Writing is a fascinating mental exercise.
One moment you feel like you have a great idea, and it all makes sense in your head. The next moment you sit down to write, your mind goes blank. You halfheartedly jot down some thoughts, but there’s this nagging voice in your head asking whether this is really worth your time and energy? Perhaps you need to do some more research, you think, so you spend another hour scrolling through articles and blogs, only to close the laptop at the end of the evening, feeling exhausted and demotivated, without having made any progress.
I have become fascinated by the world of blogging and online writing since the beginning of this year. It all started when I signed up for a writing challenge called Ship30For30, which connected me to people from all over the world. Regular people like me, looking to create a consistent writing habit.
For me, the greatest thing that came out of this challenge was realising how everyone is dealing with the same insecurities, no matter how experienced a writer you are. Overall, the three biggest mental blocks my fellow (aspiring) writers would talk about were:
- Hitting an obstacle and feeling stuck
- Doubting your ideas, creativity and originality
- Procrastinating out of fear of failure
I run into any of the above on a daily basis.
In those moments, what has been helpful to me is reading about ideas or strategies that experienced writers use to fight off these unproductive thoughts. A simple mindset shift is often enough to pull me through.
Here are 3 ideas for each of the mental blocks I mentioned that I find particularly productive.
‘Getting Unstuck’ by Shaan Puri
When you start out with a project, you are full of energy and motivation. But often, as you get deeper into the commitment, you hit a few obstacles which leave you feeling demotivated and low. Marketing guru Seth Godin calls this ‘The Dip’ — that slump we all hit when things get hard.
As a beginner online writer, there is so much to learn and so much to do. Usually, I start the day full of enthusiasm with a clear idea of what I want to get done, only to get lost in the well-meaning but often conflicting stream of recommendations, how-to’s, how-not-to’s. I feel like I have put in hours of work, but I don’t have much to show for it.
When this happens, I turn to a framework I came across by Shaan Puri. Shaan is an entrepreneur and angel investor who put together a document called Shaan’s Big Lessons. One of them is on how to Get Un-Stuck.
He says that when you face a setback or you feel like you are stuck, you have hit a Plateau. There are 3 ways you can respond to that moment:
- Dabbler: You give up and move on to the next thing
- Stresser: You feel anxious and stressed and try to push through the feeling
- Master: You greet the obstacle like an old friend. “Ah, there you are, Mr/Mrs Plateau; I thought I’d be seeing you soon.”
The goal is to become a Master and to break through these plateaus whenever they show up — because show up they will. Now how do you do this?
Plateaus are an inevitable part of the growth process. Don’t try to fight or resist them, and don’t berate yourself either. It happens to every single one of us.
#2 Get in the right state of mind
Don’t give up, and definitely don’t try to just power through the feeling. You need to get out of the negative thought spiral and get into the right state of mind by focusing on the 3 M’s:
- Music: Put on your favourite songs (My instant mood-boosters! 🕺)
- Movement: Get up, move to a different room, do some pushups. Even better if you go for a walk and get some fresh air. Anything to get you away from the screen and get your blood flowing.
- Meaning: Instead of getting frustrated with yourself, re-frame the moment in a way that you can learn from. Tell yourself:
This is an opportunity to try a different approach
This is a chance to get more creative
This is a challenge to sharpen up my skills and learn more
Research has long shown that negative emotions narrow our thoughts and range of actions. Positive emotions broaden the number of possibilities we process, making us more thoughtful, creative, and open to new ideas. That’s the kind of mindset you want to be in when hitting an obstacle.
#3 Start asking your brain questions
Once you’re in the right state of mind, you can approach the situation positively and constructively. A couple of questions that I have found helpful to ask:
- What is an obvious mini-task that I can do right now? The aim is to regain control of your emotions by focusing first on small, manageable goals. Once you’re moving again, it’s easier to keep moving.
- What would it look like if this was easy? This is a question inspired by Tim Ferris. Writing is supposed to be fun, but that’s easy to forget sometimes. Far too often, we convince ourselves that things need to be difficult and that if we aren’t in some mental turmoil, then we are doing something wrong or not trying hard enough. As a result, we can unintentionally make things more complicated than they need to be.
#4 Be patient
Every creative endeavour will be challenging in the beginning. The best thing you can do is to embrace the uncertainty and discomfort.
Be impatient with action but patient with results.
‘The Creativity Faucet’ by Julian Shapiro
How often do you think of an idea, only to have your brain immediately butt in with reasons why this idea is either bad, unoriginal or both? It’s tempting at that moment to push the paper aside and declare yourself an uncreative person. “Writing is just not for me.” That’s what I used to do for years.
The thing is, you can’t expect to sit down and have the ideas flow out of your fingers, whenever, wherever. That’s now how it works, not even for ‘creative people’.
Julian Shapiro wrote about the Creativity Faucet after watching a documentary on songwriter Ed Sheeran, wherein Ed described his songwriting process. Julian coined this the Creativity Faucet, a mental model for generating your best ideas.
Visualise your creativity as a backed-up pipe of water. The first mile of piping is packed with wastewater. This wastewater must be emptied before the clear water arrives.
Because your pipe only has one faucet, there’s no shortcut to achieving clarity other than first emptying the wastewater.
Let’s apply this to creativity: at the beginning of a writing session, you must write out every bad idea that reflexively comes to mind. Instead of being self-critical and resisting these bad ideas, you must openly accept them.
Once the bad ideas are emptied, strong ideas begin to arrive.
Here’s why: once you’ve generated enough bad output, your brain attenuates to the underlying elements producing the badness. Then it intuitively avoids those elements. It starts pattern-matching novel ideas going forward.
Most creators never get past their wastewater. They resist their bad ideas.
If you’ve opened a blank document, scribbled a few thoughts, then walked away because you weren’t struck with gold, then you too didn’t get past it.
Most people never get past the wastewater and resist the bad ideas, going through life thinking they’re not creative.
In these moments, your mind is truly your worst enemy. Instead, allow yourself to write down every single idea or thought that pops up in your head — without judgement. It’s helpful to give yourself some direction or and constraints when doing this. For example:
- I tell myself to write for a minimum of 30 minutes per day. It does not matter about what, and it does not matter if anyone will ever read it.
- I give myself a topic every morning for which I need to write down 10 related ideas. For example:
10 Things that are unique about me and my story
10 Things I want to ask my parents
10 Things I need more of in my life
Most of this will be wastewater, but that doesn’t matter. I’ll eventually get to some good stuff.
‘Overnight Magic’ by John Swartzwelder
As with most things, the hardest part is getting started. Looking at a blank screen, I jump ahead, thinking about the title, structure, headers, the images to use — all before I’ve gotten a single letter on paper. My main struggle is my fear of the process being messy and confusing. I want the first draft to be perfect. This perfectionism and fear of failure ultimately stop me from writing and sharing with people.
I’m trying to get over my own ego and be bad for a while, so eventually, I can become good.
One of the concepts that I have found useful to get past that feared blank page comes from John Swartzwelder, one of the most revered comedy writers at The Simpsons. He said he relies on Overnight Magic to get through the hardest part:
I do have a trick that makes things easier for me. Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue — “Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight.
Like James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says — Working on a problem reduces the fear of it. It’s hard to fear a problem when making progress on it, even if progress is imperfect and slow. Action relieves anxiety.
Just make something. Anything. Make a shitty first draft. Even if it’s shitty, at least you’ll have a start, something to work with. Something to improve on. That’s more than what you had before. Take advantage of the natural momentum that comes from one behaviour leading to the next.
- 🥷 Become a Master at overcoming Plateaus — relax and don’t be too hard on yourself.
- 💡 Be open to all ideas, even bad ideas. Eventually, the good ideas will come.
- ✍️ Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. Once you have that momentum, it’s easier to keep going.
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