How To Be A Healthy Writer In 2021 With Dr Euan Lawson

Let’s make 2021 a healthy, creative year! In today’s show, Dr. Euan Lawson talks about ways to improve your physical and mental health, and how it can impact your creativity in a positive way.

How To Be A Healthy Writer In 2021 With Dr Euan Lawson

In the introduction, some thoughts on the year ahead for authors and publishing, including continued expansion to the global, digital, mobile business model and more subscription options for ebooks and audiobooks [Episode 520 – Voice technologies, streaming and subscription audio], Smashwords 2021 predictions, consolidation in publishing and impact on paid ads, Writers Ink state of the industry.

Expansion of audio as Amazon buys Wondery; regulation or possible break up of Big Tech (as discussed in episode 505), and by David Gaughran in his year-end newsletter, plus TechCrunch on European plans for digital rules; PLUS, a useful podcast on doing larger print runs through China on the Self-Publishing Show episode 259. My tutorial on how to set up your email list, and you can buy ebooks and audiobooks directly from me at

ingramsparkToday’s show is sponsored by IngramSpark, who I use to print and distribute my print-on-demand books to 39,000 retailers including independent bookstores, schools and universities, libraries and more. It’s your content – do more with it through

Dr. Euan Lawson is a British medical doctor and a fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners. He is currently the Acting Editor of the British Journal of General Practice, as well as an educator. He’s the author of GP Wellbeing: Combatting Burnout in General Practice, and the co-author, with Joanna Penn, of The Healthy Writer: Reduce Your Pain, Improve Your Health, and Build a Writing Career for the Long-Term.

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript below.

Show Notes

  • Common health issues that may crop up in a year like 2020 — depression, anxiety, loneliness and more
  • How mental health issues can be magnified in stressful situations like a pandemic
  • What Joanna and Euan have done to help lift their moods this year
  • Giving ourselves permission to feel what we feel
  • Balancing individual needs with the collective good
  • Creating healthy work habits when working from home

You can find Euan Lawson at and on Twitter @euan_lawson

Transcript of Interview with Euan Lawson

Joanna: Welcome back to the show, Euan.

Euan: It is an absolute pleasure to be back, Joanna. Lovely to be here.

Joanna: You were last on the show at the end of 2017. So, goodness, that’s three years now.

Give us an update on what’s happening with you and your writing life. How have things changed?

Euan: Well, gosh, it’s funny looking back at three years, I don’t quite know where they’ve gone. It’s obviously, been an odd period in the past 12 months. And I’m sure we’ll come on to that in a minute. For me, personally, I guess what happened was the book got launched, The Healthy Writer just at the end of 2017, start of 2018, didn’t it?

The Healthy Writer

Joanna: Mm-hmm.

Euan: That was really exciting, really pleased with it really happy, planning to do lots more writing.

And then I suppose the first thing that happened is, and this sounds terribly tragic, and I don’t mean it to, is that in March, my wife got diagnosed with breast cancer. So that kind of just slightly tilted the direction of life a little bit for the rest of 2017, more or less. And certainly, my writing got more or less shelved in terms of any big plans, any way of getting things done. Though, I did actually start my podcast ‘Blokeology’ at the same time as that more or less.

I think that ran all through 2017. And so I cracked on with that. And it might have been slightly therapeutic, I suppose in terms of just pushing on with that side of things. But my writing, certainly, it didn’t have quite the focus I might have liked it, I thought it was going to have when we launched the book, and we went out with that.

And then in 2019, I think it’s funny how when something like that happens, it does take a bit of recovering, and I was getting back into writing. And what I would say is in terms of my writing life is I’ve never stopped writing, I was, you know, still generating lots of words, fiction, nonfiction, medicine, lots of different things.

But what I lacked a little bit was the focus in terms of turning it into an end product. But I don’t look back with that with a huge amount of regret. I think and it’s something we talked about in The Healthy Writer as well, that writing in itself is therapeutic, even if it never goes out to anybody.

I also got very busy at work. My academic writing, which ironically, was something I thought I was leaving behind, has perhaps my writing and editing has expanded again, a lot more than I expected. And that takes us more or less up to the start of 2020 when clearly lots of other things have happened in the meantime.

Joanna: And just tell us, is your wife okay now?

Euan: Oh, yes, I should say. She’s absolutely fine. She had a bit of surgery, a bit of radiotherapy, we didn’t have to go through chemotherapy. So we’re very lucky. I think the prognosis is very good. And like most cancer these days, although it’s a terrible diagnosis to have, and it has a great impact on people. Actually, the vast majority of it remains treatable, curable, you should get it you can be treated and should go away never come back again. That’s certainly the hope. I think that’s where we are where my wife is now. So, that all looks very positive.

Joanna: And obviously, your family’s been through a difficult time and you’ve got kids. You’ve got three kids, right, as well?

Euan: Yes, that’s right. I have three teenagers now. Even since three years ago, I think they were all relatively sweet just kind of 10, 11-year-olds, who have now turned into these raging monsters of kind of…

Joanna: Hormones!

Euan: Exactly. So it’s a very different household. They’re still good kids. I think we’re very fortunate in terms of how we interact with them and our family life. There are a few more moments of tension now perhaps than there used to be.

Joanna: I think this is even a really good, I guess, lesson or learning for people straight away is that you had certain intentions around your writing life, and then life happened, your wife, your teenagers, and then obviously COVID.

This is really important is that we can’t always control well, most of the time, we can’t control what’s going on, so we have to adapt. Sometimes I hear from people who feel guilty for not writing when they’re going through something personal, like what you’ve been through, or even just bringing up teenagers, even if you didn’t have cancer and you didn’t have a pandemic.

There’s still a lot to be done. That’s really interesting to hear. Tell us a bit more. You learned about podcasting, you learned about self-publishing, certainly, when we co-wrote together. I kicked you a little bit around relaxing your writing style, and you definitely changed in that way.

What are you doing now in terms of your job? You’re doing content marketing for doctors, aren’t you?

Euan: You could definitely make that case. I still have an academic post at medical school and that’s got very busy over the past year or two.

One of the other roles I always had was as an editor of a medical journal. And just in the past few months, I’ve taken on the editor-in-chief role of that journal. And so it’s a really interesting slightly different kind of job to the ones you might expect in medicine or even academia.

We have this content, these research papers, these analysis articles, and then it is very much as you say, it’s about content marketing. We have to try to go out there, find our readership, got to engage them, try to create community.

We’re always trying to create social media kind of interest and to add value to what we do. So there are incredible parallels. We have a podcast, so I host a podcast for that medical journal as well, where we talk about the research.

So it’s been interesting, all those things we did in terms of and have done, and people still do, in terms of independence, indie publishing, and self-publishing, and all that entrepreneurial side. It’s been incredibly valuable for me, and I’ve taken it into that medical journal world.

I’m trying to use it as much as I can because I think it is remarkable how few people know about some of the processes and the ways to go about this having incredible creative processes that can happen and the way to get out and find your tribe.

Joanna: That’s great to know. Sometimes people think, ‘Oh, it’s only relevant in certain niches,’ but you’re doing podcasting and social media and writing and things for the academic and medical community. So it’s definitely the lessons we learn, as you say, irrelevant in different industries.

We’re going to get into some health stuff. But we need to give a little disclaimer, don’t we, first?

Euan: Yes, it’s important for me to say that I’m obviously, I say I’m a doctor, but for everyone listening, I’m not your doctor. And anything I think we talk about, it’s really important that we emphasize that you shouldn’t regard it as medical advice, specifically for yourself.

If you’ve got any concerns, or you’re thinking of making any changes, then do consult with your own healthcare professional, make sure you take advice particularly, well applies to everybody, but it’s going to be even more important if you’ve got any other complex chronic conditions or anything else that could interfere as well. So do look after yourself, do the sensible thing, and speak to your appropriate person.

Joanna: Brilliant. Okay. Well, let’s get into it then, because we are recording this in the second week of December 2020.

Here in the UK, we actually had the first person vaccinated yesterday from COVID. They’re putting the really old people first in line. It was this 90-year-old woman, but it feels like the year, that there have been some crazy miraculous developments in terms of vaccines, and there’s hope on the horizon. But obviously, we’re not out of it.

As we record this, we’re not out of it yet. And when this goes out in January, we still won’t be out of it. So the world has certainly changed. And we’re going to come back to physical health. But I want to start with mental health.

Let’s start by talking about some of the common issues that people might have struggled with in order to normalize what is just inevitable in a year like this?

Euan: 2020 certainly has been quite the year, hasn’t it? Incredibly intense for everybody. I think the common things remain common mental health problems. And I think that’s probably the most important thing to say that there’s all this uncertainty, and I suspect people have had a slightly different experience as well, a lot of people have had a different experience.

Some people have had a positive pandemic if you like, and some people have had a terrible, tragic, devastating pandemic. And it’s all extremely unsettling. It’s certainly not what we regard as normal life.

I think particularly problems like anxiety and depression, which have been there, all along, are the kind of problems that have been, if you already suffer from, you’d be at a very high risk of them having worsened.

If they were just there a little bit in the background, all that uncertainty and difficulty could easily have made them that bit much more difficult to cope with and to manage. So I would always have that anxiety and depression right up there as there are such common conditions, so much of it throughout the population, and they aren’t new.

COVID is a real magnifier in that regard. I think a lot of us on the medical side with regard COVID is just having magnified all of these kinds of, certainly, inequalities are very obviously, that have been they’ve had an effect there as well. But particularly any conditions that do exist, they’ve just kind of really amplified everything.

Joanna: I definitely am not someone who has ever sought a diagnosis of either anxiety or depression. But I have glimpsed this year myself what some people might suffer more regularly and in that March period, the acute fear, almost anxiety, moves into fear and panic.

I’ll confess to buying a few more toilet rolls than usual and paracetamol in case of fever. And those types of things. I even got cash out the bank, which was useless in the end, because everyone stopped taking cash!

But certainly, I feel like I had that acute sense of anxiety until we realized it was not the apocalypse. And then depression is really interesting too because I’m a very upbeat person, and normally, I can just go to sleep, and I wake up, and it’s better, but I’ve definitely had some real periods during the lockdown — So certainly this last November one, which has been so dark — I’m just feeling like, really, what is the point? And feeling very negative about things, which has been a surprise for me. And I’ve realized that I definitely need to get out more. But I wanted to be honest about some of the things I’ve felt.

Is there anything that you’ve been through personally, that you’re happy to share as well?

Euan: I’m always happy to share. I have to say I have been really fortunate. I think I noticed some anxiety, particularly at times, early on, and I was almost, I would weirdly lie in bed at night and almost have this sense of slight panic overcoming me. And that I thought I was going to start having a panic attack on a couple of occasions. That’s the worst I’ve been in terms of anxiety.

One of the advantages of my role is that we’ve been, and I don’t like to use the B-word, busy, too much, but things have really lifted off a little bit on the medical side over the past year. So there’s been quite a lot to occupy us, and that’s a great help in terms of managing things, this kind of nature of this kind of problem.

I think it’d be really common, depression, low mood is one of the things that people often think about depression. But actually one of the other ways that people can be affected by depression are things like they don’t enjoy what they would normally enjoy doing. And the pandemic has been weird, and it stops people from doing the normal things they would like to do.

But actually, depression is more about even if you’d get a chance to do them, you don’t enjoy it anymore. And that kind of negative approach is very common as well, where you lose motivation. That’s very common if your mood starts to get a bit low, and it starts to tilt towards depression as well.

I would say that to some extent, these are what you might from the medical perspective, we might regard more as just kind of a normal process of adjustment. They’re almost expected adjustment reactions to a very difficult set of circumstances. But they can easily, there’s no kind of easy dividing line between something like that, and a clinical diagnosis of depression or anxiety.

So we’re all to a certain extent, going to experience some of them at some level. And the trick is to try to do things, of course, that help us manage those, and help us tilt us back.

I think when people are really depressed, it’s just, it’s very, it’s like a hole, it’s extremely difficult to get out of, and by themselves, it’s almost impossible to manage that. It’s a very dark place. But if we can do something, those people in those circumstances, clearly we want to, as doctors, we want to see them, we want to try to help them, we want them to see the healthcare professionals.

But if you’re somebody who’s maybe not quite at that, there’s maybe still that possibility where you’ve got enough motivation, willingness and enthusiasm still to try to do the right things. There are ways you can tilt things in the right direction.

The first thing I would ask is, when you are feeling like that, Joanna what kind of things did you do to feel a bit better?

Joanna: I went on a really long walk. I went on my six-day pilgrimage walk, which really helped. And that was, I guess, more the frustration as well. I have a real thing about freedom and need to get away sometimes and I felt like I was being shut in this box. I’m in my house, and we’ve been shut in our boxes for so long.

I was almost beating my head against the cage, like one of those animals who gets caged. And so obviously, that wasn’t during lockdown but we were still in the sort of tiers here in the UK, but that long walk really helped and I walked myself into submission. That’s what I wrote in my journal.

That helped me and I would say that that’s what I’ve done all through the pandemic is I’ve walked almost every day sometimes for an hour, sometimes four hours, five hours, nine hours.

Exercise, certainly I know you do this too, but exercise really, really helps. Even today, it was getting really dark and we went downstairs and put all the lights on and had a dance, just some music can change the mood.

I’ve also bought one of those Lumie lights that bring in more natural light for the dark periods.

Nature and walking have really helped and music and light. What about you?

Euan: Very similar. I think there’s some good evidence, I do always talk about evidence, but I love being out in nature as well, and being outside really is one of the things that makes me feel right about the world very quickly.

There’s good evidence about nature, even now looking at it, there are some fairly fantastic studies. Even hospital rooms that have a view of the countryside might have some therapeutic benefit. So I think that I would always go the nature side.

I think that physically active for me is always top of the list. I think the important thing there, and I do a bit of running. I’ve done more running in the past nine months than I’ve done in my whole life. But I think the interesting thing about that is I’m still not, overall, I think I’m in terms of being physically active, I suspect I’m still only at the level I was at pre-pandemic.

I’ve only kept on a level because we are stuck in the house a bit more. I hope there’s a bit more, we’re not getting out and doing things, not walking around visiting people or just in the office or wherever it is. So actually, I think I’m just on an even keel in terms of my overall physical activity.

But if I’ve had to step up my kind of running kind of activity in order to make that work. So that’s the main thing for me, I think. One of the things I’ve been aware of as well that I had some difficulty, and perhaps this might be another slight effect on my mental health. Because, the other thing that people, if people do get a bit low or a bit unsettled, then concentration can be a real problem. And that’s often why people who get a bit depressed feel that they’ve memories struggling.

It’s not because of any particular problem with their memory, other than the fact that they’re not as attentive and they’re not concentrating as well. You never take things in routine at the start in quite the same way. I haven’t found reading as easy in the past nine months in many ways, which has been interesting.

There have been points where I found it really difficult to sit down and concentrate on books in the ways that I have done for my whole life. But I have pushed through that a little bit because I know how good it is for me, I know how important it is for me to get lost in books, and to interact with nonfiction ones, and it sparks off my writing. So I’ve really made a big effort to keep on doing the things I love doing.

Joanna: I have literally binged so many books! I’m a real horror reader, although, no pandemic books at all. Nothing about pandemic thrillers or anything, haven’t read those, but lots of horror. Also, I think Netflix really has come of age during the pandemic and we’ve certainly watched quite a lot of stories, which is interesting.

But I did also want to ask about loneliness because that is something that’s really come up.

At the beginning, everyone was doing Zoom and stuff, but then everyone got zoomed out, really. And we stopped talking so much to people. When we did The Healthy Writer we found that loneliness was actually a real common issue with writers, in general, let alone in a pandemic. Obviously, we can’t say go out and meet people right now.

What are some of the things that people can do there?

Euan: For me, I think that perhaps the most important thing is to recognize and accept the fact that you’re lonely. It’s probably one of those that it’s if you can manage to do that, that’s incredibly important.

We did write about this a bit in The Healthy Writer and I think it’s one of these emerging topics in the past decade. And as we were saying earlier, it’s one of those things that’s been massively amplified by COVID and brought it into really stark relief that people who are on their own and actually just can’t get out and see anybody at all. I think we’ve all become much more acutely aware of that.

There isn’t an easy answer while we’re in the middle of the pandemic, I don’t think but for me, perhaps it would be about recognizing the fact that you could be lonely. It’s not a very easy thing to admit to oneself that that happens. And in terms of that, I think I would say I’ve definitely, even myself, I’ve got a lovely family life as people at home, I definitely have found myself at times, thinking that I have neglected my friendships and have become lonely at points in my life, even in the past 10 or 15 years.

Accepting that we are lonely is really important. Then the next thing is about trying to find your people, I suppose whether it’s re-engaging with those that you’ve lost contact with it, friends, colleagues, family, or whether it’s about finding your tribe, whether it’s other writers and engaging with them online.

And in many ways, I suppose writers, although there is there will hopefully be emerging opportunities for conferences and other things in the very near future again, and there are some online options for that. Writing has always been a fundamentally slightly lonely business, I think we opened up the end of the chapter on this in The Healthy Writer with a quote from Isaac Asimov about writing being a lonely job.

It’s something that can really affect writers. And I think it’s really important to be active in addressing it more than anything else. It’s difficult to say, one thing you should do, but actually just really trying to establish healthy social connections is really important.

It’s easy to fall into a negative cycle with loneliness, that you become lonely and then you push people away as a consequence of that as well, and you become a little bit embittered and you become more isolated, and then that quickly becomes a vicious circle. So if you’re falling into that, it’s about trying to get to a point where you can recognize that what’s happened to you and push back a little.

Joanna: Absolutely. I’ve certainly been surprised. I’m very happy with my husband, and like you said you’re happy at home. But even sometimes, we were not used to spending this much time with the people in our house. And sometimes it’s like, I just want some other company. So all of these things are allowed.

I think maybe that’s it, like you have permission to feel however you feel, and it’s then finding ways around that. And certainly, I’m looking forward to going to conferences. I wonder how long it will take before I wish I’m not going to conferences again after we go back. Doctors do the same, right? Go to conferences?

Euan: Academic as well as being on the academic side to conferences. I’ve had some very bad experiences, going to conferences where I felt very lonely indeed. In a very small part, thousands of people around and having that completely lonely in a crowd experience. I’m hoping there will be a bit of a more of a blend, perhaps.

Some of the online conferences, I know online experiences I’ve had have been very positive and a chance to engage with people in a different way that I wouldn’t have had a chance to do before. So I’m quite positive about that angle of it. But I would quite like a bit of a blend.

We’re inherently social creatures, we’re highly social, pro-social animals, humans, it’s perhaps our defining characteristic as a species, more than anything else, we really need that engagement. And if you don’t get it, it’s bad for your health. And that has been a problem over the pandemic, but it’s an issue that writers need to keep well and near the front of their mind at any time, I think.

Joanna: Let’s get into COVID-19 because obviously, there’s physical health. This is where the physical and mental health collides. Because for our mental health, we need to see people, but for our physical health, we can’t. So, for example, we’ve made the decision not to go to my Dad’s for Christmas.

[Note from Joanna: We recorded this before the UK government announced the Christmas restrictions, so no one was able to meet up outside their household anyway.]

By the time this goes out, and the New Year it will be done. But because my nieces are little kids, and there’s just a lot of kissing, and you can’t stop little kids from just doing what little kids do, right? So we’ve decided we won’t go and because it’s so close now, as we said, the vaccine is coming.

We’ve been taking vitamin D, we’ve both lost a bit of weight trying to do things to reduce our chances of a bad situation. Now, of course, there are lots of studies, but we’re still very close to this.

Do you have any comments or thoughts about reducing the chances of a bad case of COVID or at least trying to prevent the worst things from happening?

Euan: I have to be extremely careful here with the evidence because it’s a bit of an evidence-free zone a lot of this, where we haven’t got good studies for a tremendous amount of it. There was a lot of concern in terms of how much your exposure was for the result in a bad case, and I’m not sure we understand the factors that result in you getting particularly badly affected and it’s really difficult to know.

Although it’s been, everybody knows them and they’ve been trumpeted, we’ve all heard them ad nauseam over the past few months. I would fall back on the old fashioned stuff that the best case of COVID is not a case of COVID at all. And especially as we’re getting towards the point where vaccines, and I’ve had my antibodies checked a few weeks ago, and I haven’t had it, or at least I’ve got no antibodies. I’m very aware now, I’ve become even more super aware that you don’t want to be the person that gets COVID just a few weeks before the vaccine comes.

Joanna: Yes, me too!

Euan: I’ve become even more acutely aware. I do think handwashing is a big thing. I know we’ve had it endlessly from politicians, and from public health people and everything. The virus has got these little phospholipids, like fatty layer around it, and just good old fashioned soap and water breaks it down, disrupts it, kills your virus, it’s incredibly straightforward.

Unfortunately, with the social distancing rules, and masks would seem to be affected as well. Again, the evidence isn’t huge for these things. One of the difficulties with all of these things is that the evidence isn’t huge at an individual level. But if you do it, so it’s hard to sometimes to see the benefit to you as a person that actually, there is a small benefit and there’s unquestionably, a really big benefit when the whole population does it. And that’s when you really see all the value of those kinds of interventions.

Joanna: I think this idea of public health interventions, I think it’s why we’ve had so many issues in like the UK and the U.S. where it’s more of an individualistic culture. Like me feeling I’m in a cage, and I’m bashing against the cage, that’s just me feeling like that. But my behavior, as you say, it’s how a ‘population’ behaves.

And the idea of public health. I’ve only really learned a lot about this year because of the pandemic, I’ve been reading a lot and trying to understand it. Because, as you say, it’s at a much bigger level than the individual, that you have to kind of do these things. And we’ve seen some of the greatest successes in public health when it’s been put into the whole population. That’s what’s so brilliant about public health and yet, that’s what people are always raging against.

Euan: There’s long been this tension in public health, it’s always been a problem that sometimes it’s very hard to quantify the benefit for an individual or the individual feels, I just say they feel their freedom has been hampered.

When you toss it up across the population, the effects can be quite remarkable and really beneficial, but that doesn’t change its underlying antagonism between the two.

Vitamin D is an interesting one. I’m glad you mentioned it, because I’ve been having a good look at the evidence around this a little bit recently. So full disclosure, I take a multivitamin as well, but I have only started taking that in the last month or two. And that’s partly because I’ve turned vegetarian a couple of months ago, and decided it’s not impossible to become deficient in some vitamins so I thought it was prudent.

But I was particularly keen to make sure I got some vitamin D because vitamin D is a little bit harder to get if you don’t eat meat. There’s plenty of it in oily fish, in eggs, breakfast cereals, which have been fortified and things like that, and we definitely suffer for that in these northern latitudes. At this time of year, we get to this point in the year and normally they get a bit of vitamin D.

Vitamin D is a really cool vitamin, because it’s got this really weird mechanism that actually go in the sun, and then vitamin D gets produced in your skin, and which you then absorb, which is it’s really bizarre and who knows how that kind of thing evolved. That’s my first thing.

I read the other day, and I don’t know if this is true, that if you put mushrooms out in the sun, they also generate more vitamin D. And I need to look up the evidence for this. So I’m putting a big flag on that, that that needs to be checked.

[UK NHS Vitamin D guidelines]

I think vitamin D is a really weird one. But there’s definitely lots of evidence that people are deficient in it or have less of it, and we know people have less of it in the winter months. It’s worth pointing out that people in the Southern Mediterranean regions in Europe are also often deficient in vitamin D, probably for dietary reasons, rather than because not because of obviously, they’ve got plenty of sun. And people that cover themselves up, people are spending a lot of time that might be for cultural or religious reasons, any of those things, I think it’s probably prudent to take vitamin D.

And at the moment, I think it was a couple of weeks ago, the government’s made vitamin D available to some of the people who are more vulnerable and fall into that category. So on balance, it is possible to take too much of it, but if you just stick to the standard dose, a vitamin tablet, if there’s one thing you can do yourself, that might be something that’s worth considering.

Joanna: Obviously what’s going to be interesting is the reams of health data that are going to emerge over the next couple of years. And we’ll find out some things which are completely pointless and other things that we did for great. And so that’s going to help with the next one because inevitably, there will be something else.

In The Healthy Writer, we talked a lot about physical issues as it relates to working from home because, obviously, I’ve definitely had a lot of physical health issues in the past due to my posture, and various things about sitting at desks for too many hours, and we had eyestrain and back pain, and I had shoulder pain.

And I think that this has probably exploded now because a whole lot more people are working from home for their day jobs, and they might not have the right desk set up, all of these different things.

What are some of the common issues with working from home and some of the ways to combat them?

Euan: We covered this, obviously, in a lot of detail in The Healthy Writer and I was reading back through and I was really happy with some of the advice we offered in there to be important.

Joanna: Oh, good!

Euan: I think I would always point people back towards it, there’s a lot of information. I think the first thing is bad workstations perhaps is the most obvious disaster area, and that’s going to be a back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, RSI types, Type 2 RSI is going on. There’s all sorts of possibilities. And so that’s really important.

Humbleworks stand up desk topper

Joanna Penn standing desk podcast setup with Humbleworks desk topper

I think it’s difficult to go into absolute detail, but if you pay some attention to how your workstation is set up if you can, whether it’s just about getting a chair height, and your desk height, and your monitor height, or your computer height, even sticking a laptop on a riser with an external keyboard, which you can usually get for just a few pounds or dollars, that is really worthwhile.

Those kinds of changes can make a big difference, we probably can’t run through them all now. The one tip I always have in my head that I remember, if I start to get sore back is I just put my feet on the floor. Because, if once you curl your feet up behind you in the chair, I find that really that leads me to a really slumped curled up bad posture. But actually just putting my feet on the floor makes an enormous difference to forcing me to sit up and engage my pelvis a little bit and straighten myself up.

Joanna Penn writing cafe setup

My laptop set up in a local cafe (in pre-pandemic times!)

[From Joanna: I use a Nexstand laptop stand.]

So that’s one of the things I found incredibly useful. In terms of kind of ergonomics, that’s one of the things I would always recommend, be very aware of laptops from ergonomics. They are instruments of torture, in that regard. And it’s really worthwhile if you’re going to be at home for any length of time, and you can manage to and you can afford it is to get yourself an external keyboard and a monitor, and a mouse just to make things a bit better.

I think some of the other things I would suggest are about being careful to try to partition home and work life a little bit as well. That can make, I think that’s really useful just in terms of, it’s very easy just to pop down back down to the computer and answer a few more emails or just fiddle around with something and never really take a break from work. I have tried when I can to kind of set a limit and turn the computer off, close it down, go and do something else.

There’s one colleague I know who did this, used to be very careful about, though he worked at home, he would actually go out for a walk first thing in the morning, and he wasn’t terribly far, but he regarded it as his morning commute, and then he would come back sit at his desk and then at the end of the day, he would do exactly the same, close everything down, go for a little walk, and that was his partition, that fixed line between home and work life.

After that the main thing is I would just like try to take breaks. They’re so important and get moving in those breaks, get yourself some physical activity. I just say jump downstairs, put some music on, jump around. But even standing up and walking around makes a huge difference.

What I’ve started trying to do schedule meetings, so the last 25 minutes, or 50 or 55 minutes so there’s always a gap and you’re not back to backing meetings, which that relentless Zoom day where you just flick from one to the next is really exhausting. And so actually getting out of the chair, having a break. The Pomodoro method works really nicely for that as well. But getting some breaks and just getting yourself moving perhaps is one of the most useful things you can do.

Joanna: We shared our work station setups in The Healthy Writer with some pictures and things. I’m standing up now is are you standing up?

Euan: No, I’m sitting. I haven’t really got a stand-up desk option at home. I have one in my office.

Joanna: I’m standing up. I do all my interview standing up for health also, but also just to get some energy into my voice. And I also still have a Swiss ball from when I do sit and but since we did the book, I’ve made a few changes so one big thing a bit like taking breaks.

The Apple Watch, I know some people might not be able to afford some kind of smart device, but I am very bad at the Pomodoro which is you set a timer and you only work 20 minutes and then take five minutes break, if people don’t know. But what the Apple Watch does is vibrates on your wrist.

I’m quite competitive even with myself. And if you miss you’re standing and you’re moving around, you don’t get these rings. I’ve had it for just over a year now. It’s been brilliant for me because I obey it far more than I obeyed any kind of other external devices.

I like to see all my rings closed every day, which means I get a move goal, I get an exercise goal, and I get a standing goal. So you basically have to move around at least once an hour. I found that to be quite remarkable.

These kinds of devices and wearables are becoming more common, aren’t they?

Euan: Yes, and I think anything that nudges you in the right direction, that’s got it it’s a win, isn’t it? The Pomodoro works for me, I actually, find it I find like myself, I can get incredibly productive with the Pomodoro. And I really enjoy the actual pattern of working for a period and stopping for a few minutes, I get really into it.

But any wearables and I think particularly Step Counters are a really good one as well, for any wearable and you don’t even necessarily need to have a device for that you can some phones will just record your steps even in your pocket when they. You can get pedometers for pennies really, which do nothing else but measure your steps for very little. I think that can be incredibly useful as well.

I’m always a little bit horrified when I am at home, that it’s one of the reasons that force me out each day, is that my step count is just miserable if I don’t make an effort, it’s embarrassing. I’m just mortified if I look at it at lunchtime, and you’ve barely broken 1,000 I feel awful at that point.

Joanna: I think especially with knowing in this pandemic time, I’ve done a variation of three different loops almost every day and I know that each one is between 10,000 and maybe 15,000 steps. So I know if I do one of those loops at least once a day, then it’s going to get it in. But I know you’re super active.

And the other thing I’ve been doing since we last talked is I got into weight training. I did still have a lot of shoulder problems and saw a specialist. And it was basically postural from hunching over for so long for so many years, like 25 years, on a keyboard.

My strong woman t-shirt and one of my kettle bells!

Basically he said, “You just have to retrain your back muscles.” I’m like, “Oh, that’s easy.” So I’ve been working with a personal trainer twice a week now basically, for and over the pandemic on Zoom. I’ve got kettlebells. And I turned into a weight lifter, which I’m actually really proud of. And I just love it. It really, makes me so happy.

Even if I don’t feel like it after I’ve lifted some weights and done all of that I just feel so much better. So I wanted to mention that. I’m a 45-year-old woman and doing weights is I think a very good thing, right?

Euan: Yes, I think doing weights is much neglected and incredibly valuable. It was something that I really probably since we last spoke actually, I got introduced some weights as well. I’ve fallen off the wagon slightly at the moment with them. And I’ve been doing more running, but I went through a period of doing them as well.

All your problems, Joanna, they’re always postural, they’re all seem to come back to postural yourself. It’s fundamental problems so I can’t think of anything better than weights it is actually the government guidance and how much activity you should do. They always include a bit about weights.

People always noticed how many minutes it is per weekend, and I can’t remember off the top my head now, you should do. But they always say you should do at least a couple of sort of strength-based sessions every week as well. And they are that almost always gets forgotten. And it is incredibly useful.

It’s more important as you get older as well because all of us lose a bit of muscle strength as we get older, it goes downhill. But it’s almost entirely recoverable by training. You’ll never be as strong as you were when you were 20. But then if you didn’t do the exercise when you were 20 you’ve got every chance of being stronger when you’re 40, 50, 60, 70 than you were when you were 20.

So it’s well worth it. And it’s the kind of thing that actually if you can’t get out for some reason, other lockdowns, and there are lots of ways to do bodyweight exercises too. You don’t have to have weights and things. There are a ton of resources on the internet for bodyweight exercises if you can build the habit. Gosh, yeah, that’s just gold.

Joanna: I definitely feel the endorphins going as well afterwards. So it’s good for mental health as well.

I realized that some people might see that as a big hurdle like it sounds difficult. But again, as we talked about before, it’s when you’re driven by pain, you’re basically willing to take a chance on things. And my shoulder has been playing out for years on and off and I’ve tried all kinds of things. And this is the thing that is making it stronger and gets rid of my pain.

And obviously, my back pain really interestingly, my body shape has changed more. And my pain is reduced more by doing weights twice a week than it was with yoga. So I feel like yoga helped me with the sort of mental health and relaxation, but the strength training is really helped with managing my pain and changing my physical self.

I feel like I’ve actually had quite a lot of physical education since we spoke last.

Euan: There’s a ton of benefits for the weight thing about weight training, as well as the single best, I think it’s the single best intervention for injury prevention as well. And for almost any sport, is weight training. I’d have to double-check my evidence on that.

I had a lot of trepidation about doing weights because I didn’t know what I was doing. I was very anxious about it. I think that’s something that’s really put me off. It’s getting over that initial hurdle is always very difficult with something new. But at the end of the day, and of course, when you start doing it, you always feel you’re completely rubbish on it.

You just can’t do anything and you like it. So it can be quite hard not to get a bit demoralized. I do think it’s one of those that benefits really, from that kind of micro habit kind of approach where you just try and do it’s just trying to do a minimal amount. And try to learn what you’re doing treat it as a skill.

It’s not about how strong you are, it’s about learning the skill of how to lift weights properly, how to do bodyweight exercises properly. And if you think of it like that, that has helped me to actually make more of an effort to get into it, learn how to do stuff, and really take advantage of the enormous benefits from it.

Joanna: And of course, now, tons of personal trainers now work on Zoom. And that’s something that’s changed a lot. I used to go into the gym. But then once we went on to Zoom, and then we just do it in my home now. So I haven’t gone back to the gym. It’s all just been from home.

So that’s a lot of things around health have changed in the pandemic, actually talking of the Apple Watch, Apple Fitness + is about to launch it. By the time this goes out, it will be launched. And I also like doing online classes and stuff. And the Apple Fitness will sync with your watch. So I’m pretty excited about that. I think we’re going to see a revolution in health, I think out of the pandemic because so much money is being put into healthcare now.

Euan: I think the consequences are going to be far-reaching. Remarkable period to live through. And we’re way that we see all these things tilting in different directions. There’s so much more scope to get involved in that kind of home-based exercise, side the things.

I think that you’re absolutely right the way training’s an amazing thing to do. I’d encourage anyone to do it. And I think, interestingly, although, we’re saying about the I think I do more weight training as men I don’t have a stand-up desk anymore. But I haven’t noticed any difference in my back pain at all, I probably had slightly less. And I think that’s probably related to the fact I’ve been doing this before I fell off the wagon, and in terms of the weight training, it was doing an enormous amount of good.

Joanna: Oh, that’s great.

Anything else that you’d like to mention from The Healthy Writer or anything else that people might feel useful?

Euan: One thing that’s been reported a lot in the media is about alcohol and so I’m very aware that that’s something for people to pay close attention to. I’ve seen mixed messages though I’ve seen some people are clearly drinking a bit less and taking advantage of lockdown to get healthy. And the pandemic there was definitely some positive.

I think other people who perhaps had more difficulties for whatever reason, perhaps their mental health has been struggling. Alcohol has been a problem as well. As somebody who spends all that clinical time looking after people who have terrible trouble with alcohol, I’m always very aware of it.

I would just encourage people. It’s one of those keeping a diary is perhaps always a good way to go with that. It’s more writing anything you can write down. Writing is always the answer to everything, isn’t it? I have diarized how much of writing how many weights you’re doing write a nice journal, write it all down the beautiful pen and be a little bit careful with your alcohol. I think that’s one to watch.

Joanna: I think half the time, we did use to be kind like, ‘Well, it’s Friday night, whatever, have a bottle of wine.’ And now it always seems like you never know what day it is. It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s Tuesday, we’ll have a bottle of wine because it feels like Friday.’ Every day just feels the same.

Obviously I always say on the podcast, I like a drink or two. But obviously, you work with people with addiction so there are gradations of these things. I guess the overall tip for people is to just come back into yourself and be mindful, is anything hurting? What’s going on with your mental health, your physical health, and what can you do to make it better this year?

Euan: That seems like a very nice summary.

Use writing as a tool to help you with that.

In many ways, it’s the output that lots of people are after in terms of the books or the articles or blog posts or the content. But actually, it can be part of the process to help you as well.

Joanna: Absolutely. So where can people find you and everything you do online?

Euan: I think the best bet is, Joanna, just visit So that’s and links there to Twitter, which I had left for two years, and I’ve come back to again, and the ‘Blokeology’ podcast, anything I’m writing, newsletters, bits, and pieces. It’s all there.

Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Euan, and that was great.

Euan: Thank you, Joanna.

The post How To Be A Healthy Writer In 2021 With Dr Euan Lawson first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • January 3, 2021