Writing can be a frustrating experience.
When I first started sharing online, I would force myself to continue writing on an article, even when I felt stuck or uninspired. It felt like hard work.
I'm starting to learn that it doesn't need to be.
It's okay and more productive to step away when it's not working. Let it simmer in the background and come back to it with a fresh mind.
Yet, for any skill, consistency is essential. As James Clear says:
The bad days are more important than the good days. If you write or exercise or meditate or cook when you don’t feel like it, then you maintain the habit. And if you maintain the habit, then all you need is time.
I decided to give myself an activity that I could quickly and easily switch to whenever I feel stuck, without frustration or judgement.
The Power of Writing ‘For Your Eyes Only’
I bought a deck of cards called Know Yourself — Cards for self-exploration, developed by the School of Life. This is a British organisation focused on teaching people how to lead a more fulfilled life, founded by my favourite modern-day philosopher Alain de Botton,
The 60 questions cover a wide range of subjects from love, family, work, perceived character flaws, sexual urges. They're thought-provoking questions you wouldn't think of asking yourself and quite different from the standard ones you typically find online.
A few examples:
- If you could consider yourself dispassionately, what might you warn a friend about if they were thinking of starting a relationship with you?
- Describe your expectations of how your life will develop around Love, Career and Health.
- What are you currently lying to certain people around you about?
Now, you can use the cards in various ways, for example, to get to know a partner or a friend better.
I decided to use them specifically as writing prompts.
Whenever I am not in the right mindset to work on any 'publishable' writing, I allow myself to step away and forget about it for a day or two.
I take a random card out of the deck, and I write for My Eyes Only.
This means I write without any intention of sharing it publicly.
It’s similar but different from long-form journaling in the sense that it’s not supposed to be a brain dump where you write about your daily thoughts and actions randomly. While that’s very valuable, it’s not what I’m trying to achieve here. With For My Eyes Only, there is a focus to it because of the predefined question. You could compare it to writing an essay that you tell yourself only you will read.
Here are a few benefits I have experienced so far.
No pressure, no expectations
In Josh Spector's 40 One-Sentence Writing Tips, I specifically liked this one (#18):
To impress people with your writing, stop trying to impress people with your writing.
My Eyes Only writing removes all expectations and pressure. There's no one to impress, so no need to overthink the structure, direction or logic.
I first experienced the power in that kind of writing when I joined the Akimbo The Creative's Workshop, a forum-based cohort. I did not finish the workshop because the overall approach did not resonate with me, but I took away the importance of writing every day, even when I don't feel like it, and using questions as prompts designed to guide my thinking.
In those moments, what I was writing didn't feel like anything I'd be able to use.
The thing is, reading back through those entries, I often surprised myself. I would spot patterns and find inspiration for new ideas to write about. I found sentences that flowed so nicely and naturally; I could copy-paste them entirely to use in an article.
It must be because, in those moments, I completely let go of all pressure, and my writing flowed. But, ironically, there is much more resistance when I try to write with the intention of sharing.
With the Know Yourself prompt cards, I can recreate that style of writing outside of the course.
Letting go of all 'rules'
The other day, I picked this question:
- What is the meaning of life? What is love? Who am I?
A year ago, this question would have annoyed (and intimidated) the hell out of me. Three huge questions, all in one. How am I supposed to answer this? I would get stuck trying to be clever and profound.
Using this question as a For My Eyes Only writing prompt allows me to let go of those feelings altogether.
It does not matter how I answer this. There's no one correct answer, nor one right way to respond. There are no rules to follow. I don't need to answer all three questions if I don't feel like it. I can answer one and completely ignore the other two.
I have complete control over this.
That is so liberating. My answers were messy and unstructured, jumping between the three questions, but in the end, I surprised myself with what I came up with. That experience ultimately gave me the idea to write this article.
Setting constraints for deeper focus
It's tempting to want to keep an entire Saturday afternoon free to 'focus on my writing'. The thing is, the more time I have, the less productive I am. When I'd get stuck, I'd keep going at it relentlessly, without much to show for it at the end of the day.
This is counterproductive, so setting constraints for myself has been helpful.
The deck of cards removes all decision making about what to write, making it much easier to start. In addition, the focus of the question makes it more valuable for future inspiration.
I set a timer for 30 minutes or 1 hour (depending on the time I have), and in that time, I write—no interruptions or distractions. Once the time is up, I stop writing. More often than not, I'm in the flow, feeling good and inspired, but I still make myself stop. This makes it easier to come back to writing the next day — to an article or another prompt — with a positive mindset.
As I said, I use the cards to help me with my writing, but an obvious bonus benefit to these cards has been deeper self-knowledge.
We're generally not very good at knowing what goes on in our own minds.
I believe that nothing will allow you to understand yourself better than translating your thoughts into words.
Spend proper time reflecting on these questions, and you will undoubtedly see yourself and what you want out of life in new and different ways.
How To Start
You can buy a deck like the one from School of Life, or you can simply create your own list of prompts.
Here are some resources you could use:
I suggest you have your list at the ready, so you don't waste time at the moment trying to find 'the right question'. Instead, just pick the next one on your list and start writing — even if it makes you uncomfortable or you don't know how to answer.
I promise you'll be surprised by what you find when you go back to it days, weeks or months later.