“You can do anything for 60 seconds”: How an Exercise Program Taught Me to Write a Book
Yes, you read the title correctly. No, I’m not going to argue that everyone has to do the same exercise program to become a better writer.
Seven years ago, I moved from the nonprofit world to a tenure track position because I wanted more time to write. Within a few months, the work of being a tenure track academic had reordered my priorities. Committees and meetings (including advising) filled my schedule, then classes, with a short writing project here and there. This past fall, sabbatical was a chance to reorder those priorities in an integrated fashion.
However, as many of us know, those of us in academic positions cannot simply give up advising or committees or teaching and just write! And it is true, we all live with different constraints. We know that women academics often carry a higher load of “care work” in their institutions and their homes. Other factors such as racism and ethnocentrism mentally and emotionally tax the lives of my black and brown colleagues in ways I cannot imagine. Yet, in comparison to other professions, the academic life is also one of great freedom, flexibility, and self-expression. Plainly speaking, in my case and for other colleagues I know, it’s easier to focus on the level of service and teaching labor than it is to stand in the gap and admit that I often use that work as a distraction from the harder labor of writing.
So I embarked on my sabbatical last summer, and at that point, I had bits and pieces of a manuscript project. As I pulled them all together, it was as though I had painted a variety of objects on a canvas at different points, some years apart from one another using different mediums, and was now hoping that a complete, cohesive, and brilliant image would emerge. That didn’t happen! It was more of a collage, a very abstract collage. I had lots of written words, but no organization and a need for additional research. The full manuscript deadline was October 1.
Like many academics, I decided procrastination would be a helpful response to my predicament. During sabbatical, I lost most of the other distractions I regularly used to regiment my time as I would strive for the elusive work-life balance that academics seem forever be in search of. One of my procrastination techniques was to focus on getting back into shape. I chose a new workout regime that introduced me to an instructor named Autumn Calabrese via the 21 Day Fix workout routine. For days, I heard her saying, “You can do anything for 60 seconds.” This was often followed by a “finish this rep” or “hold that squat,” and “Don’t cheat, you are only cheating yourself.” I’m a competitive person who loves sports. This type of exercise program definitely appealed to my sense of goal setting. The exercises were built around getting stronger and being healthier, not becoming thin or exhausting yourself. There was a subtle female gender empowerment component built into its message.
The approach began to reshape the way I encountered challenges, including writing. I would sit and stare at a computer screen, the jumbled paragraphs leering back at me. Just when I wanted to get out of my chair, I would hear the mantra: “You can do anything for 60 seconds.”
Or I’d hear: “If you are persistent you will get it, if you are consistent you will keep it.”
“Don’t undo the progress you made this week.”
“Nothing worth having comes easy.”
As I moved from 3 pound weights to 5 to 10 pounds, I wrote more consistently. I also slept better and could focus on getting through articles and books without stopping to check email or social media newsfeeds. My procrastination strategy transformed into a motivational tool.
Much has been written about work-life balance, the value of exercise, and eating well. That is not what I’m talking about here. I did not succeed at some mystical balance of work, family, free time, and exercise. Instead, I learned the power of integration and prioritizing. Work-life balance literature written specifically to a female gendered audience gets stuck in the conundrum of having enough time—that is, to do all things well, we must give them equal time. An hour to family, to meetings, to class, to advising, to writing—balance them evenly and happiness will follow! That’s not possible in the everyday grind where sometimes there are all day meetings, or a student is in crisis and needs more time, or an article will take days of focused attention.
Switching my approach to integration and timed prioritization was key. There were days that I wrote for 8 hours and read for three more. Eating as I went, ignoring everything else around me, including family. I had to prioritize my time and energy. This particular project would come to an end. Then I could spend time on other priorities. But I had to finish it first! As I got better at meeting deadlines, I had time to respond to students, engage my service responsibilities, and hang out with my family. And as a result, I was more present and less resentful of these commitments. An hour or two break to attend a family event was quality time instead of stress-inducing. The 30 minutes of exercise a day was focused only on that—it was the priority for that moment and was to be completed in that time, no distractions. Integration did not mean doing multiple things at once. Integration was the approach or process of making various aspects work together like a puzzle uniquely independent and yet integrally interconnected at the same time.
The workout routine helped me to realize showing up is half (or more than half) the battle. I learned that sometimes I hate some exercises, but feel great when they are done. The same is true of writing intros, conclusions, and transition paragraphs. Weights got easier when I used them consistently. The same is true of finishing a whole writing section without going back every three sentences to revise it. Sharing my workout progress on a group message board gave me a sense of community. The same became true of my need to talk to people about my writing, to share with my family if I had met a self-imposed deadline. I didn’t need an external cheerleader (though that helps); I needed an internal belief reinforced through practice. In the end, I finished the manuscript on the deadline.
I’m done with slow professor articles and work-life balance studies. They repeat what we all already know, the academic life requires consistency and flexibility, obsessiveness and finality, failure and accountability. The ebb and flow of integration comes with practice. I imagine for others meditation, prayer, art, or walks can provide a similar practice to lead one to more fruitful integration. Sticking to my writing goals like a workout routine, eventually created more space for other projects, family time, rest, and yes, exercise. The phrase I repeat most often now that I’m back from sabbatical is: “If you want something in your life you have never had, you’ll have to do something you’ve never done.”