New Year’s Resolution: Finding Balance

I know many people are all bah humbug about new year’s resolutions but I love them. This year I resolve to find a balance with my time online.

Let me explain: when I first became a published author of an actual novel I kind of went a little bit insane. I tracked down every teeny tiny reference to my book or me. I used every tool then available (and remember this was the long distant past of 2005) to stalk mentions online. At first there were few, very few, and I was convinced no one was ever going to read or review my baby Magic or Madness. Wah! Then there was what seemed a lot, which provided momentary flickers of joy—yay! good review!—and longer bouts of misery—boo! bad review.1 But then the mentions slowed down and lo there was despair again. No one is reading my book!

All of that slowed down my writing. Considerably. I was spending more time thinking about what people were saying about my book then, you know, actually writing the next one. Fortunately, for me I’d already finished my second book, Magic Lessons before my first appeared. But all the they-hate-me-they-love-me-they-think-I’m-meh-they’re-ignoring-me significantly affected the writing of the third book in the trilogy, Magic’s Child. I ran late, very late, because I was wasting so much time online googling myself and angsting about the results of those searches.

It got so bad I considered pulling the plug and not going online ever again, which, as you can imagine, is not possible. A large part of what I do online is directly related to my work: communicating with my agent and publisher, all the online promotery stuff my publisher likes me to do, research, keeping up with my field, blogging (my favourite thing ever!) etc. I can’t really let any of that slide for more than a week or so.

So instead I vowed to go cold turkey on self-stalking. I turned off my google alerts, unlearned the existence of technorati, icerocket, blogpulse etc etc and concentrated on finishing How to Ditch Your Fairy. It went well. I could go online without doing my head in. I was productive again! I learned that people would forward me any interesting reviews or commentary on my work.2 I did not need to seek out.

I also found that after several published books, bad reviews worry me far less than they used to. What I used to know only intellectually—that most reviews say far more about the reviewer than the reviewee—I now know all the way through me. Bad reviews rarely rile me now.

Thus I happily remained until 2009. Yes, I was still given to procrastinating. I would discover new blogs and be compelled to read through the entire archive. What? You can’t understand a blog until you’ve read the whole thing! And certain people still seem to think I spend an inordinate amount of time IMing with friends and family. What can I say? I don’t like phones. Plus some of those chats have led to Very Important Things. I’m just sayin’.

This year, however, for the first time in my online life, I was at the centre of a storm. People started saying things about me that were not true and were sometimes downright nasty. I’d become inured to people hating my books, but I’d never had strangers hating on me before. I’d seen many of my friends go through it. I’d even counselled these friends not to let it get to them, to make sure they took time away, that it’s not really as big a deal as it seems, and that those nasty, small-minded people don’t know them and what they say doesn’t matter. All of which is true.

But then it happened to me and I let it get to me. I fell off the wagon. I reinstated my google alerts. I used every search engine known to humanity to search out every single mention. I lost sleep. I lost days and weeks and months of work time.

I found some wonderful friends and allies during this time. However, I’m pretty certain I would have come across them regardless. Throughout this time, people were writing me wonderful supportive letters and sending me all sorts of wonderful links to amazing discussions. All I got from my self-stalking was misery and woe. My hard-fought-for balance shattered.

But here’s what I learned: it doesn’t matter what random strangers think of me. As long as I’m doing what I know is right and the people I trust and respect think so too, then I’m good. Sure, nasty shit said about you hurts. But some of the stuff that was said about me last year was so absurd that no one was taking it seriously. Literally no one. Except me. Spot the problem? So I stopped.

The even more important lesson I learned was that none of what happened was about me. It was about much bigger and much more important issues. I always knew that intellectually, but the lizard brain is very slow to learn. The lizard brain wanted to track down every slur, every insult. The lizard brain is an idiot.

I resolve this year to ignore the lizard brain and go back to the lovely balance I once had.

Here’s what gives me balance:

  • Writing
  • Making sure I get out of the house at least once a day and preferably go for a long walk, or to the gym, or for a bike ride—something physical daily that keeps me away from computer and phone.
  • Turning off google alerts
  • Not getting involved in flamewars. If someone is saying something offensive or appalling or wrong I no longer engage them. If the issue is important I blog about it here. I cut off flamewars in the comment threads here also.
  • Hanging out with my family and friends
  • Blogging
  • Cooking

And like that.

How do youse lot achieve balance?

  1. For some reason the bad ones lingered longer in the memory than the good. Funny that. []
  2. In my turn I started forwarding cool stuff I found about other people’s work to them. []

18 comments

  1. Sarah Allen on #

    Wow, great ideas and great motivation! I of course have made my own resolutions, but this is giving me motivation to actually stick with them. I agree, I feel like writing gives me balance too. I get stressed with school, work, food, money, everything. Then when I get to read or write, I feel like I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing. Thanks for your intelligence and inspiration!

    Sarah Allen

  2. Eliza Evans on #

    I first went online in 1994 or so, which is more than half my life ago. I met most of my friends and even my husband on the internet! So cutting it off completely has never been an option for me. On the other hand, everything on the internet is so interesting — especially when I am procrastinating. I decided, though, like you, that I had to do something different.

    I started using Google Reader, which meant I no longer hopped from website to website. They all come to me now! Much better.

    I got a phone that checks my email. Since it beeps at me when I get a new one, I don’t have to check my mail every three minutes. I don’t get a lot of email, anyway, so this might not work for someone with a busy inbox.

    I don’t chat, ever.

    If I’m really screwing around, I bring out the big guns. There’s a (freeware? or shareware) program for the Mac called Mac Freedom. It turns off all of your wireless capability for a length of time you determine. Then I give my phone to my husband so I can’t go online that way. After that, I really have no excuse not to work.

  3. Jude on #

    Balance is always tricky–even more so when you have kids or others depending on you (maybe editors fall a little into that category, but a husband is a more likely culprit). I fell completely off the deep end from stress when my kids were little–I had inadequate sleep, no time to myself, a sick kid, an abusive husband, a demanding job–all seemingly uncontrollable. Now that I’m years away from that hell, I try to use the internet only as a reward–specifically, I annotate my Flickr photos (mostly slides from the 1960s and 1970s), read hundreds of blogs, and write blogs. I exercise (about 7 miles a week on the stairclimber) and this year I’m trying mindfulness meditation. I try to avoid negativity, especially in myself.

    When I tell others about your blog (or your books), I mention the Liar cover controversy, and how sticking to your guns brought change. Without the blog, the internet, and the conversation, which spread to other venues, that change wouldn’t have happened. That is exceptionally cool.

    One of the science bloggers, Janet, who frequently blogs about ethics, has had a recent discussion about online incivility. Her latest post on the topic was here: http://scienceblogs.com/ethicsandscience/2010/01/scio10_preparation_a_very_brie.php

  4. Julia Rios on #

    I write down all my accomplishments at the end of each day, separated into four categories. Ideally I get something in each category, but if I am lacking in one or two, then I try to make sure I pay more attention to those categories the next day. This strategy has been working pretty well for the past six months. Seeing what I’ve actually gotten done makes me feel better about how I spend my time, and encourages me to do more, whereas having lists of tasks that I haven’t done makes me want to avoid them even more.

  5. celsie on #

    I wish I could give you a hug! Being the scapegoat for others is never fun or right. I’m glad it got better, and you weren’t forced to put up with it.

    I think if I ever get published, I’ll be too terrified of the “what ifs” to brave the reviews section of Amazon, though. All of my favorite kids books have some nasty one star reviews.

    Balance is good. I’m unfortunately not writing, as my balancing act tipped over. I went from writing and not exercising to exercising and not writing.

    NaNoWriMo led to my first completed manuscript and three years of trying to turn that draft into a submittable manuscript have caused considerable damage to my ability to write anything new.

    So I guess I’m saying I struggle with balance, too.

    On a side note, when I go into a bookstore and they don’t have your books or Scott’s, I get cranky. I loved Magic or Madness since I read the blurb on your site three years ago, and have been reading both your books and Scott’s since then.

    Anyways, I can’t see what you come up with next!

  6. Maureen on #

    Justine, I know I shouldn’t be surprised when this sort of nasty personal stuff happens, lets face it, it happens all the time to someone else, but I’m still completely shocked.
    I totally don’t get it!!!
    In Australia we call it the tall poppy syndrome…some bugger just has to cut the flourishing flowers flat to the dirt.
    Why, is completely beyond me.
    Congratulations on aiming to rise above this rubbish and going for balance. I believe life is all about balance.
    Maureen.

  7. Keren David on #

    Great and timely advice – thanks

  8. Justine on #

    Glad to hear this post has been useful. Thanks for all your comments.

    Celsie: No need for hugs. If I were still at the needing-hugs stage I wouldn’t have posted about it. 🙂

    Maureen: Ah, yes, the tall poppy syndrome. We Australians do have the best turn of phrase. That’s not what happened to me, however. Guess I’m not a tall enough poppy yet. Some day . .

  9. Kathleen on #

    Thanks Justine for such a beautiful post. I consider myself pretty resilient but I suffer the lizard brain sometimes too. (If the flamewars were referring to the Liar cover, I was proud that you stood up for what you believed in and it made me more aware of what I’m reading and writing.)

    I love new year goals too. While I’m working towards my goals, I need to write and exercise everyday otherwise I tend to go stir-crazy.

  10. Maggie on #

    Well said, Justine! *applauds*

  11. someone on #

    dear justine,
    u are awsome. i loved ur magic or madness triology. i could acctually feel myself jumping up for joy when i finished them. i am persuading you to write another sequel to the magic or madness triology. let me tell you i am twelevee turning thirteen and i dont read. but when i spotted your series i tried anything i could to get them read them, no devour them. please write back! 😀 ur the best writer ever.
    p.s. how did you get the idea of such a story
    sincerly, a really awsome fan oh and p.s. u are really funny to!

  12. LaurieA-B on #

    When my husband’s first book was published in 2009 I set up a feed for Twitter mentions. Mostly it was fun, but then I read a comment from a reader who was “vaguely unimpressed.” Those two little words (not even very critical!) implanted in my brain. When I realized this, I turned off the Twitter search and stopped looking up reviews. It’s way too easy to become obsessed.

    Thanks for this post; I will share it with author friends.

  13. allreb on #

    I have a couple of quiet, personal-ish resolutions, but my internet-related on is to… well, step away from the internet and read books. I read (or at least skim) hundreds of blogs and a bunch of message boards and always have twitter and my e-mail open in the background. But over the last few years I’ve noticed I read fewer and fewer *actual books*. So my goal is, when I find myself endlessly refreshing Google Reader waiting for someone, somewhere, to post something, instead I shall close my laptop and open my book.

    Speaking of which, Sense & Sensibility calls. 🙂

  14. Laura Sibson on #

    Justine, This is a wonderful post and I can relate as well. My loss of productivity has come from reading discouraging blogs about the impossibility of getting published. Writing my first book was revelation – I could do it and it was fun! And fulfilling, too. Once I finished it and started learning about publishing, I became obsessed with blogs about publishing, alerts about new agents, information about publishing houses. All of this strangled my creative juices.

    I achieve balance by doing much of what you do – I am trying to make sure to write every day, even just a little bit. I am also exercising every day, even if it’s just walking the dog. And I’m choosing to be positive and surround myself with supportive people.

    Thanks again!
    Laura

    P.S. – We met at Haverford Book Work when you signed my copy of LIAR. Thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed it even as I was maddened by it 🙂

  15. The OTHER Tally Youngblood on #

    Heh heh… I love googling myself. Too bad it never works. All I got was some weird egyptian (wow that was a bad typo.) belly dancer! Bottom line, weird… 😀

  16. Harry Connolly on #

    Eliza, thank you for pointing out Mac Freedom. I’ll finally get some work done!

  17. Kristan on #

    Hmm, I don’t know if I’ve achieved it yet so I can’t really answer that question, but I certainly understand the feelings behind this post! As an aspiring author, I sometimes go crazy trying to read all these industry blogs so I can be knowledgeable and find good opportunities, but then as you said that cuts into my writing time. That’s even worse for an aspiring author than an established one, I think.

    So balance with my online time is something I’m striving towards too. Not so much as a 2010 resolution, but more of an ongoing battle. 😛

  18. HeatherL on #

    As a student in high school (few years ago now, wow) I went through a similar process- not about public opinion, but about grades. After a very hard test, I got a grade so low, so abysmal, so completely out of the ballpark of any other grade I’d gotten in my life, I learned- hey! the world didn’t end. Everything is fine. And for the rest of high school though I tried hard, and studied, I honestly didn’t care about getting bad grades anymore.

    Sometimes, if a bad experience can teach you that lesson- when to stop worrying about something that doesn’t matter, then it’s more than worth going through it. In a way, that grade was one of my best, because I learned so much more than if I’d have gotten a hundred. It looks like you took the negative comments you were getting online and turned it into an oppurtunity to re-evaluate how you find a balance- so maybe it was worthwhile for you too?

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