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4 Effective Strategies for Tackling Writer’s Block

4 Effective Strategies for Tackling Writer’s Block

Whether you write for a living or just enjoy getting creative in your spare time, writer’s block is without a doubt one of the most frustrating problems to run into.

Researchers are still divided on whether the problem is neurological or can be chalked up to anxiety caused by pressure to produce, and some psychologists are even convinced that writer’s block is simply an excuse we make for poor discipline.

Regardless of what causes it, though, experiencing a creative block is only natural from time to time, and while there are many different ways to tackle it, what works for one person may do nothing for another. So if you’re in need of some inspiration, here are a few strategies you can try.

1. Allow yourself to daydream

Your subconscious mind is good at coming up with creative ideas and solutions, which is why sometimes, it’s best to stop thinking about what you’re going to write and let your mind wander.

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In one study, researchers found that when writers are unhappy, either due to stress and anxiety, anger and irritation or apathy and disengagement, they are more likely to experience writer’s block and less likely to daydream in a constructive way.

To tackle this problem, they asked a group of writers experiencing writer’s block to sit in a quiet, low-lit room and visualize specific things such as a piece of music or nature setting. Then they would try to describe it. After becoming accustomed to the exercise, the writers were asked to do the same thing some aspect of their current writing project.

Sure enough, those who participated in the intervention found that they were more motivated and self-confident in their writing and were able to get more done.

2. Experiment with different brainstorming techniques

There are countless brainstorming techniques, and these days, even apps you can use to generate ideas, but it’s important to find a technique you feel comfortable with. For writers, some effective brainstorming techniques may include:

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  • Mind mapping

Mind mapping can help you develop vague ideas into something more concrete. Start by drawing a circle with your main topic or idea at the centre, then, use lines to connect as many related thoughts and ideas to the main circle as you can think of.

  • Free writing

Get out an empty note book or open a blank word document and start writing whatever comes to mind. Don’t worry about whether you’re making sense or even staying on topic, the goal is simply to free up your mind and push past whatever anxiety is preventing you from writing.

  • Star bursting

Star bursting involves coming up with as many questions about your topic as possible. You can start by answering the journalistic 5Ws and 1H: Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? Once you’re done, go down the list and answer each question as best as you can.

3. Try social writing

Writing is usually a solitary activity and most writers wouldn’t have it any other way, but if you find yourself stuck, it can help to write in a more social setting.

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You could either find a writing partner or create a little writer’s group, but the goal is to find someone who can critique your work, listen to your ideas or just provide some moral support. Social writing isn’t for everyone, of course, but sometimes simply getting another writer’s perspective could be just what you need to move forward.

4. Do something completely unrelated

This might be difficult if you have a hard deadline coming up, but since writer’s block often stems from the pressure you’ve put on yourself to produce, it can help to step away from your writing for a while and do something completely unrelated to give your mind a break.

Psychologist Susan Reynolds explains that when you’re feeling pressured to write, your anxiety level rises and your brain releases stress hormones, which triggers your fight or flight response.

Once this occurs, the limbic system stops transmitting messages to the cortex, which is responsible for conscious thought and creativity. So the more you pressure yourself to write, the more anxious you’ll feel and the worse your writer’s block will become.

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So whether you go for a run, listen to music, paint, make a scrapbook or clean the house, doing something unrelated for a while will help calm the anxiety you’re feeling and help you get over the mental blockage.

Figure out what works for you

This is one point that just can’t be emphasized enough. We’re all different and that means there is no right or wrong way to get creative in your writing. Once you’ve experimented with a few different techniques, you’ll have a better idea of which one helps you generate the most new ideas or leaves you feeling less anxious and ready to get back to your writing.

Do you have any weird or wacky techniques of your own for tackling writer’s block? Let us know about them in the comment section.

Featured photo credit: Picjumbo.com via picjumbo.com

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Marianne Stenger

Writer, Open Colleges

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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