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Got Writer’s Block? Here Are 3 Things That’ll Work When You Just Can’t %*&# Start.

Got Writer’s Block? Here Are 3 Things That’ll Work When You Just Can’t %*&# Start.

As someone who writes several thousand words a week for a living, I can’t afford writer’s block. In my case, that horrible affliction is a lot more than a frustration (although it’s certainly that too) — it can place my whole career at risk. So when I find myself unable to start a writing project, or getting stuck mid-assignment, I have some strong reactions. Some are unproductive, others are really stupid, and a few actually work.

What not to do if you hit writer’s block.

First, the unproductive and the really stupid. I’ve punched my laptop. More than once. If I had any upper-body strength at all, I’d need a new laptop.

When I just can’t %$&* start a new writing task, I also whine. I occasionally throw things. Sometimes I scream profanity. Okay, more than sometimes.

As you might guess, none of those are effective strategies for overcoming writer’s block. But these are. I promise.

Three things to try if you hit writer’s block. And you’ll need only one. They all work. Every time.

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1. Write something else.

For this one, I give credit to economist Thomas Sowell, a longtime syndicated columnist and author of a zillion books, including the must-read classic Basic Economics.

When asked how he’s been such a prolific writer for so long (Sowell is in his 80s and continues cranking out books, sometimes two in a year), Sowell says he always has multiple projects going at once. If he gets stuck on any one of them, he just switches to another. Eventually he finds his way back to the project he couldn’t move forward, and with fresh eyes (or some burst of inspiration), he’s able to pick up the writing again.

Here’s why this works. Say you’re drafting a presentation, and you get stuck. You’re not likely to find the answers or the ideas you need to push forward just by staring at what you’ve already got on the screen. (Hitting the screen won’t help either, I can tell you from experience.)

But stepping away from the task altogether is a gamble. Yes, inspiration might strike while you’re out on a walk or communing with nature or whatever else people tell you to do in situations like this to “clear your head.” But it also might not, because you’ve now completely shifted away from your creative process, part of which obviously features you in front of your computer, writing.

So your best bet is to continue writing, only on a different project. If you get stuck on that presentation, don’t leave the office. Just reply to a few business emails that need answering. You’ll be calling on those same creative muscles, keeping them loose and active, as your presentation fades — temporarily — into your subconscious.

In this state, writing, you’re far more likely to be visited by your muse, which will guide you back with an idea or two about your presentation. When that happens, and it will, pop open the presentation file again. It’s nature’s way of telling you you’re ready to make more progress on it.

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Bottom line: Stuck writing this? Start writing that.

2. Just start talking.

This is a powerful strategy I stumbled onto myself, and I think it can be even more effective for non-writers than it has been for me.

Assuming you’re not a professional writer, part of the reason you might experience writer’s block is that putting your thoughts to paper or screen can be scary. Because we invest the written word with such tremendous weight, when we write anything — a memo, a report, a speech for a friend’s wedding — we approach the task as though every sentence, every insight needs to be perfect. So we stare at our monitors, afraid to type a single word.

Casually talking, on the other hand? Nobody’s afraid to do that.

When we’re speaking, especially in a comfortable setting with friends or colleagues we feel close to, the ideas and insights just flow naturally. Precisely because talking isn’t the permanent and highly judged form of communication that writing is, we’re far less likely to freeze when we’re chatting than we are when we’re writing. And you can exploit this fact.

If you’re not sure how to start on a new writing task — say, an important email you need to send a client — talk it out. Literally. Start speaking. And if you can find a trusted friend or colleague to listen as you work through your message verbally, so much the better.

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Start talking as casually as you can. That’s the best way to start the ideas flowing, because it heightens the contrast between your verbal first draft and the final email you’ll eventually send. In other words, the more casually you can talk through the email at first, the less intimidating — the less like writing — it’ll seem. That’s the whole point.

And if you invite your colleague to your office to hear you talk through your email draft — and you still can’t get started, even verbally — have your colleague ask you prompting questions about the email. Better yet, have your colleague challenge you about it. “Do you really need to send this email?” “Why is it so important?” That’s when the creative centers of your brain will take over and the insights will start pouring out.

Bottom line: Can’t start writing? Start talking.

3. Write a letter

Credit here to author Joe Vitale, whose brilliant strategy for blasting through writer’s block is to pretend the document you’re having trouble starting is actually a letter you’re writing to a close friend.

You’ve probably noticed that you’re funnier, more articulate and more insightful when you’re around good friends. When you’re with people who make you feel comfortable, you’re able to relax — and tap your creative side.

The same goes for email, even work-related messages. If you’re comfortable with the person you’re writing to, you seem to come up with great points and insights almost without effort; they just flow through your fingers. Admit it: You’ve written an email to a colleague that was so damn good, you went into your Sent messages and reread it. Right? (Or did I just make a really embarrassing confession?)

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That’s Vitale’s brilliant insight: Crafting an email or letter to a friend is when you’re likely to do your best writing.

So if you can’t start that report or your bio for the company website, pretend it’s a letter to a close friend. Think of a real person, address the top of the document — “Hey Michelle” — and start writing to Michelle. Then watch the insights flow.

Bottom line: Can’t write the document? Write to your friend instead.

Featured photo credit: I can’t believe what I’m looking at/Ed Yourdon via flickr.com

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Last Updated on March 21, 2019

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits

Most gurus talk about habits in a way that doesn’t help you:

You need to push yourself more. You can’t be lazy. You need to wake up at 5 am. You need more motivation. You can never fail…blah blah “insert more gibberish here.”

But let me share with you the unconventional truths I found out:

To build and change habits, you don’t need motivation or wake up at 5 am. Heck, you can fail multiple times, be lazy, have no motivation and still pull it off with ease.

It’s quite simple and easy to do, especially with the following list I’m going to show to you. But remember, Jim Rohn used to say,

“What is simple and easy to do is also simple and easy not to do.”

The important things to remember when changing your habits are both simple and easy, just don’t think that they don’t make any difference because they do.

In fact, they are the only things that make a difference.

Let’s see what those small things are, shall we?

1. Start Small

The biggest mistake I see people doing with habits is by going big. You don’t go big…ever. You start small with your habits.

Want to grow a book reading habit? Don’t start reading a book a day. Start with 10 pages a day.

Want to become a writer? Don’t start writing 10,000 words a day. Start with 300 words.

Want to lose weight? Don’t stop eating ice cream. Eat one less ball of it.

Whatever it is, you need to start small. Starting big always leads to failure. It has to, because it’s not sustainable.

Start small. How small? The amount needs to be in your comfort zone. So if you think that reading 20 pages of a book is a bit too much, start with 10 or 5.

It needs to appear easy and be easy to do.

Do less today to do more in a year.

2. Stay Small

There is a notion of Kaizen which means continuous improvement. They use this notion in habits where they tell you to start with reading 1 page of a book a day and then gradually increase the amount you do over time.

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But the problem with this approach is the end line — where the “improvement” stops.

If I go from reading 1 page of a book a day and gradually reach 75 and 100, when do I stop? When I reach 1 book a day? That is just absurd.

When you start a habit, stay at it in the intensity you have decided. Don’t push yourself for more.

I started reading 20 pages of a book a day. It’s been more than 2 years now and I’ve read 101 books in that period. There is no way I will increase the number in the future.

Why?

Because reading 40 to 50 books a year is enough.

The same thing applies to every other habit out there.

Pick a (small) number and stay at it.

3. Bad Days Are 100 Percent Occurrence

No matter how great you are, you will have bad days where you won’t do your habit. Period.

There is no way of going around this. So it’s better to prepare yourself for when that happens instead of thinking that it won’t ever happen.

What I do when I miss a day of my habit(s) is that I try to bounce back the next day while trying to do habits for both of those days.

Example for that is if I read 20 pages of a book a day and I miss a day, the next day I will have to read 40 pages of a book. If I miss writing 500 words, the next day I need to write 1000.

This is a really important point we will discuss later on rewards and punishments.

This is how I prepare for the bad days when I skip my habit(s) and it’s a model you should take as well.

4. Those Who Track It, Hack It

When you track an activity, you can objectively tell what you did in the past days, weeks, months, and years. If you don’t track, you will for sure forget everything you did.

There are many different ways you can track your activities today, from Habitica to a simple Excel sheet that I use, to even a Whatsapp Tracker.

Peter Drucker said,

“What you track is what you do.”

So track it to do it — it really helps.

But tracking is accompanied by one more easy activity — measuring.

5. Measure Once, Do Twice

Peter Drucker also said,

“What you measure is what you improve.”

So alongside my tracker, I have numbers with which I measure doses of daily activities:

For reading, it’s 20 pages.
For writing, it’s 500 words.
For the gym, it’s 1 (I went) or 0 (didn’t go).
For budgeting, it’s writing down the incomes and expenses.

Tracking and measuring go hand in hand, they take less than 20 seconds a day but they create so much momentum that it’s unbelievable.

6. All Days Make a Difference

Will one day in the gym make you fit? It won’t.

Will two? They won’t.

Will three? They won’t.

Which means that a single gym session won’t make you fit. But after 100 gym sessions, you will look and feel fit.

What happened? Which one made you fit?

The answer to this (Sorites paradox)[1] is that no single gym session made you fit, they all did.

No single day makes a difference, but when combined, they all do. So trust the process and keep on going (small).

7. They Are Never Fully Automated

Gurus tell you that habits become automatic. And yes, some of them do, like showering a certain way of brushing your teeth.

But some habits don’t become automatic, they become a lifestyle.

What I mean by that is that you won’t automatically “wake up” in the gym and wonder how you got there.

It will just become a part of your lifestyle.

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The difference is that you do the first one automatically, without conscious thought, while the other is a part of how you live your life.

It’s not automatic, but it’s a decision you don’t ponder on or think about — you simply do it.

It will become easy at a certain point, but they will never become fully automated.

8. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Marshall Goldsmith has a great book with the same title to it. The phrase means that sometimes, you will need to ditch certain habits to make room for other ones which will bring you to the next step.

Don’t be afraid to evolve your habits when you sense that they don’t bring you where you want to go.

When I started reading, it was about reading business and tactic books. But two years into it, I switched to philosophy books which don’t teach me anything “applicable,” but instead teach me how to think.

The most important ability of the 21st century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn. The strongest tree is the willow tree – not because it has the strongest root or biggest trunk, but because it is flexible enough to endure and sustain anything.

Be like a willow, adapting to the new ways of doing things.

9. Set a Goal and Then Forget It

The most successful of us know what they want to achieve, but they don’t focus on it.

Sounds paradoxical? You’re right, it does. But here is the logic behind it.

You need to have a goal of doing something – “I want to become a healthy individual” – and then, you need to reverse engineer how to get there with your habits- “I will go to the gym four times a week.”

But once you have your goal, you need to “forget” about it and only focus on the process. Because you are working on the process of becoming healthy and it’s always in the making. You will only be as healthy as you take care of your body.

So you have a goal which isn’t static but keeps on moving.

If you went to the gym 150 times year and you hit your goal, what would you do then? You would stop going to the gym.

This is why goal-oriented people experience yo-yo effect[2] and why process-oriented people don’t.

The difference between process-oriented and goal-oriented people is that the first focus on daily actions while others only focus on the reward at the finish line.

Set a goal but then forget about it and reap massive awards.

10. Punish Yourself

Last two sections are pure Pavlovian – you need to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior. You are the only person who decides what is good and what is bad for you, but when you do, you need to rigorously follow that.

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I’ve told you in point #3 about bad days and how after one occurs, I do double the work on the next day. That is one of my forms of punishments.

It’s the need to tell your brain that certain behaviors are unacceptable and that they lead to bad outcomes. That’s what punishments are for.

You want to tell your brain that there are real consequences to missing your daily habits.[3]

No favorite food to eat or favorite show to watch or going to the cinema for a new Marvel movie- none, zero, zilch.

The brain will remember these bad feelings and will try to avoid the behaviors that led to them as much as possible.

But don’t forget the other side of the same coin.

11. Reward Yourself

When you follow and execute on your plan, reward yourself. It’s how the brain knows that you did something good.

Whenever I finish one of my habits for the day, I open my tracker (who am I kidding, I always keep it open on my desktop) and fill it with a number. As soon as I finish reading 20 pages of a book a day (or a bit more), I open the tracker and write the number down.

The cell becomes green and gives me an instant boost of endorphin – a great success for the day. Then, it becomes all about not breaking the chain and having as many green fields as possible.

After 100 days, I crunch some numbers and see how I did.

If I have less than 10 cheat days, I reward myself with a great meal in a restaurant. You can create your own rewards and they can be daily, weekly, monthly or any arbitrary time table that you create.

Primoz Bozic, a productivity coach, has gold, silver, and bronze medals as his reward system.[4]

If you’re having problems creating a system which works for you, contact me via email and we can discuss specifics.

In the End, It Matters

What you do matters not only to you but to the people around you.

When you increase the quality of your life, you indirectly increase the quality of life of people around you. And sometimes, that is all the “motivation” we need to start.

And that’s the best quote for the end of this article:

“Motivation gets you started, but habits keep you going.”

Keep going.

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More Resources to Help You Build Habits

Featured photo credit: Anete Lūsiņa via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Sorites paradox
[2] Muscle Zone: What causes yo-yo effect and how to avoid it?
[3] Growth Habits: 5 Missteps That Cause You To Quit Building A Habit
[4] Primoz Bozic: The Lean Review: How to Plan Your 2019 in 20 Minutes

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