s not necessarily well-known, and we might be known as a specialist in family medicine or family physicians.

Basically, we look after everyone outside of hospitals in the community. So it’s kind of cradle-to-grave stuff, from birth to babies to kids, end of life, and everything in between as well. I’ve done a lot of work as well with people who have addictions, in the past, particularly to alcohol, but heroin, crack, amphetamines, and people who inject drugs.

That’s been a real special interest of mine. I guess most of my writing has been medical in the past, and particularly related to those special interests as well, and about habits and addictions.

I’ve written for academic publications and textbooks. I’ve just finished a textbook about burnout in doctors as well, and I’m the editor of a medical journal. So obviously there’s lots of writing involved in that, and editing. We get lots of articles from people also about the experience, lived experience of illness, whether it’s from the doctor perspective or whether it’s from the patient perspective as well. So lots of involvement on that medical side.

I’m also a big fan of crime fiction, and I write a little bit of that myself, and I help out reviewing at the Crime Fiction Lover website. I’m passionate about that. So that’s a lot of fun as well. My writing sort of crosses across the spectrum, I guess.

Joanna: Yeah, that’s fantastic. And then tell us, because you live in quite a cool place in Britain.

And give us an indication of your family as well, because it’s not just you, is it?

Euan: The great thing about these jobs these days is you can work remotely. And so even though the medical journal and other things are based in London, I’m able to live up in Cumbria, which is in the Lake District. So that’s up in the northwest corner of England.

It is a beautiful place. I don’t know how well-known it is globally, but it’s a pretty fantastic spot, and I live on the side of a hill with my family. So I can get out running regularly. My wife enjoys running out there, and I occasionally drag out the kids. But to be honest, it’s more common for my lovely Sprocker Spaniel, Mini, to come with me. She’s my regular companion, and she’s the one that keeps me honest.

Joanna: Yeah, which is awesome, and you have some lovely pictures of you running around the area, don’t you? So we’ll give your website later, but it’s really, I think it’s great to see that.

The book, “The Healthy Writer”; we started off the book saying why writing is absolutely amazing for your health. And that’s what I want us to start this interview with as well, because we will get onto some of the pain.

But let’s just focus first on why is writing amazing for our health.

Euan: Well, there’s a bit of medical evidence around this. And I think you’re right, there’s a real potential for us to portray it as always bad, and actually most people get an enormous amount out of their writing. And there’s some quite good evidence for writing as therapy.

I find personally, it gives you such great insight into your own thought processes and how that works with your own emotions. That’s the kind of basis of things like cognitive behavioral therapy.

It’s incredibly powerful, and there are some quite good studies that have shown, even with a simple thing like a gratitude journal, and even just once a week, writing down five things weekly.

There were some California psychologists who had a great study that showed, actually, it really massively improved personal well-being, and people felt much better. And it wasn’t just that they said they felt good. The family members noticed it as well. It was a really sort of objective thing.

There’s that kind of psychological mental health aspect to writing, which I think is great. But actually, the research has gone a little bit further as well, and it can actually help your physical health. I think because of those improvements in your mental health, that can improve your sleep, and getting your sleep right can be a bit of a superpower. And if you get your sleep wrong, it leads to a lot of problems, stress, and that releases cortisol and other sort of hormones which can damage your health in the long run.

So actually, writing can be really positive in terms of improving all those things. And if you’re following your passion, it’s hard to see how that’s bad for your health anyway. I think it’s tremendously good for you.

Joanna: Exactly. It’s funny you say sleep is a superpower. People always ask how I get stuff done, and I generally say, “Because I sleep for, like, eight or nine hours a night, and then I’m so full of energy that I just get stuff done.”

But also on the writing, good for our health, like the social side. For example, when I started writing in 2006, I knew nobody creative, like creative in the sense that now I’m in the center of this community, my own community and many others.

By putting our writing out in the world, whether that’s books, journals, blogging, social media, we can actually connect with people like us, and that loneliness and isolation that some people feel is also mitigated.

Euan: Yeah, I think that’s really important. I know we’ll probably mention that a bit further on in terms of loneliness because I just think it’s one of those incredibly important aspects.

If you’re connecting with people about something you feel passionate about. You connect with people at work and other things, but when it’s your passion and you connect with people and make those and have those social interactions, that’s amazingly good for you, and I think that really is a real benefit.

Joanna: Let’s get into the survey, then, because we had nearly 1,200 writers submit answers to The Healthy Writer Survey in August 2017. And there were some heartbreaking stories. We read through reams and reams of stories about pain and problems.

What are the most common problems, overarching, that authors face? And did anything stand out for you?

Euan: Yeah, well a few things. The first thing was, it was an incredible privilege and incredible response from the community. There was so much to go through, and people willing to share kind of difficult moments and also sharing their hard-learned lessons as well, and they did it with such generosity, the people who’ve been through that pain and just wanted to actually help other people improve their health a little.

I think there was a lot of stuff there I expected, which was back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain. There was a lot about inactivity and not getting moving enough, and people who’d gained weight as a result, particularly if they’d gone into being writers full-time and had suddenly gained weight and could see, immediately, the problems that writing had given them.

There were some things I didn’t expect, which I possibly should have done, which are things like eye strain and headaches and use of computers.

And there were also a lot of stories, and quite moving stories about mental health and the loneliness and isolation. I supposed they don’t surprise me, because I know that that’s a big problem, but when you read about them, it’s always more affecting. And particularly as a GP, you see people one person at a time. But when you actually then read about dozens of stories all along that theme, it was very affecting.

Joanna: And we include a lot of the quotes that people gave us their permission for in the book, and some of the beta readers we’ve had have said that it’s helped them feel less alone, because they realize lots of other people suffer this. And I think that’s a big problem.

As writers, we spend so much time alone that we think, “Oh, this must be accepted and must be just me,” or whatever, but actually, there’s lots of ways you can deal with it. So I did want to look about some of the different things that we wrote, because it’s not an academic book, and that was quite challenging for you, I think.

We’ll come back to your writing process, but pain and health in layers is something that really helped me as we were writing. It’s like, sure, your back hurts. But what might that mean? I share my own five-year journey of going through lots of different ways of dealing with back pain.

What have been some of your personal health issues over the last few years, and how did writing the book help you to face up to them?

Euan: I’ve been thinking about this through the book, and one of the biggest things for me has been exercise. I’ve been very lucky in terms of my physical health, and I’ve not had any sort of significant problems. I guess actually getting to the stage of writing this book is because actually, some of the issues I’ve had I’ve managed to address in some ways.

I didn’t come from a very active family. So I got into my 20’s and didn’t really have any process for doing exercise. Very podgy runner at school, generally humiliated in the school cross country. Though I did the sports, I was rubbish at running. But I always loved being in the mountains and being outdoors, and then when I got into my 20’s, I really learned how to run and spent time with people who valued exercise in itself.

So my personal health challenge is, I learned how to exercise and how to enjoy running in particular, but what I couldn’t do was make it a habit and do it regularly. I just kept falling off the wagon, and I’d have three months where I’d do no exercise, then you have to try to get back to it.

Actually, one of the biggest challenges for me has been making exercise just embedded in my life. It feels weird not to do it. And that is really in the last three or four years.

In writing the book, I’ve become very aware that actually, that’s been my journey in terms of where I am now, and that satisfaction and quality of life I get from being able to exercise regularly.

I think in terms of challenges for the future, I have still not managed to sort my back out. And all the advice there, and a fantastic story about your back and your path to a pain-free back via yoga mostly. That’s still one that I’m struggling to do, and actually I’m trying to get a habit, and I’m wrestling with that every day.

Joanna: Well, that’s interesting, and I just want to comment on food, because I have a letter to sugar in the book that is actually pretty hard for me to share, and it’s quite personal. We do talk about the weight gain, but it’s hilarious we’re having this conversation, and on the video behind you I can see a box of Quality Street and a bottle of wine.

Euan: I’d like to say they’ve been there for years. In fact, the box is definitely empty. I’ve eaten them all.

Joanna: I think it’s important to say that this is not a weight loss book at all. It’s about health, and we do talk on weight, because that is a problem that people have, but it’s about health. So we do have some stuff, but I just wanted to say to people, both of us enjoy our food and we enjoy eating stuff.

It’s not like a lecture-y book. I hope people find it more useful.

Euan: Yeah, I certainly hope not. My diet can be diabolical at times, and I have a real problem with crisps, is really my biggest failing.

Joanna: Oh, what do they call them in America?

Euan: Chips.

Joanna: Potato chips.

Euan: Potato chips, yeah. That’s my biggest failing. So absolutely. That will never go away, but it’s about managing it, isn’t it?

Joanna: Yeah, and it’s funny, I’ve got some quotes in there about black coffee, and I’m standing here with black coffee. These things are fine, and it’s about how we incorporate things in our healthy life. So just wanted to point that out.

Coming back to, like I just said, I’m standing up. Both of us are actually standing up right now, aren’t we?

Euan: Yeah, I’m standing.

Joanna: Yeah, in our standing desks. And improving our work spaces is probably one of the most critical things, or at least something to start with.

For example, with back pain, one of the things to look at is your ergonomics, immediately. I had terrible RSI for about two years that eventually was sorted with my back pain through yoga and various other things.

What are some tips for improving our work station health?

Euan: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting you mention RSI, because we’ve obviously got a bit about it in the book, but I don’t think it came up as much as we expected, perhaps, in the survey as a problem. But that’s because I think it comes up in other ways as well, it’s the back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain, it’s all linked.

Joanna: I don’t know if people know; RSI is repetitive strain injury, which is like a diagnosis of pain, isn’t it?

Euan: Well, that’s exactly, it doesn’t say much more than that. You just get pain from doing something, and that’s pretty much what RSI is. It’s really not terribly sophisticated.

So you need, really, a holistic approach to that, and actually, hopefully if you cannot get it in the first place.

In terms of basic tips, using laptops is perhaps one of the things to be really careful of. They’re fairly toxic, in ergonomic terms, and they contort your body into horrible positions, and you look down at the screen when, really, you should just be looking more level or slightly down at your screen.

So getting a riser or sticking it even on a few magazines or books is really good for your laptop, and using an external keyboard. That’s probably basic advice for laptops, which is really important, because they can really hurt people.

And then I think it’s about things like your chair and your sitting position. You want to have a normal curve of your spine, if you can, where your lower back curves slightly in, and a generally relaxed position so that your head is just kind of looking straight across, your arms are generally parallel to the floor, and not usually resting on the desk or the keyboard.

They should just slightly be in a relaxed, neutral position, hovering above your keyboard. Feet on the floor can help actually, rather than crossing your feet and sticking them out in front of you. That could be helpful, sort of just simple ergonomic tip.

And a good chair will often help you achieve that and remind you, and some people use foot rests as well to keep their feet in the right position.

I think that’s the sitting down side of things. There’s a lot of good evidence around the standing desks and treadmill desks, and I was really struck by some of the evidence around this that showed that they can be really beneficial and improve well-being.

The treadmill desks were really interesting, with people actually showing improvements in their blood work and their blood test result, their glucose improving, so less chance of diabetes, and their cholesterol levels improving.

The only slightly weird thing about treadmill desks is trying to type when you’re on one. It always seems like a desperate task, and that has been measured in the research as well, and it did show there’s a slight reduction in typing speed and a slight reduction in your ability to do complex tasks. But it was pretty minor, and probably the benefits of exercise would offset that anyway.

Joanna: I interviewed Russell Blake, who’s an incredibly prolific indie author. I think he walks on his treadmill desk like eight hours a day, and he’s writing the entire time.

And I’ve heard people say that you do have to start off walking very slowly, but that you obviously get used to it. But the treadmill desk is not practical for most people. Neither you or I actually have a treadmill desk, right?

Euan: No.

Joanna: For me, it’s not practical in a small apartment, and I also tend to write in cafes. So I’ll describe what I am doing right now, and in the blog post that goes with this, we’re going to have some pictures of us in our various working positions.

I’m standing up right now, and I’ve got a, it’s called a Humble Works stand. It’s like a wooden stand. I did have a desk with a motor that went up and down, but the motor broke. So I love this wooden stand.

I’ve constructed it on top of my desk, and then I can take it down really easily. I have my laptop on top of it, with the keyboard, when I’m typing, lowered down, so I can keep my posture.

I’ve got a Swiss ball when I’m sitting, and I’ve got a foot rest for my Swiss ball as well, because otherwise I tend to cross my legs. And the Swiss ball I do a lot of back bends over, and I find the actual arms over the head stretch is just critical for the pain I get between my shoulders, which affected my RSI. So that’s basically my setup.

Tell people what your setup is, because when you’re a GP, you’re at a desk as well.

Euan: Yeah, the GP’s really awkward, and I actually often end up with a very sore back. But I have met GP’s who are starting to do some consultations standing up as well, or have a desk that will go up and down, because they’re getting so many problems.

My desk here is at the university, and it is a standup desk, but it’s an old school desk. Looks like a Victorian thing, for a children’s school desk that I cut the legs off of, and I bought a chunk of MDF off of eBay.

Joanna: What’s MDF?

Euan: MDF is sort of this very thick fiber board kind of stuff. It’s kind of a piece of wood. It’s about an inch and a half thick. So it’s really heavy, and I just plunked it on top. I cut the legs to exactly the right height, and so I’ve got my arms at a nice, neutral position when I’m at the keyboard, and the screen at the back of the piece of MDF.

And it’s not bolted together in any way. It just sits there, and the weight just holds it in position. And if I try and lean on it, which is obviously bad anyway, it does move a little. So that discourages me from leaning on it. Because otherwise my computer will fall off.

So it costs me next to nothing and it works really well. But I have it on the corner of the desk, so I can also vary my posture a little, because I think that’s probably quite important. Some standing, I know that there’s some evidence that if you’re standing all the time, that can irritate your back as well. So a bit of variation in posture is really useful.

I’ve got the other end in my desk where I can sit normally, and I also have a Swiss ball that I will then sometimes use if I just want a bit of a change with that as well. The students laugh at me if I’m on the Swiss ball. So I don’t tend to use that so often.

Joanna: Well, I think this is really good because neither of us have a very expensive setup. The laptop’s pretty expensive, for most of us, but that’s an important tool. But you can get these basic pieces of equipment to change things up quite easily.

I also wanted to check in with you on dictation, because we have a chapter on dictation in the book, and I certainly dictated the first draft of what I was thinking for the book, and some of the chapters were based on a dictated first draft. So how about you?

How have you felt with dictation?

Euan: I’ve been using it more and more in the past year, and all of my first draft stuff I dictated as well. So however many words that was, I did it all on dictation.

Obviously, once I got past that stage, the dictation wasn’t a problem, but I also moved very quickly away from dictating with the computer screen in front of me, and went to mobile devices. And I’ve found that really helped, in terms of just getting into the flow of dictation and not correcting as you go and your little inner editor is starting to panic about things.

And that’s worked really well. I run it off my Mac. I don’t use Parallels, I use a free equivalent of Parallels to run Dragon on my Mac, and that’s worked brilliantly. What I would say is I noticed that, actually, interestingly, Dragon has incredible accuracy for medical stuff.

I think there’s a professional version of Dragon, which is used by a lot of medics, and I think not so much in Britain, but certainly overseas, and it recognizes all the medical words. It is absolutely a ninja when it comes to medical stuff. So it worked really well.

Joanna: That’s awesome. If only they would do that for, like, fantasy novels, because I hear from fantasy authors. They’re like, “No, it’s very difficult.”

Euan: They must have a nightmare, yeah.

Joanna: Yeah, exactly. And then, I’ve felt in the writing of this, when I’m at the cafe, because I write fiction at the cafe, and I take the laptop and I am in a bad position. But what I’ve started to do a lot is try and stand up more in between.

So if I’m editing, I’ll stand up to read, and I try and ignore people looking at me now. Because basically that’s part of my process, and this is obviously very important in the book. What we’re not trying to do is, like, “Okay, you must do that.” It’s like, what are the ways in which you can improve your process so you’re not suffering so much pain and you can do this for the long-term.

Euan: I think that’s right, and the tip that came out through the survey almost all the time was about breaks and structured breaks. So you do something a little bit different.

And I think almost all of the problems that you can have writing, if you take a break…people vary, so you need to find your own process… but say every 30 minutes, actually even stopping for a couple of minutes to stretch. And particularly eye strain. Get your eyes away from the screen. Not to use it to look at your phone, to actually do something a little bit different. I think that’s a big part as well of a healthy process.

Joanna: It was kind of going to happen, is that it’s not rocket science. We all know this, that the evidence for good sleep, good diet, good exercise are important for health, resilience, and longevity.

I think one of the things that I realized in doing this writing is that I’ve spent so long concentrating on what’s above my neck. The importance of my brain and just focusing on my brain, and my body was literally something that carries my brain around, and it just needs to carry my brain around.

And we talked about nootropics, which are drugs that can make your brain go faster and empower your brain.

What I learned from you and from doing all this is that, if you sleep well, eat well, and exercise well, you actually have a much better brain, right?

Euan: I think that’s right. They are good, proven cognitive enhancers in that regard. They really improve your brain. I think you’re right, but there is a danger this could be a very short book as well in terms of getting those things sorted, but we know what the good things are, and there’s really good evidence for them.

But it is tremendously difficult, and there is a bit of a paradox as well, because the secret to being a writer is getting your butt in the chair and writing, but the secret to being healthy is probably getting out of the chair and being active. So there is a bit of a contradiction there. So working it out is difficult, and most people know that stuff’s bad for them.

It’s like smokers as well. People know smoking’s not good for them. You don’t need to tell them, but actually, stopping, changing your habits, is a very different kettle of fish. Changing things that are deeply entrenched is really hard to do.

We have lots of pressures in the world around us to keep on doing the things we’re doing, whether it’s family or work, and also just out in the world. And I’ve felt very strongly about this, that actually the world is trying to make us consume as well, in terms of eating snacks and eating more than we’re used to.

We need to push back against that a little, and we need to try and recognize what those habits are so that we can start to make some changes.

Joanna: Yeah, definitely. The habits are a really good thing. You talk there about some of the things that we’re encouraged to do, and I think what’s become interesting in the indie author community is this emphasis on high production, which is stressing people out, and people are burning out. Someone actually put in the survey that they were losing their love for writing because of this emphasis on production. And you mentioned at the beginning working on burnout in doctors.

What are some of your tips for anyone feeling overwhelmed, burned out.

Euan: There are lots of different aspects to burnout and there are lots of different ways to make yourself more resilient as well. And some of those good things we’ve talked about already in terms of your health will really make a huge difference in making you more resilient and less prone to burnout.

I think the one thing I would probably point to is the problem of comparison-itis. I talk about that a little bit more in terms of being active in the book, but it works for writing as well, of course, is that you really have to live your own life and on your own terms. And that’s part of the thing about the book.

I talk about running a lot. Running is absolutely not the answer for everybody. The right exercise is the one you want to do. And I think you’ve got to probably take that approach to writing and burnout as well.

Actually, comparison-itis is really toxic, and it can lead you into a very bad place if you’re doing something which works against you and doesn’t fit with your normal patterns. That adds to stress, and all those stress levels, they affect your sleep, that affects your health, it makes it harder to do the right things, it makes it harder to make healthy habit changes as well. And so you can very quickly go down a very unpleasant little rabbit hole with that kind of process.

Joanna: And also I think one of the things we emphasize is trying to get in touch with your body more. And again, I feel that yoga has helped me with this, too, is this mind-body connection, which I pretty much ignored what my body was telling me.

My husband has always said I don’t stop until I hit the wall, and when I hit the wall, then I stop because I’m forced to. Or when I do get really bad headaches now, and they’re quite rare, it’s because I haven’t stopped working, and I love my work.

I absolutely love what I do, but my health can suffer. So I think rest and, like you said, taking breaks is not just the five minutes in between working sessions.

It’s also a day off, a digital fast. It’s a week off, away from the computer. Take Facebook off your phone.

Euan: Yeah, absolutely. And I think there’s a balance to all these things. I think people fear the loss of productivity, and I think there’s at least one quote in the book, if not others, about somebody who’s very anxious about that.

Time away from writing to exercise very rarely causes that much of a productivity impact. If it keeps you going longer, actually when you come back to it and you’re refreshed and you’re working well, then actually you’re going to be just as productive. Losing the few minutes to do those healthy things or to connect in some other way or to take a break or to go out and be mindful.

There’s a really growing evidence base for how useful that can be as well. And I think they can all help really build a writing habit which you can sustain in the long-term.

Joanna: What’s interesting, too, is we don’t just talk about physical health. We’re also talking about mental health, and I was quite saddened by the loneliness and isolation that some people felt, and also a lot of people mentioned depression and anxiety, which is relatively common in the normal population. I say normal population. In the population, right?

And you talked about how some of, you know, comparison-itis brought up some anxiety for you, and I have a whole chapter on my mental health journey, I guess. And we have Dan Holloway who wrote a great chapter; he’s bipolar. So he has depressive episodes, and he wrote a great chapter.

We have stuff on chronic pain that often causes these things.

What are some ways in which writers can identify and then help with this issue and find a community?

Euan: There’s quite a big spectrum of possibilities there. Obviously loneliness is not an end of the spectrum of depression and anxiety, but they’re often closely linked. So I think one of the first things is really identifying what your difficulties are in yourself, and so that self-awareness thing.

And writing itself can be really good for that, to actually work out what you’re thinking and how you’re feeling. I know that it’s been said that sitting is the new smoking, but really, actually probably loneliness is the new smoking, in terms of it being really bad for your health to be socially isolated and not have a community.

There are some simple ways you can go, there are some simple questionnaires, but actually, just thinking about whether or not you’ve got somebody you can confide in is an important aspect to whether or not you could be lonely.

And then, obviously, we talk in the book about how you can find your community, how you could engage with people, friends, dating, other things in terms of getting out and meeting people and doing those sort of things. Depression and anxiety, obviously that can be very closely associated with those.

And I think if things are obviously going too far the wrong way, then you’re going to need to speak to a healthcare professional. There may be other more specific treatments that you need, and that’s really important.

But actually, sometimes at the lower levels there’s a lot you can do yourself. So we’ve mentioned writing there. Sometimes the talking therapies can be really helpful, and you can do some of the cognitive behavioral therapies, you can do them online, you can do them over the telephone.

You don’t actually have to go and see a therapist, necessarily. They’re quite accessible and they can be really helpful to establish how negative thought patterns can impact on your emotions, can impact on your mood, and impact on sort of anxiety symptoms.

But I think the number one thing about mental health problems, more than anything, is getting out there and speaking to somebody and recognizing it, and recognizing that you’re not alone.

Conversations I have time after time after time in the surgery, to people that have mental health problems, and they feel guilty about having it. They go, “My life’s not stressful. I shouldn’t feel anxious,” but mental health problems don’t work like that. You wouldn’t be saying that if you’d got a chest infection. It just happens. They’re just illnesses that happen to some people.

And actually we see, the numbers say that one in three will suffer lifetime problems or something similar, is that the surgeries are chock full of people who have the same problems, but are not speaking to each other and telling each other they have the same problems.

So you spend your life in the surgery going, really, I’ve seen half a dozen people with this already today, and actually trying to reassure people that what they’re experiencing is okay, there are some specific actions in terms of getting, whether it’s talking treatments or even medication, exercise is tremendously good, doing all those sort of good things for cognitive enhancement, like exercise and being careful about alcohol in terms of how you use it. All those things can really help push things in the right direction.

Joanna: And I think this is part of what we’re trying to do, is almost make people feel less alone in how they’re feeling and try and open up these conversations. And I think we are coming into a point where, you and I have had this conversation. Women are generally better at identifying these and talking these, and men often keep these things very quiet.

My husband, Jonathan, there’s a chapter on IBS, irritable bowel syndrome and anxiety, and I was so grateful that he was sharing that, because that’s been a huge issue in our life, and the digestive system and anxiety is so closely aligned.

And also with authors, sometimes their unhealthy diet can exacerbate these things.

I hope that some of these difficult things to discuss, bodily functions, mental health, stuff that people hide can be more talked about.

Euan: Yeah, well, the digestive chapter is definitely a little bit more scatological in that regard. And it’s a fantastic chapter from Jonathan. And so important that I actually rarely see that, particularly from men, as you say, and kind of that honesty.

If we can get it out there and we can talk about it and actually, we all know the stigma that is there with mental health, and people often put it on themselves, as well as other people from the outside putting it on them. If we can make people feel a little bit less alone and feel that it’s okay to go and get help and look after that side of their health, and I’ll be very happy.

Joanna: Yeah, me too. Okay, so as this goes out, we’re coming into a new year, and it doesn’t matter when you’re listening, viewers or listeners.

How can we develop healthy habits for the coming year and make some changes for the long term? Because what we don’t want is the sort of New Year, let’s just give up alcohol and be dry for January, and then essentially go back to all the unhealthy stuff.

What are some of your tips for that, the habits?

Euan: I think the important things about habits is to recognize that a lot of them, they can be very good. They’re there to sort of free up our brains to do other things, but you’ve got to be very careful that you don’t want to live all your life on automatic pilot.

And actually, it’s doing a little audit of those habits that’s really important. Sometimes you need to sit down and identify what your bad habits are, because if you’re doing them on automatic pilot, by definition you’re not even noticing sometimes in terms of why you’re eating snacks or why you’re not getting the exercise or what’s happening that’s disrupting your sleep.

And I think, the New Year thing is a real problem, because you go out and you make sweeping changes, and they’re unsustainable.

So more than anything, the thing to understand is you need to change habits in the long term. And changing habits is uncomfortable. It does trigger a bit of stress. You have that cognitive dissonance where things don’t feel quite right.

It’s even like you have a holiday, have a day off, then I’m at work on a Tuesday when I should have been there on a Monday. I feel a bit weird. It doesn’t feel right, and that’s because my habit’s been disrupted.

So actually my tip on this is really to make small, sustainable changes. And then you have to be persistent and you have to be patient. It’s going to take weeks and it’s going to take months for those habits to get ingrained as the new habits.

And it’s going to take a long time for the changes to come through, but you will then have, hopefully, sustainable changes to your lifestyle, and you’re not just going to bounce back again.

There’s a lot of good evidence about diets, for example, and I would always say crash diets, that people tend to bounce back and put as much weight on again afterwards. So when it comes to weight loss, that’s certainly not a good approach, but when it comes to anything in terms of your health, I think small changes that you can sustain, incremental, that’s kind of the way to go.

But first of all, you have to have the awareness, you have to know what they are. And so you’ve got to sit down and try and work that out.

Joanna: And it’s interesting, because again, I put in the letter to sugar, which I wrote in May, 2017, mainly because I read a lot about the link with Alzheimer’s. And I’m not scared of dying. I write about dying all the time. I’m scared of Alzheimer’s and dementia, because my whole life is around things I create from my brain, and I give to a charity on this, and when I read about the links between sugar and Alzheimer’s and some of these things, and the health issues beyond weight, so forget about weight. I just wanted to give up sugar.

But one of our habits as a couple would be to have our dinner and then go and watch some TV, and we would have half a block of chocolate each in front of the TV. And we would just do that every night, and not even think anything of it, and I was like, yeah, okay.

So even just identifying the fact that sweet something in front of the TV after dinner as part of relaxing, it was something that I needed to address as a habit, and Jonathan also addressed it.

That ended up being quite significant. And then I also updated the chapter a few weeks ago, before we finished the book, about how it’s going.

Definitely, you have to kind of start with identifying, as you say, and then making small changes.

Euan: I think that’s right. One of the habits I identified that really helped me, I kicked off about 25-30 pounds of weight, sort of 15 kilos a few years ago, and it made a big difference to how I felt in terms of my health, but my habit there was that I would buy potato chips, crisps, from the garage every time I filled up for petrol, and I would eat in the car on my commute to work, backwards and forwards.

I wasn’t even really appreciating that I was doing it, and it was only when I sat and worked it out and realized it was a real, that was a real critical point. And just by changing that habit, changing the routine a little, and I chewed gum. I had a lot of gum in the car for a long time. I chewed gum instead of eating. So it had something to do with my mouth. I had a bit of a reward while I was driving. And it was a real big factor in helping me address that habit.

Joanna: We do try and mix your evidence-based chapters and doctor-based chapters with sort of experience and quotes from other people. So yeah, we’re hoping the book’s really useful.

I want to now come into talking about the actual writing process, because the book was your idea, and I certainly would never have considered this.

Why did you want to write this book, and why did you want to co-write with me? Be honest, because we haven’t actually talked about this before.

Euan: No, we had not had that conversation. I went on a course in November, 2016 with yourself on how to make a living from your writing with yourself and Orna Ross in London back in November, 2016. And I guess I wanted to write a book.

I had lots of stuff on my hard drive littered around about fitness and health and other things, and I wasn’t making the time, I was procrastinating, I was too busy, I had a bit of resistance, and I was in the middle of a PhD. And Orna stood up at the end and said, “What are you going to give up,” to do this.

And I had a bit of an epiphany. I was like, “I’m giving up my PhD. I’m stopping immediately and I’m going to do some writing, writing I really want to do.”

So I came away, and I think Christmas went past, and I gave up the PhD, and then in January, I was making some plans about what I was going to write, and I was kicking around a lot of ideas about healthy writing. And obviously, I was listening to the podcast, and I’m sure you must have been giving out cues.

You say you didn’t have the idea, but you were kind of definitely putting out vibes, I think, about healthy writers and all the health issues that writers have, and I think that was partly because you were relating your own experiences. So I had an instant moment where I thought, this could potentially be something that actually would work as a pairing with yourself, with your experience. Obviously, in that indie community, and myself as a doctor.

So I spent an hour writing a short email, and just put it to you straight away. And I think you wrote back and said you were a believer in synchronicity about that kind of thing, because it had been occurring to you.

It was an idea that was kind of 5 or 10 years for me in the baking, and there just came a moment where I suddenly thought, “Actually, this potentially could work,” but it was a bit of a gamble, because obviously, I didn’t know you. I’ve listened to your podcast. I suppose, to a certain extent, we all know you from your podcast, because you are very honest.

But I had no idea whether it would work. It breaks all the rules of co-writing in that regard. One rule of co-writing is having a relationship already with your co-writer, your co-author. And so I was really enthusiastic about the indie community. That was really the way I wanted to go, and I’ve always said that when I did it. So that obviously, your position within that community, it looked like a good fit.

Joanna: And it’s so interesting, because you deciding to give up that PhD is huge. It’s a huge thing, and the fact that you were relieved to do it.

And I think so often, people try to do something like a PhD, or they want to write a novel, so they enroll in an MFA or a Master’s of Creative Writing because they feel like another academic thing is the way to go, but obviously, you chose a different route.

On reflection, are you happy that you gave up the PhD?

Euan: Yeah, I’m getting increasingly happy. It was a difficult decision afterwards because, really, I was giving up an academic career as well, potentially. Because without a PhD, you can’t go down the academic track. But I was reading Steven Pressfield’s book again, the Pro one, I forget the title of it.

Joanna: “Turning Pro.”

Euan: “Turning Pro” just a couple of weeks ago, and I think it was very much what he would have called a shadow career. I was pursuing something which was just about close enough that I thought I really wanted it, but actually wasn’t really what I wanted to do at all. It was just distracting me.

There are so many hours in the day, and I realized that I was losing the hours I needed to get something like this project going.

Joanna: And I think the other important thing is that sometimes we have to make space in our life for something new to come in. So you actually have to give things up in order that new stuff will arrive, and I’ve really found that in the creative space.

So just to keep the story going, so you email me, and I replied, and then I basically said, “Great idea, but I don’t know you and I don’t know your writing. So how about you write a chapter” and put your money where your mouth is, basically. So you wrote a chapter.

How did you feel about that?

Euan: Extremely nervous, obviously, super nervous, really anxious. I felt you were extremely nice about it. There was no pressure in that regard, but I was feeling very anxious about it. And obviously I sent it in, and you were like, “Well, you need to do this and that,” and that was my problem.

I had that academic writer so ingrained in me, and I needed to really pull back from that. Even when I thought I was pulling back from it, I needed to go further in terms of the type of writing that we were aiming at.

So I rewrote it, and I think that probably, and I think that was…I guess that was part of that kind of process of, we didn’t have a relationship before, so actually just working out whether we could fit was in those first few months.

Joanna: Yeah. We got on Skype. Obviously we met last November and then we just met again, like, last weekend.

Euan: Yeah, and in fact, the whole book’s been written without us having met.

Joanna: But we have had Skype meetings. So that’s important.

And we also set up a Google Doc very early where we went through how we would work, and we also did a contract.

Euan: Yeah, and I think the contract’s really important. And I know that you’ve talked about this, I think, in your co-author book as well. And that was really useful and I was really keen about that, and it was very well-written in terms of clarity of expectations and what happened in the future.

There are always weird things that can happen, but most of them are taken care of within that. So actually there’s far less chance of dispute or disagreement down the line.

Joanna: Yeah, and it’s so important, because actually, co-writing a book, it’s pretty serious.

If it becomes something, and we do other editions and whatever, it can go on beyond both of our lifetimes. It’s longer than marriage.

Euan: Yeah, absolutely.

Joanna: Which is kind of crazy, but cool.

Euan: Yeah, absolutely. So the contract was really great in that regard, and the table of contents we put together on the Google Doc, and then we were able to talk about it on Skype, before we got that first draft done, and obviously I did my first draft, and that was a terrifying moment as well, sending that in.

I really struggled with that, because really, I just dictated an then sent some…Done a little bit of tidying up, but very little. So it was extremely raw, and sharing that first draft stage I found, that was really challenging.

Joanna: Yeah, well I remember the first time with J. Thorn when I did “Risen Gods,” and I sent him my first chapter, and I was like, “I hate this, I don’t want you to see this. I’m so embarrassed.”

But it was important because I also feel that, yes, your voice was pretty academic, and what I like in the book is, I think it’s kind of obvious, although we have added in markers, it’s definitely speaking.

We do have different voices, but you have moved very much from where you started in, I think it was March, when you did that first chapter, to now, and your voice has relaxed a lot. So basically, you did that draft, then we used Scrivener. Now, we didn’t write in Scrivener at the same time.

You took Scrivener and gave it a first bash, didn’t you?

Euan: Yeah, that’s right. So I think it’s interesting, the way we use Scrivener, because I know that, say, for example, the best-seller experiment, with the two Marks, they were almost simultaneously using Scrivener.

You can’t use it at exactly the same time, but it was clearly, even one day they would both be at it. But we very much zipped the file up, sent it to each other, had it for a few days or a week or two or however long it was, and then sent it back and forth between ourselves.

I thought in terms of learning from cowriting, that was a really useful thing, and I had defined periods where I had a set task with a deadline. So I knew exactly what was expected of me in that period of time. And the file was mine and nothing else was moving or shifting in the background.

Joanna: Yeah, and I think that was important, too, especially with the structure, because we did start out with a table of contents, and then we quickly found that the structure moved, and then it moved again as we understood the journey through the book.

Although it’s a book that people can dip into, you can actually read it cover to cover and get some kind of journey.

Euan: Yeah, I think that’s right. We did take quite a while to get to that, I think. But that’s obviously the awesome thing about Scrivener, is it’s incredibly easy to move stuff around. Imagine doing that in a Word document, the pain if it had all been in a single document. It would have just been excruciating.

That was a really important bit of getting the book right and making it feel it worked. I think you can just dip in and you can go into two or three sections and get out what you need from it, in terms of your particular problems, but if you really want to do the full journey, you can go all the way through.

Joanna: And then obviously, I guess you’re not someone who’s that experienced in book marketing. And now that’s where we are in our journey. We’re talking about this. How are you feeling, as someone who is a doctor? You’re not usually talking to readers and all of this type of thing.

How is the whole marketing thing feeling for you?

Euan: Well, I’m tempted to say nerve-wracking and a bit anxiety-provoking, but I’ve been listening to a lot of self-publishing and indie, and in that space, podcasts for a long time. I think everything that we’ve talked about, I’m aware of has been happening and have seen it in action.

It’s a bit more scary, then, suddenly being the one who has to do it and actually go through that process. That’s obviously a step, but I knew it was coming. So in that regard, it certainly doesn’t come as a surprise.

But it is slightly beyond my skill set. We’ve got some aspects of this creep across into my work with medical journals in terms of the media. But actually it’s a very specific process. It’s a little bit out of my comfort zone, no question.

Joanna: And the other thing is, you are trying to now position yourself differently, and many authors are going through this with their kind of first book in this area.

What are you thinking with your website and what are you now offering for people, and how are you trying to use this as more of a platform-builder?

Euan: My writing has been about health, and I’m particularly interested in writing about health now for men and their health, and I think it’s a very neglected area and there’s far too much emphasis on toned, buff bodies and chiseled, growing big muscles, and I think actually that’s not what most men want.

I’m really interested in an evidence-based approach. I’m based at EuanLawson.com. So that’s with E-U-A-N, and I’m offering there a free Healthy Bloke Action Plan, which is going to be much more down-to-earth, but still grounded in the evidence, talking about health in some key areas so people can look at, men particularly can look at their sleep, exercise, alcohol use, mental health, like loneliness is such a big issue with men, bit of weight management as well, and they can start making some positive changes.

Joanna: Yeah, I think that’s so good. You and I have talked about this, and I think “The Healthy Writer” is very much non-gender-specific. It is for everyone.

I’ve listened to you go backwards and forwards on what you want to do, what you want to offer the world, and what’s so important is, you can’t be a health person, like Euan Lawson, Health Person. You do have to choose a micro-niche. And this is what I want everyone to take away, is you’re going through this process of a micro-niche, and that will be the foundation going forward.

Euan: Yeah, it’s so important, and I think that’s probably my problem, and I’m sure a lot of writers have experienced this, like, last five or 10 years is a lack of focus.

Having so many projects, so many ideas, and then getting part of the way through, then stopping them and never taking them on. So that’s kind of, actually that kind of requirement to focus on a micro-niche and to really work at that, I think, I feel very happy that I’ve found mine and I’m about to push on with that. But I would certainly encourage anyone else that that’s the way to start thinking about things.

Joanna: Brilliant. Well, we are pretty excited about “The Healthy Writer” coming out. So you, the listeners, can find the book on all the usual platforms, in print and eBooks. Tell us one more time where people can find you online.

Euan: Yeah, so best place is to go to my website. So that’s EuanLawson.com, and that’s E-U-A-N-L-A-W-S-O-N, dot com. And everything is there and you’ll be able to find me there.

Joanna: Fantastic. Well, it’s been an incredible journey. So thank you again, Euan, for your time.

Euan: Thank you, Jo.

Joanna Penn :

View Comments (8)

  • I'm looking forward to reading the book when it comes out. I've been struggling with burn out myself...not from the writing side, but from the day job. I've had to really stop and say that I need to simply take one day off a week and also to do things that are fun. I defaulted into "Must go out and have fun," so it became a project because I had to look up museum openings or figure out where I wanted to go, and it became not fun. I had an unplanned foot massage, which felt really good. I'm working on taking more time for myself, but not "mandatory fun" (which is a lot harder than it sounds).

    Food is also very important. People treat it as calories. Get the right number of calories and you lose weight (supposedly). When I did that, I was starving, and I got sick as soon as the weather changed in Washington DC, and stayed sick until spring, when the weather changed again. Terrible for writing productivity, and certainly didn't help me in the slow much of burn out. Last October, I went off gluten, dairy, sugar, and processed food, thanks to an article in the Washington Post that I ran across which mentioned Dr. Hyman and functional medicine (http://drhyman.com/). I thought I had been eating healthy until then, but I couldn't believe the difference once I got the big four out of my diet. I did not lose six months of writing time because of how I felt during the winter.

  • Dear Joanna. On December 12th I had a heart attack, on December 18th I had bypass surgery. I am out of the hospital but not entirely out of the woods. I've ordered your paperback edition. It will be perfect bed rest reading. I'm grateful for your timeliness. Alice Orr

  • Hi Joanna, great podcast as always and I’m enjoying the book. Funnily enough, it has arrived just as I’ve been getting on with my own health kick and I’m about to record a video of my morning exercise routine for the benefit of people involved in the gaming hobbies (wargaming and boardgaming) who tend to lead rather sedentary lives and are often shy types who also struggle with mental health issues. I’ll let you have the link once it’s done and I’ve added the special effects to prevent it looking like an episode of The Living Dead.

    Anyway, around 19 minutes into the podcast, you promise to show us photos of your and Euan’s working setups – but alas, they’re not here. ☹️ Please, pretty please let us see your ergonomic workspaces/postures.

  • Great listen on my daily commute, as per usual. I think I may have found my new favourite podcast.

    Kudos to you and Dr. Euan. Will definitely be looking out for the book.
    Being a programmer by profession I can identify with most, if not all, of the health risks for career writers.

    As always, thank you for taking the time to give back to the community such well researched and fruitful information, based on your own experience.

    Great inspiration, you guys working together like that. I have one question. You mentioned zipping and mailing the Scrivener file back and forth. Wouldn't it have been easier just to create a shared Dropbox folder and modified it in turns?

    • Glad you enjoyed the show!
      We only shared the Master Scrivener file twice, and we used Google Docs instead of dropbox before that. Some people do use dropbox for Scrivener but there are also reports of corruption - so if you go that route, then make sure you back up by Compiling to Word at the end of every writing session :)