Posted by on Feb 12, 2019 in Evergreen, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), On Writing: Craft and Commiseration | 0 comments

LitBit: Can fitness trackers mean more sleep, hydration and physical exercise for writers?

Fitbit for Writers

Can fitness trackers mean more physical exercise for writers? Can having a little gadget strapped to our wrists really make us take better care of ourselves? I decided to try it out for myself.

Writing is a very sedentary act. It involves sitting, often for very long periods of time, while we type until we damage our joints. In fact, one of the most common pieces of writing advice literally is: butt in chair. It’s not a very active pursuit.

But as any writer will tell you, though the act of writing may be predominantly mental, you neglect your physical body at your peril. From getting enough sleep to getting some regular physical exercise, you’re a better you when you’re taking care of yourself and therefore a better writer too.

But when there’s never enough time to get all the writing done in the first place, how are you supposed to find time to take care of yourself? The reason writers fall into bad habits when it comes to their health is because of the lack of time in the first place.

I include myself in this. Physical exercise used to be an important part of my writing process. I would get up early, put on upbeat music, and do my work out before I sat down to write and it left me with more energy and got the ideas flowing. But, nowadays, between kids and all the other responsibilities I’m juggling, I have less time than ever and there just no time for regular daily workouts AND writing.

And forget about sleep. Between insomnia and the baby, I *AVERAGE* four hours of sleep a night. It’s a problem.

And so begins my quest. Fitting physical exercise into anyone’s routine is one thing but what about physical exercise for writers? How can I get more sleep without losing my writing time? Are there any that would help those of us that are already pushing our schedules as far as they can go to squeeze more words out of every day to also fit in a little more time to take care of ourselves?

I decided to narrow it down. What are the three biggest things most writers could do to take better care of themselves?

Get more sleep

Between the 5 AM writing club and everybody else doing their morning pages and people like myself who stay up too late burning the midnight, er, 2 AM oil to get some writing done after everyone else has gone to bed, writers have a bad habit of sacrificing sleep for writing. But the truth is our brains and body both work better when we got enough rest. So how can we start to increase the amount of sleep we get without sacrificing our hard-won writing time?

Drink more water

The older I get, the more convinced I am that “you’re not drinking enough water” is the solution to an astonishing number of life’s problems. But while we could all use a little more hydration in our lives, writers, in particular, have a tendency to get so wrapped up in their work they forget to hydrate. At the same time, our vices are usually coffee, tea, or alcohol, all beverages that dehydrate rather than hydrate.

It all adds up to one thing: we could all stand to be drinking a little bit more water to help our brains and bodies function at their best.

Be more physically active

What’s the most common advice for getting unstuck in the story? Take a walk! Which is why it’s funny us writers so often forget to make physical exercise apart of our writing routine and daily schedule. What’s the secret to getting us up out of our chairs for a little more activity without having to sacrifice our already scarce writing time?

FitBit for writers: Can a fitness tracker help us writers take better care of ourselves when we’re already strapped for time?

I have long been skeptical of fitness trackers for a variety of reasons but they are as popular as they are for a reason so when my cousin was looking to sell her FitBit Flex 2, I decided to see if a fitness tracker might be the solution to my writer’s dilemma. After all, their own advertising campaign centers around fitting more exercise into your daily life so why shouldn’t that work for writers too? It was worth a shot.

(Before we begin, note that almost every feature the FitBit has you can also get with a knock-off or other name brand fitness tracker or smartwatch so there’s no need to go high end. The one I have is the cheapest model and the only reason I got a FitBit name brand and not a less expensive alternative is because I got it super cheap ($25) from my cousin.)

For this experiment, I decided not to add any exercise to my routine specifically but rather just to see whether having something tracking my activity made a difference overall in how much physical activity I did. I also don’t care about weight loss or anything like that, I was only concerned about generally increasing the amount I took care of myself in the three areas of improvement listed above.

A month later and here are my findings!

Getting More Sleep

The FitBit (and most other fitness trackers) advertise that they track your sleep habits and I was actually most excited about this because I have terrible insomnia and was honestly hoping it would tell me I was getting more sleep than I felt like I was. Instead, I discovered that it was just about useless at tracking sleep unless you are the kind of person who falls asleep immediately when you hit the pillow and don’t wake until morning. And I knew going in that no fitness tracker can really track your sleep with 100% accuracy but I had hoped it could do it at least a little better than it did.

For me, in the two weeks I dutifully wore it to sleep, it counted time I spent tossing and turning with insomnia, reading to my kids in bed, getting up to go to the bathroom and even nursing the baby as “restless sleep” when, in fact, that was time when I was “friggin’ awake, yo.” (I mean, I had to physically rise out of bed to go to the bathroom and go get the baby, does it assume a certain amount of sleep-walking as normal for restless sleep???) The other downside is that, while you can correct the start and end time of your sleep, you can’t edit the middle. So if it assumes you were asleep for those two hours you were walking the teething baby around and around the living room, you’ve just got to live with those numbers. I eventually decided to give it up at least until the baby was consistently sleeping through the night because it was just too irritating to have it tell me I got eight hours of sleep last night when I actually only got three.

All of that said, I can see how, if you weren’t getting up in the night and fell asleep quickly (or, if you knew when you were tossing and turning, and could just edit the start and end times of your sleep later), it would work well to get at least a rough idea of how much sleep you’re getting and I did find that very useful when it worked. Just like how starting to keep track of my writing made me write more simply because I felt an obligation to the spreadsheet, the same thing happened with my sleep. I made more of an effort to get to sleep early or nap because I knew the FitBit was watching and it would be very informative to have that data to see how your sleep effects the rest of your life. Ideally, I would have liked to compare my hours of sleep per night with my writing output the following day to see if there was really an improvement.

Conclusion: Potentially very helpful. While not perfect, particularly if you’re up a lot at night or have a lot of trouble falling asleep, I can see a definite benefit to having an understanding of how much sleep you get effects your writing output and simply knowing something was tracking how much sleep I got really did make me more likely to get more sleep.

Drinking more water

You need to stay good and hyyyydrated, as my toddler used to say, and one of the features of a fitness tracker is that you can set a hydration goal and it will remind you to drink water at regular intervals. You set a goal of how many ounces (or other unit of measure) you want to drink daily, you input every time you take a drink, it keeps track of where you are on your goal. Simple enough.

Reminders are good since most of the time I end up dehydrated it’s simply because I got so caught up in what I was writing that I forgot to drink, but the problem is that remembering to input how much water you drink every dang glass is a pain, a distraction from writing and a thing I, personally, never remember to do. For me, it’s way easier to just fill a pitcher with the amount of water I want to drink, keep it at my desk while I work and take my refills from that. As long as I’ve emptied the pitcher by the end of the day, boom, I’ve drank enough water.

Conclusion: Meh. While having an app remind you throughout the day to drink more water could be useful if you often forget, the process is annoying and distracting when you’re trying to write. While staying properly hydrated is important, there are easier ways to do it that don’t distract from the writing process or require you to do so much work.

Increasing Physical Activity

This is the big one. Exercise. More physical activity. Can a fitness tracker really help a busy writer add more physical activity to our lives when we’re already strapped for time?

The FitBit automatically tracks a variety of exercises none of which I have time to do (though it does count it as “bike riding” whenever I push the stroller to the school so… win?) so I decided to simply focus on the number of steps I took each day. The recommended daily goal is 10,000 steps but I set mine at 5,000 a day just to get started. Between walking to and from the school to get my daughter and my usual up and down of getting stuff for and playing with the kids, 5k was easy enough to hit by dinner time every day without any additional effort.

What I discovered right away is, just like above with the sleep tracking, simply knowing something was tracking my activity made me that much more likely to be active. If I had a few extra minutes before pick-up, I walked the long way around the school. If the baby wanted to have a dance party in the kitchen, I was up for it (though, honestly, I am literally always up for a random dance party). When I finally sit down for a minute and my kids asked me for something else and I had to get right back up again, I consoled myself with the knowledge that at least those steps counted towards my daily goal.

It all added up and I really liked the cumulative nature of it. Previously, exercise felt like this big chunk of time I was supposed to somehow find time for at some point in my already overbooked day. Now, though, I could do a few extra minutes of activity here and there throughout the day and the most I’m having to do at 9 PM when I’m exhausted with hours of writing ahead of me is a few minutes walking in a few circles around the living room instead of facing giving up a whole hour to meeting my fitness goal.

In order to actually hit the recommended 10,000 steps most days, though, I had to add in some additional walking time but, since I wasn’t willing to give up any of my limited writing time to do it, I had to figure out how to make that time useful writing time too. Luckily, I was already a big fan of dictation so I got myself a clip-on microphone so that I could dictate some writing while I walke. I feel a little silly doing it, which is one of the reasons I only walk and dictate in my house and not outside, but I usually wander as I talk anyway so it quickly became a very natural way to add a little more activity into my day without sacrificing writing time.

But, you ask, couldn’t I have just done all that without having the little doodad on my wrist? Nothing was stopping me before from taking some extra steps or dictating while walking around my living room. Did the fitness tracker really do anything?

As much as it pains me to admit it, yes. While I certainly could have done all of that before, the fact is I wasn’t. I wasn’t paying any attention at all to how active I was and, therefore, I wasn’t all that active at all. The best part of the fitness tracker was that it made it something I didn’t have to think about. I just lived my life and then thing told me at the end of the day if I needed to do a little something extra to hit my exercise goal or not. And there is an undeniable motivating element to trying to keep that streak going or hit that goal so the little app will be pleased with you and the little bracelet will light up that really does make you more likely to do a little extra movement than you otherwise would have.

I can’t deny that it has made me increase the amount of activity I do daily without encroaching on my writing time at all.

Conclusion: Useful. While I’m sure the fitness benefit would be greater if you were doing real exercises like jogging or weight training or something, I immediately noticed a difference in my energy levels by increasing my daily steps alone. And because it’s always tracking, it makes it easier to get a little bit of extra activity in throughout the day instead of trying to find a big chunk of time to exercise when you’ve barely got enough time for writing as it is. Coupled with dictation to make physical activity time and writing time share space on your calendar is also a great way to make sure you’re keeping active while still keeping up forward momentum with your writing.

Bonus: Period Tracker

I didn’t realize when I got it that the FitBit app also tracks your fertility and period but I’m very glad it does! It warns you a few days before your period is coming, tells you when it’s due to end and lets you know if it seems irregular. As someone who is caught by surprise by the whole business literally every month, I appreciate this.

That may not seem like a writing tool but very much is because when you have that freakout that you are a failure and should just give up on writing entirely because you’ll never amount to anything it’s actually incredibly helpful to have your phone pipe up and be like, “Actually, that’s just those monthly hormones giving you the weepies, your writing is fine, babe!” Similarly, it’s helpful for planning your schedule (Note to self: Do NOT try to start that new project on a day when you’ll be cramping and feeling like death, thanks!) and just generally reassuring yourself that, no, you are not dying, you’re just tired and feeling crummy for the usual monthly reason.

Overall

I’ll admit to having been pretty skeptical that a fitness tracker would be useful to a writer but it turns out, it’s a great way to shake up the sedentary lifestyle of the average word warrior and make sure you’re not mistreating the old meat suit. I guess I should have realized that the same advice I usually give for squeezing more writing time into your life applies to taking care of yourself as well. Just like I’ve trained myself to use the little spare moments here and there to write in small bursts that collect into whole books, in the same way, I’m adding more activity to my life not by cramming in a big workout I don’t have time for, but by generally increasing the amount of activity I do through the entire day because it all adds up.

So while it’s not some kind of a magic solution, if you’re a writer looking to take a little better care of yourself without sacrificing any of your precious writing time, a fitness tracker might be a simple option.