A few days ago a friend emailed me about a program called Force Draft, a program that “won’t quit until you’re done.” It works by blocking everything on your computer until a pre-set time or word count.
I haven’t tried it yet, but I have tried and discussed others on my quest to overcome procrastination and writer’s block. Programs like 750 words (gamified morning sheets), JDDarkroom and WriteRoom (minimalistic, distraction-free word processors), and Pomodoro (structured sets of writing and breaks). I’ve even tried to come up with my own gamified version of writing (Travel Writing Hero) and BRIEFLY attempted WriteorDie, which can, on one setting, actually start erasing your writing if you aren’t fast enough (The recent edition’s “kamikaze mode” is a bit more sane – “your words will be systematically disemvoweled“).
But it was the other part of my friend’s email I found interesting:
Hey Biju, saw this on my RSS feeds and it reminded me of you (although you don’t seem to have as many problems with Writer’s Block anymore):
Not many problems with writer’s block…..Was he talking about…me? Am I finally unblocked? If so, what happened?
Thinking about it, I realize that he’s largely right. After this year’s NaNoWriMo, where I ended up spitting out 13,000 words/day on a few days, the thought of sitting down to write doesn’t really block me up anymore. What happened?
It wasn’t just enforced swaths of words in short times that did it. Morning sheets really seemed to unhinge the connection between writing and fear in my brain. It’s hard to be fearful of something you do every day.
TinyHabits, behavioral psychologist BJ Fogg’s answer to all things habit-related, helped immensely. The idea is that if you start a habit too large, it becomes unsustainable – you go through a pain period where you end up dropping the habit. Do a ludicrously small habit, Fogg says, and you’ll get past the pain period easily. Continue onwards and it will reach a hook point and become automated. And along the way, allow the habit to grow as it will.
This really worked for me. I had several failures with morning sheets – 750 words was too many words, and it died a fiery death. Later I tried again with 200 words, which was also unmanageable. But when I began again with 50, it stuck. 50 words a day allowed me to write 13,000 a day, and it continues to be a great strategy for me – if I lack energy, I just do 50 to sustain the habit streak.
In my side project, BijuHero, I’ve tracked the formation of the habit of daily writing using Dr. Bas Verplanken’s Self Report Habit Index (SRHI), a scale that measures the strength of a habit. What I found was that the very act of tracking myself helped to stabilize daily practice.
Another notion that really helped is the rather obvious idea of getting over perfectionism. A lot of my fear hinges on writing perfectly the first time. Intellectually I knew that I could edit whatever I blathered on the page and do a rewrite. But I didn’t know it until THIS post. Once I saw how I could edit unpolished raw text into a strong article, it gave me immense freedom to write whatever I wanted, especially since I really enjoy editing.
This journey is one that involves the uprooting of fear, so it’s not surprising that I find a lot of spiritual parallels. In Eastern philosophy a jnana is often described as knowledge, not just of the mind, but of experience. Like discussions of wisdom in the West, it involves the practicality of knowing – it’s visceral, gut knowing, the knowledge of the doing of a thing. In the East it can be a sudden awakening that’s the culmination of many experiences – a snapping of the mind, when the cartoon lightbulb above your head turns on. And that’s kind’ve what I’ve felt recently.
A world away from philosophy, an oft-cited dichotomy in management and business (also in education and athletics) is that of process vs goal-oriented thinking. In the past I’ve been very goal-oriented – I went after the commission and only started working on writing as a reaction. When I needed to get the product out, I wrote.
I’m beginning to see this as backwards thinking. Process-orientation in this case means putting more focus on my product: Smoothing out my writing process, learning how to improve my writing, and dealing with how I can face my fears. I have had fewer publications in the last few months, but I’m convinced that the payout will be well worth it.
There is still a long way to go. It’s a lot easier to write a blog post than an article I’m obligated to write for work or one that I’m nervous about doing. Things that take a lot of research tend to get me going down never-ending Google searches and jolt me out of the flow of words. Some articles have emotional aspects – they are either personal, or more meaningful, expose me in some way, or carry some obligation. Frequency, however, seems to deaden negative emotions.
Back in 2005 I worked at a call center. We went through about a week of training learning the system and basic protocols….and then we were thrown to the wolves. I was really scared – at times customers yelled at me asking for answers to issues I had no idea how to find out much less correct. But after a few weeks of fumbling around, after fielding hundreds of calls one after another, we all quickly achieved high proficiency. Constant practice breeds fearlessness.
Unfortunately writing for most people isn’t a high-powered newsroom-style affair where hundreds of articles are pumped out every week. Most people, including myself, agonize and inject all sorts of emotional, artistic angst into the process because we have the luxury of time. And that all-too-often translates to a situation where the craft isn’t practiced.
Daily writing has been a great way to (in part) simulate that constant stream of work. But I’ll need more. I need to expand my daily writing word count. I need to do drills like an athlete so I know the specifics when the time comes – how do I write characters, how do I write plot, how do I write dialogue? Ideally I should have a day where I do those exercises. And I should practice writing under pressure – one artist friend used to do this with drawing. He’d give himself timed practice sessions. I need to expand and stretch my ability, and in doing so totally uproot any hesitancy.
But today I’m the guy without too much of a problem with writer’s block. And that will do nicely for now.
typewriter by shira gal, typewriter keys by Steven Depolo, clockwork by William Warby, Buddha by Alice Popkoren, pen nib by Anonymous Account, cliff jumper by Powderruns