Gretchen Rubin

“If I Have a Regular Daily Routine and I Stick to It, I Can Be Much More Productive.”

“If I Have a Regular Daily Routine and I Stick to It, I Can Be Much More Productive.”

Interview: Sharon Shinn.

I love to read, all different kinds of books. One of my friends shares my taste for fantasy and science-fiction, and we swap books back and forth.

A few months ago, she gave me a copy of Sharon Shinn's Troubled Waters, and I was hooked. I've been working my way through all of Sharon Shinn's books, and she's written a lot.

If you want to try these novels, I'd start with the "Elemental Blessings" books -- I was thrilled recently to get an early copy of Unquiet Land, her latest addition to that set.

Side note: In these "Elemental Blessings" books, the forty-three possible "elemental blessings" play a large role in the development of the characters and in the culture of that world. These blessings cover many aspects: joy, intelligence, beauty, creativity, love, travel, surprise, swiftness, power, triumph, luck, health, and so on.

If you know these books, you may be interested to know that Shinn very kindly drew my blessings -- which are just about the least glamorous blessings imaginable! Certainty, endurance, and patience. Sheesh. But they're surely wonderful blessings for a writer, for whom it's so important to have an idea and stay sitting in the chair long enough to hammer it out.

Because I'm such a fan of Sharon Shinn's books, I wanted to ask her about habits, creativity, happiness, and all the rest.

Gretchen: Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

Sharon: Like everyone else on the planet, I have too much to do and not enough time to get it all done. I find that if I have a regular daily routine and I stick to it, I can be so much more productive than if I just make a list and hope for the best.

I basically have two jobs—I’m an editor for a bi-monthly association magazine, and I write science fiction/fantasy novels—and I do both of these jobs from home. However, the magazine is essentially my full-time job, so it gets more of my time. One of the reasons I stick pretty closely to a routine is so that I can find enough hours to work on my books. On weekdays, I spend from roughly 9 to 5 working on the magazine, then I take a 30-minute break to walk or exercise, then I spend a couple of hours in the evening writing fiction.

I can’t manage that every day, of course. I take yoga classes one night a week, and sometimes I go out with friends instead, and other obligations often come up. But my goal is usually to have at least three nights a week where I can work on my books. I’m a little more free-form about my weekends, but I try to find time for at least one writing session on Saturday or Sunday as well.

To be fair, I can’t tell if that level of discipline can be called habitual or the clockwork doggedness of a slightly obsessive personality. I tend to get restless and cranky if there’s something I’m supposed to be doing and I haven’t had the chance to do it. And I’m not very good at relaxing. Although I always promise myself I’ll lie around and do nothing once I’ve finished all my tasks, somehow I always find another task to do.

Take a recent Sunday afternoon when I had no plans or obligations. I was thrilled with the idea of just stretching out on the sofa and reading a book. Instead, I made a pie.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I spend about 20 minutes every weekday morning doing stretching exercises. A number of years ago, I threw out my back, and it was agony—I couldn’t stand for more than a few minutes, I couldn’t sit at all, I could simply lie down and be miserable. It took weeks of physical therapy before I started improving, and I never want to be in that much pain again. So I do the exercises I was taught back then, and I’ve supplemented them with stretches I’ve learned in yoga and from a friend who’s a physical therapist.

The desire to avoid pain is a great motivator, but I don’t think I would be as faithful about the exercises if I didn’t make them a part of my morning routine. In fact, since they’re not part of my weekend routine, I rarely get around to them on Saturday and Sunday. So I know that for me, making the exercises habitual is the only way to keep my body healthy.

 Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Travel! When I’m on a trip, I don’t do my morning stretches, I don’t meet my evening writing goals, it’s like I’ve given myself a pass because I’m in a strange environment. On the one hand, that plays havoc with my productivity (and sometimes bothers my back). On the other hand, sometimes I worry that I’m too much a creature of routine, so I think it might be good for me to slack off now and then so I don’t become a total automaton.

But the minute I step into my own house, I’m back on track.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I’m definitely an Upholder. I keep promises to friends and I honor my private resolutions. Occasionally this makes me a less-than-ideal guest, because sometimes I hold off on RSVP’ing until I’m absolutely certain I’m going to have the time and inclination to attend an event.

Being an Upholder can also make it hard for me to drop out of ongoing commitments that are no longer fulfilling or that have become too time-consuming. I sort of have to argue with myself to convince my brain that it’s OK to stop going to community choir practice, for instance. This is also the reason I don’t issue ultimatums to myself unless I’m really, really, really certain I want to end a current behavior. See the next answer!

Do you have any particular bad habits that you wish you could break?

Yes! Every night after I get settled in bed, I pick up the iPhone and start playing word games, usually Scrabble or Spelltower. I know it’s bad for me. I know the blue light will sparkle across my retinas and make me think it’s time to start waking up. I know that I’ll get so engrossed in the game that I won’t just play for a reasonable ten minutes, I’ll play for half an hour…or an hour. But at the time, that little break in the day feels like a gift to myself, and I look forward to it.

What I need to do is devise a time limit or cutoff time—No games after 11 p.m.!—and stick to it. But I’ve hesitated to do that because I know I’ll honor the restriction, and I’m not quite ready for that…

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

I have a piano in the living room, but I rarely sit down and play. For a long time I felt guilt whenever I walked past it and realized I’d let another day go by without touching the keyboard except to dust it when I was cleaning the house. So a couple of years ago I decided that, any time I dusted it, I would also sit down and play it, if only for ten minutes. Since I usually clean the house once a week, this means I’m playing on a regular basis. I still wish I could find an hour a week, but it makes me happier to have these short interludes at the piano.

Oh, and I eat chocolate every single day. Usually in the afternoon. Is that a habit or an indulgence? At any rate, it makes me happy.

Have you ever read any of Sharon Shin's books?  Which one is your favorite?

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