Three Ways to Break Through the Not-Writing Habit

I have sixty minutes to write and edit this blog post. Fifty-nine minutes and twenty-seconds now. Even less, by the time you hit this sentence.

I have sixty minutes because today is unexpected clear of distractions. The farewell I was meant to be attending this evening has been rescheduled. My usual Friday write-club buddy is currently interstate. I am on my own, in my apartment, trying to get shit done with no distractions, and that is bad for me.

If there’s one thing I’m generally pretty good at, it’s getting shit done around other obligations. Give me an eight hour work day followed by three hours of gaming at a friend’s place, and I will bust out my minimum daily pages in record time then squeeze in a blog post for good measure.

Give me twelve uninterrupted hours, and I will binge-watch shit on Netflix and watch interviews with wrestlers on Youtube. I can hold to schedules built around social obligation, but I am terrible at the obligations where the only person I can disappoint is myself or a professional colleague.

And so, the stopwatch is running. Fifty-five minutes and eleven seconds to go. When it’s done, I get a one-hour break, followed by ninety minutes of working on the first draft of a story. Another hour’s break, another ninety-minute burst. The stopwatch creating edges for the work, because it tells me when to start and stop.

Today is all about the intense, controlled burst of productivity followed by a mandatory fallow period where I fuck around and clean the apartment. It’s all about getting shit done.

THE CURSE OF A CAREER WITHOUT EDGES

If there’s one thing that is actually common to every writer in the world, it’s this: none of us feel like we’re doing enough with our time. From the new writer frustrated that they only managed fifty words after a hard day at work, through to the folks powering through six-thousand word days like clockwork, there is always that faintly ambivalent feeling that you should be doing more.

Partially this is because writing doesn’t have a clean edge. Unlike a nine-to-five job, where the parameters of work and not-work are cleanly marked, writing is the kind of thing that permeates your existence. You do not get paid by the hour, you get paid by the finished product, so the feeling that you should do more is inevitably bound up in the idea that more eventually equals money.

A bad day at a salaried job is a bad day, but you still get your paycheque at the end of the week. A bad day at the keyboard feels like it’s costing you money and opportunities down the line. Sometimes, this feeling is valid. Sometimes, it’s just your internal sensible person freaking out about the fact that you’ve chosen a high-risk career and left yourself too little safety net to fall into.

We are not alone in this. Every freelance career and small business that works on commission will know the pain of being reliant on the product instead of the role. If you’re only as good as your work, your work has the potential to be all-consuming.

And artists, well, they’re meant to be consumed by their work. Society has been telling you that ever since you first started stringing words together.

(Thirty-nine minutes and twenty-seven seconds to go)

I posit this approach is potentially damaging to writers. Just because you can’t clearly see the edges, it doesn’t mean they’re not there. It just means that you keep rushing forward, determined to do more, until you look down and discover there’s nothing underneath you but a gaping chasm of burn-out, or writers block, or procrastination.

Especially procrastination.

It’s potentially damaging because, if your work doesn’t have edges, it’s not just knowing when to stop that’s a problem. It’s knowing when to sit down and start.

TRICKING YOURSELF INTO WORKING

Spend enough time talking to writers about their process and you’ll quickly notice the ways people attempt to set up edges for their work. It happens through routines, or word-counts, or timers. It happens through killing themselves to hit deadlines, then giving themselves permission to collapse in a heap afterwards.

It happens through tools that allow for an artificial edge to form, such as pages in a journal or a break-the-chain calendar. Neil Gaiman talks about switching to notebooks because it allowed him to trick himself into thinking it wasn’t really work yet, allowing him to focus on the craft instead of the future. That’s a different kind of edge, but it’s still an edge, and it works.

Everyone tricks themselves into working their own way. Sometimes, the methods shift over time, depending on their project and goals.

When I talk to folks who are well-and-truly stuck – the I want to write more, but I never get around to it crowed – there’s a whole bunch of things I suggest that are basically built on this theory. Ways for people to define the edge, to kick off the writing habit when the writing habit is hard to kick into gear. The three techniques that follow are the ones that have worked best for me and the folks who report back , and for all that they are simple as crap to do, they do a great job of getting you focused on the starting line.

ONE: SET YOURSELF THE DAILY GOAL OF SITTING DOWN AND OPENING YOUR WIP FILE/NOTEBOOK

Creatives have a bad habit of extrapolating outwards to a point of failure, which means a large majority of the folks who aren’t writing regularly are subconsciously focusing on the consequences of the action instead of the action themselves. And so, sitting down to write means finishing a story, which means submitting, which means rejection, which means the possibility that some editor will tell them they have no talent, which means their dream is dead in the water and they should probably give up now.

Many writers can combat this under good circumstances, but when shit gets busy – and shit will get busy incredibly often – it’s easy to set aside the things where your subconscious is whispering about the inevitable failure that awaits.

When in doubt, I borrow from Getting Things Done and next action that shit, asking: what is the absolute next thing you need to do in order to move forward on your project. Invariably, people will answer: I need to write something.

That’s still thinking forward. The absolute next action is sitting down at your workspace, whatever it will be, and opening up your WIP. It’s the first step that allows everything else in writing to occur, and its power as a trigger to start work is underrated.

If you’re struggling to get things done, that is your goal.  Sit down. Open up your work. Read a few sentences or put down a word. If you want to walk away after that, you can, but it’s a useful routine for acknowledging that writing is important to you and it clearly defines the edge that begins your process.

My own approach, increasingly, relies on this one. So long as I sit down to write three times a day, I will usually get a bunch of stuff done, even if I’m not counting pages or using stopwatches to create additional edges

TWO: PLAY FIVE SETS OF CONSEQUENCES

Just as we extrapolate outwards to a point of failure, we also have a tendency to look at the world through a binary lens. Success is regarded as an either/or proposition, when the reality involves a spectrum of possible consequences.

When folks are really stuck, I suggest breaking out a notebook and exploring the possible futures your subconscious is throwing up as roadblocks. Start with the dire – if everything goes wrong at the end of this draft, what is the absolute worst case scenario? What is your next action when that occurs?

Even if your worst case scenario is I write something so horribly bad that my professional career is over before it ever begins – which is incredibly unlikely – there is life after the project and there are options. You can take courses to develop your practice, for example, or you can find other ways to fulfil your creative drive.

Do the same for a bad result, an okay result, a good result, and a great. Open yourself up to the multiplicity of consequences that come with finishing your work, rather than narrowing down to the best and worst, and it gets easier to overcome the fear that lingers at the heart of every writing session.

THREE: FIVE MINUTE DANCE PARTY

Stop trying to write. Instead, pick your favourite song and schedule a five minute dance party where you shake your ass like no-one’s business (my personal preference for this is Mark Ronson’s Feel Right).

Your goal here is to make a complete idiot of yourself, in the privacy of your own home, where no-one is judging you.

After that, sit down and write. In the privacy of your own home, where no-one is judging you. Because, just like your dancing, you are under no obligation to show your work to the outside world until you’re ready.

And, just like the dancing, it will make you feel good for reasons other than showing off to the general public.

Some days, you just have to make writing less important than it was in your mindset. Give it some context and focus on the things you actually enjoy bout the process, rather than the dread of what’s coming at the end.

ONE MINUTE AND TWELVE SECONDS REMAINING

And with that, my alarm is about to go off and my hour of blogging time is done. I’m up against the hard edge of my work, peeps, so I’ll see you in two days for the Sunday Circle. If you’ve got your own techniques for tricking yourself into working, I’d invite you to share them in the comments – I’m always eager to add new approaches into my arsenal.

  1 comment for “Three Ways to Break Through the Not-Writing Habit

  1. 01/04/2016 at 11:45 AM

    I’m in exactly the same boat today, but with art. All the time in the world and I’m just sitting down to it now.

    I set a 20minute timer (or start a podcast if it’s art) and then I have to type (or draw) for that time, without quality control. It usually kick-starts me and lets me get the warm-up dreck out of the system. 20 minutes on, 10 off to do other things works pretty well for getting some momentum going.

    Should you require distraction today, I still haven’t seen Timeline or gone to the Mexican Indian place, and am saving one or the other as a reward for getting the art done (Low Road was for getting the novel draft done).

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