The Mental Load of Writing
As I updated a yet-to-be-sent bill on Paypal for a writing client this afternoon, a thought flashed across my mind. “How much more would this paycheck have in it if I charged for my mental load?”
Even if your bread and butter isn’t article writing the way mine is, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. You spend your entire shower mentally composing sentences. You drive to the grocery store and your mind runs a reel of potential character dialogue. The laundry gets done as you make sense of the research articles you read.
That’s mental load.
Mental load can be stupidly heavy. It’s not unusual for me to wake up at night and then not be able to get back to sleep because there’s just too much writing junk running around in my noggin.
Yet, the time we spend carrying writing-related mental load almost never gets put on the bill. Instead, we charge a flat fee or only according to the time we spend sitting at our desks during dedicated writing sessions.
Why recognizing mental load matters
In the new, AI-driven world, recognizing mental load in writing is important for clients to understand what it actually takes to produce the delivered content. When you compare AI time spent to writer time spent, AI already is more efficient in many cases. When you add mental load into the calculation, real writers can seem like tortoises. We barely plod along as the hares race by.
But this reality ought not be a reason to despair or consider yourself less capable. Rather, it ought to inspire even more awe and respect. Writers put in far more hours than they acknowledge, which reflects a deep dedication to the craft. When you admit how much time you really are spending paying attention to your words, you can see the process of writing more completely. You can understand that, even if your rates or book fees are high, they’re almost certainly a bargain for readers and clients.
The need for a break
Of course, sometimes you really do want your mental bandwidth back. If you can’t put your writing mental load down sometimes, you won’t have the strength to sort out other problems. It can get hard to focus, and then, because you can’t focus, you can get stressed out. And then, because you’re stressed out, you can start making mistakes. Correcting those mistakes reduces the time you have to write. That increases the likelihood that you’ll try to mentally script while doing other things. At the same time, stress can shut down your creativity. It becomes a vicious cycle, and it doesn’t bode well for the quality of what you put on paper.
So what can you do?
How to put down the mental load of writing
1. Get grounded.
Grounding yourself means that, instead of letting your thoughts fly, you intentionally try to direct them in a highly rational way. A classic grounding exercise is 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. In this exercise, you identify elements in your environment you can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. Running through grounding exercises often can interrupt writing trains of thought that are careening too quickly down the track.
2. Box it up.
Psychologists often tell clients to put intrusive thoughts into a mental box. They instruct the clients to put the box on a shelf in their mind and to pull it out at a more appropriate time in the future. The nice thing about using this technique for your writing mental load is that it doesn’t judge the writing thoughts or try to assess whether those thoughts are worthwhile. It simply encourages you to take ownership of those thoughts and make a conscious choice about when to deal with them.
3. Take three.
Many leadership gurus argue that you should limit your to-do list to no more than three true priorities. Any more than that and you’re probably not handling core tasks that actually make a difference in your overall outcome. Applying this idea to mental load, pick just three writing-related questions or problems you need to solve or find answers to. Those questions or problems should be large enough that, if you didn’t solve them, you would have trouble moving forward in other areas of the project, chapter, paragraph, etc. Once you’ve solved those problems, take a break. Then select another three questions or problems to tackle once you’re mentally rested.
Writers rarely account for mental load in their fees. But acknowledging it can help you see a more accurate value of clients and readers get from what you do. The key is to learn how to set the load down voluntarily. You can do that with a handful of psychological strategies. If you haven’t already tried the options above, give one (or all of them) a shot. Let me know the difference it makes for you.