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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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Forget Learning How to Multitask: Boost Productivity 10X More with Focus

Forget Learning How to Multitask: Boost Productivity 10X More with Focus

There’s a dark side to the conveniences of the Digital Age. With smartphones that function like handheld computers, it has become increasingly difficult to leave our work behind. Sometimes it seems like we’re expected to be accessible 24/7.

How often are you ever focused on just one thing? Most of us try to meet these demands by multi-tasking.

Many of us have bought into the myth that we can achieve more through multi-tasking. In this article, I’ll show you how you can accomplish more work in less time. Spoiler alert: multi-tasking is not the answer.

Why is multitasking a myth?

The term “multi-tasking” was originally used to describe how microprocessors in computers work. Machines multitask, but people cannot.

Despite our inability to simultaneously perform two tasks at once, many people believe they are excellent multi-taskers.

You can probably imagine plenty of times when you do several things at once. Maybe you talk on the phone while you’re cooking or respond to emails during your commute.

Consider the amount of attention that each of these tasks requires. Chances are, at least one of the two tasks in question is simple enough to be carried out on autopilot.

We’re okay at simultaneously performing simple tasks, but what if you were trying to perform two complex tasks? Can you really work on your presentation and watch a movie at the same time? It can be fun to try to watch TV while you work, but you may be unintentionally making your work more difficult and time-consuming.

Your brain on multi-tasking

Your brain wasn’t designed to multi-tasking. To compensate, it will switch from task to task. Your focus turns to whatever task seems more urgent. The other task falls into the background until you realize you’ve been neglecting it.

When you’re bouncing back and forth like this, an area of the brain known as Broadmann’s Area 10 activates. Located in your fronto-polar prefrontal cortex at the very front of the brain, this area controls your ability to shift focus. People who think they are excellent multitaskers are really just putting Broadmann’s Area 10 to work.

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But I can juggle multiple tasks!

You are capable of taking in information with your eyes while doing other things efficiently. Scientifically speaking, making use of your vision is the only thing you can truly do while doing something else.

For everything else, you’re serial tasking. This constant refocusing can be exhausting, and it prevents us from giving our work the deep attention it deserves.

Think about how much longer it takes to do something when you have to keep reminding yourself to focus.

Why multitasking is failing you

Multitasking does more bad than good to your productivity, here’re 4 reasons why you should stop multitasking:

Multitasking wastes your time.

You lose time when you interrupt yourself. People lose an average of 2.1 hours per day getting themselves back on track when they switch between tasks.

In fact, some studies suggest that doing multiple things at once decreases your productivity by as much as 40%. That’s a significant loss in efficiency. You wouldn’t want your surgeon to be 40% less productive while you’re on the operating table, would you?

It makes you dumber.

A distracted brain performs a full 10 IQ points lower than a focused brain. You’ll also be more forgetful, slower at completing tasks, and more likely to make mistakes.

You’ll have to work harder to fix your mistakes. If you miss an important detail, you could risk injury or fail to complete the task properly.

This is an emotional response.

There’s so much data suggesting that multitasking is ineffective but people insist that they can multitask.

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Feeling productive fulfills an emotional need. We want to feel like we’re accomplishing something. Why accomplish just one item on the to-do list when you can check off two or three?

It’ll wear you out.

When you’re jumping from task to task, it can feel invigorating for a little while. Over time, this needs to fill every second with more and more work leads to burn out.

We’re simply not built to multitask, so when we try, the effect can be exhausting. This destroys your productivity and your motivation.

How to stop multitasking and work productively

Flitting back and forth between tasks feels second-nature after a while. This is in part because Broadmann’s Area 10 becomes better at serial tasking through time.

In addition to changing how the brain works, this serial tasking behavior can quickly turn into a habit.

Just like any bad habit, you’ll need to recognize that you need to make a change first. Luckily, there are a few simple things you can do to adjust to a lifestyle of productive mono-tasking:

1. Consciously change gears

Instead of trying to work on two distinct tasks at once, consider setting up a system to remind you when to change focus. This technique worked for Jerry Linenger, an American astronaut onboard the space station, Mir.

As an astronaut, he had many things to take care of every day. He set alarms for himself on a few watches. When a particular watch sounded, he knew it was time to switch tasks. This enabled him to be 100% in tune with what he was doing at any given moment.

This strategy is effective because the alarm served as his reminder for what was to come next. Linenger’s intuition about setting reminders falls in line with research conducted by Paul Burgess of University College, London on multitasking.

2. Manage multiple tasks without multitasking

Raj Dash of Performancing.com has an effective strategy for balancing multiple projects without multitasking. He suggests taking 15 minutes to acquaint yourself with a new project before moving on to other work. Revisit the project later and do about thirty minutes on research and brainstorming.

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Allow a few days to pass before knocking out the project in question. While you were actively work on other projects, your brain continues to problem solve-in the background.

This method works because it gives us the opportunity to work on several projects without allowing them to compete for your attention.

3. Set aside distractions

Your smartphone, your inbox and the open tabs on your computer are all open invitations for distraction. Give yourself time each day when you silence your notifications, close your inbox and remove unnecessary tabs from your desktop.

If you want to focus, you can’t give anything else an opportunity to invade your mental space.

Emails can be particularly invasive because they often have an unnecessary sense of urgency associated with them. Some work cultures stress the importance of prompt responses to these messages, but we can’t treat every situation like an emergency.

Designate certain times in your day for checking and responding to emails to avoid compulsive checking.

4. Take care of yourself

We often blame electronics for pulling us from our work, but sometimes our physical body forces us into a state of serial tasking. If you’re hungry while you’re trying to work, your attention will flip between your hunger and your work until you take care of your physical needs.

Try to take all your bio-breaks before you sit down for an uninterrupted stint of work.

In addition, you’ll also want to be sure you’re attending to your health in a broader sense. Getting enough exercise, practicing mindfulness and incorporating regular breaks into your day will keep you from being tempted by distractions.

5. Take a break

People are more likely to head to YouTube or check their social media when they need a break. Instead of trying to work and watch a mindless video at the same time, give yourself times when you’re allowed to enjoy your distracting activity of choice.

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Limit how much time you’ll spend on this break so that your guilt-free distraction time doesn’t turn into hours of wasted time.

6. Make technology your ally

Scientists are beginning to discover the detrimental effects of chronic serial tasking on our brains. Some companies are developing programs to curb this desire to multitask.

Apps like Forest turn staying focused into a game. Extensions like RescueTime help you track your online habits so that you can be more aware of how you spend your time.

The key to productivity: Focus

Multitasking is not the key to productivity. It’s far better to schedule time to focus on each task than it is to try to do everything at once.

Make use of the methods outlined above and prepare to be more effective and less exhausted in the process.

If you want to learn more about how to focus, don’t miss my other article:

How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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