One thing I’ve noticed when writing, there are numerous sources about how to cope with and move past writer’s block. Not surprising. Anyone who’s sat down to write a story has reached a point where they simply do not know how to proceed. This doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t know what happens next (although that is common). It could be also be they are unsure of how to proceed, or simply lack the necessary motivation to continue.
While I could give advice on how to overcome writer’s block, my experience has been that what works for one person very rarely works for another. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. Everyone’s creative process is different. Same for our strengths and weaknesses. Thus, I suspect, the exact problems every writer must contend with when facing writer’s block are also likely to be completely different.
So instead of giving some advice that might be partly useful to one or two people in the world, I figured I would instead tackle the larger issue of how to avoid writer’s block entirely. In all honesty, I believe this can be applied to any endeavor where people feel like they are getting stuck, however my application has to do exclusively with writing. Also, as with overcoming writer’s block, I do not expect that works for me will also work for you. Instead, it is my hope that reading this will make you think about how you go about doing your own work, and identify the habits you have that ultimately sabotage you from making progress.
I’m also going to give a shout out to the book The War of Art, which helped me immeasurably. I probably bring this up every time I talk about writer’s block or productivity. There is a reason for that.
Tip #1: Schedule Time To Write Every Day
I put this first, because I think it is the biggest thing you can do to ensure you avoid writer’s block. It certainly helps me more than anything else I’ve tried.
Personally, I don’t think that how much time you schedule matters, so long as it is the same amount every day. I’m personally doing at least 2 hours on my book every day, with more time allocated after for things like my newsletter and blog. That is a lot, and depending on your situation you may not be able to dedicate that much all the time. That is fine. Can you manage 1 hour? 30 minutes? 15? 10?
Any amount of time is sufficient so long as you do it every day and are willing to honestly push your self to write during that entire span of time. Also, you want to make sure you don’t dedicate too much time early one. I suggest just sitting down for a week with the goal of writing for as long as you are comfortable, then looking at how long that is. Then promise yourself you will write at least that much ever day. As you get used to this, you may decide to give yourself even longer. That is entirely up to you.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but it works wonders. You would think that writing every day would make you more likely to run out of ideas (as you are writing them all down so quickly). While it is true that you will be getting your ideas out faster, I have found that it also makes it much easier to develop new ideas. Your brain gets used to thinking about your writing regularly when you write every day, and this makes it easier to come up with new ideas.
One word of caution: do not be afraid to start with smaller projects. Especially when you are just starting, it is fine to stick to short stories or jump to a completely new project when you lose interest in what you are doing. Your initial goal should simply to get in the habit of writing every day. Learning to focus on a single project can come later.
Tip #2: Have a Process
By this I mean you will want to have a dedicated space where you write, and that you should approach your writing in the same manner every day. What this ultimately means is going to be very specific based on the individual and their circumstances, but having a set environment where you do your work is very helpful. My first book (and much of the second) was written on a couch with my laptop on a coffee table. Since then, I’ve moved to writing at a desk in my room. For me, the location isn’t as important as the feeling that I have control over it.
Location is important, but building up a consistent set of behaviors you run through immediately prior to writing is also helpful. Again, this will be personal to the specific individual and I don’t think the exact things done matter so long as they are consistent.
Mine goes like this: I wake up, shower, brush my teeth, and eat breakfast. I then go outside to read for 30 minutes. During this time, I may also read the news or surf the Internet. After that, I hop online for a brief time to chat with some friends before I get to work. Immediately prior to work, I do a short workout that lasts 10 minutes. I then select a specific playlist of ambient music on my phone, close all chat programs, open up a thesaurus site (and ONLY a thesaurus site), launch Scrivener, and begin writing.
None of these hold any special meaning to me, and I can skip certain parts if necessary (such as reading). The important thing is to remain as faithful to the process as possible so that by the time I start the playlist my mind has already shifted into work mode because I have already done all the things that tell myself it is now time to work.
Tip #3: Track Your Productivity
I am a big believer in the ability of metrics being a useful tool to help improve the way we work. Not all metrics, obviously, but picking the right ones can do a lot of good. Personally, I would go for one or two easy to track ones. For example, a log of how many words you got written during a day and how long you wrote. This can be accompanied by simple notes on when you wrote or anything else you think may be relevant. This is the sort of thing you can easily make into a spreadsheet.
The key thing to remember is that you want to keep this up-to-date without fretting about it constantly. Do not look to this as something that measures how good you are or how good of a worker you are. Ultimately, that stuff is unimportant. This isn’t something that some nebulous boss will look at to judge your worth. If there times you end up only being able to write 10 words, you shouldn’t feel ashamed to enter that into the log. Remember: this is a tool, and it will only be as useful as the accuracy of the data you enter into it allows it to be.
Your goal in tracking your productivity is two fold. First, over time you will get a clear picture of any working habits you have and how quickly you are able to make progress on projects. This becomes invaluable when it comes to planning new projects. Family always visits around the holidays and your productivity takes a dive, so you know to expect this and not get down on yourself for having a bad week. By the same token, you may begin to notice a trend where you are able to get more done during certain times of the day. Maybe it is worth considering moving all your writing sessions to those times. But you are unlikely to notice these patterns without tracking the data.
The second reason to track productivity, is because it allows you to recognize your progress and notice if there is a problem. I guarantee that if you write every day you will see the number of words you write every day go up. Seeing this happen is a wonderful feeling. It also lets you see if your numbers go down, and there will be days where that happens. A lot of times, low numbers don’t necessarily mean much(You were sick. There was an emergency. You were traveling.), but sometimes they will uncover problems that you wouldn’t otherwise notice. If there is a death in your family and suddenly your productivity plummets, you might be depressed. It is something you should look into for your own wellbeing.
Tip #4: Goals, not Quotas
This is where I usually see someone put down “Have Goals” and then launch into the usual spiel. That advice is good, but I’ve found that it has a tendency to lead me astray so I’m choosing to frame it in this way to avoid the pitfalls I personally experienced. I doubt I’m the only one who has read the advice about having a goal, failed to meet one, and then felt terrible because that signaled to me that I am a failure. It certainly doesn’t help that when a school or job assigns certain “goals” to you that there is an unspoken understanding that meeting these goals is something of a requirement, and failing to do so will have negative repercussions.
Goals, not quotas! It is important to keep the distinction in mind. Goals are things you hope to achieve. Quotas are things you must do. Meeting and exceeding both feels good. You set out to do something, and then you did it. The difference is that a quota is a minimum. It is what you MUST do in order to meet with acceptability. Failing to reach a goal sucks, but it just means you fell short this one time. You can try again tomorrow.
Which brings us to the importance of having goals of all sorts. Having a big goal like “finishing the novel by November” is great, but it is also really difficult to get hold of. How many chapters will you need to write every month? How many pages a week? How many words in a day? All of these are important goals to have, but when you break it down that far the chunks become more manageable. By focusing on and achieving the smaller goals, you will naturally reach the larger ones as well.
And by making sure you don’t view your goals as a minimum that must be reached, you will shift your entire outlook to be not only healthier but also one that is more productive. A quota is a minimum that must be reached, and consequently you stop upon reaching it. The negative consequence is now gone, so there is no reason to continue.
A goal doesn’t have this flaw. Maybe you set a goal of writing one page a day. Excellent! That is a great goal! And most days that is all you can write. That is fine. Occasionally you fall short, which feels bad but since a goal isn’t a quota you know that it is okay and you can begin again tomorrow. Then there are some days where things are just firing off really easy. You complete two, three, four, five pages; and you have a great time while doing it. You feel great, where if you had the mindset of quotas your thoughts would turn toward making up for either past or future shortfalls, and thus linger on your failures instead.
Tip #5: Minimize Distractions
This is my final piece of advice, and probably going to be the most personalized one of everything. Many sites will suggest disconnecting from the Internet entirely, and while I do believe this will help most people it is not something I personally need. For me, simply putting my phone into “Do Not Disturb” mode and closing all messaging programs is enough, although this is in part because I have never felt the allure of social media. I also do not feel tempted to surf the net, so keeping a browser open in case I need to perform a quick search for research isn’t a big deal.
But that said, most of the noises that people make (walking, talking, moving things around) are guaranteed to distract me, so I intentionally structure my day so that I can write when nobody else is around. Other things that bother me include anything with an LED display, especially if it blinks or keeps time. Clocks especially cause problems. I frequently find myself glancing at them, taking note of how much time has past and worrying about that instead of the work I should be doing.
In fact, my playlist is specifically intended to help in this department. I have collected a number of ambient music tracks that are great for me. Music is great because it can cover up other noises which might distract me, but I find that anything with vocals or a beat that is too bouncy is just as much of a distraction. My mind focuses on the music instead of the writing. The ambient tracks I have collected are idea because they still cover over other sounds without being as intrusive to my thoughts. As an added bonus, it is much more difficult to figure out how far along I am in one of the ambient tracks, which makes judging time by the music impossible. It simply exists as a backdrop that I can ignore, allowing me to devote all my attention to writing.
So whenever you sit down to write, try to take note of what things frequently distract you. Many of these might be one-off problems, but if you keep noticing the same things then it is definitely worth the effort to figure out a way to eliminate the distraction (or at least mitigate it).