Last week, we talked about how systems make it more likely that you’ll achieve your goal. Today I’d like to talk about creating systems for overcoming the obstacles that we all hit at one point or another.
In other words, systems for getting unstuck.
Because we all work a little bit differently, one size doesn’t fit all here. What helps me might not help you. The first step in creating your “unblocking” system is to take a few minutes to think about how you’ve written in the past.
1. Start with the positive.
Think about a time when the writing was going well. What was true then?
Were you writing in the same location you are now, or some place different? If your writing spot hasn’t changed, has anything within that location changed?
How did you write back then? Paper and pen? On a computer without an internet connection?
When did you write? Lunch break? Early morning? Late night?
What were your other habits like then? Were you eating differently? Getting more or less sleep? Taking any supplements or medications? Exercising regularly? Meditating? Going to school?
Were you writing alone or with other people? Did you belong to any groups that were giving you emotional support?
Make a list or mindmap of all the things that were true of your life and your environment during that period where the writing was going smoothly.
2. Move on to the negative.
Think about a time when you were struggling or unable to write. What was true then?
What were your habits like?
Were you going through any major life changes?
How and where were you writing?
How were the people in your life supporting you or stressing you out?
Make a list or mindmap of all the things that were true of your life and your environment where the writing wasn’t working.
3. Think about a recent instance when you had the opportunity to write, but chose not to.
What was going on at the moment when you made that choice not to write?
What did you choose to do instead of writing?
What did you tell yourself to justify that decision not to write?
How do you feel about that decision? Was it the right decision for that situation?
What do you think would have happened if you’d chosen to write instead of choosing the other option?
4. What do you see as the five most common obstacles that keep you from writing?
Not sure what happens next?
Not feeling inspired?
Too many distractions?
Other people demanding attention?
Once you’ve answered these four questions, you’ll have a clear picture of the circumstances that support your creative processes and the circumstances that hinder you in writing.
Now you can start creating systems that make it easier to write and that eliminate distractions that keep you from moving forward.
For example, let’s say you realize that during the time when you were writing well, you were writing at a cafe with noise-cancelling headphones, and that your struggles began about the same time those headphones broke. You might want to start saving up for new ones–and in the meantime, your alternate system might be to write at the library, where it’s quieter, or buy some heavy-duty earplugs so that the cafe noise won’t keep you from concentrating.
Perhaps that period when you wrote prolifically was when you were in college, and were being exposed to a lot of new ideas. You might want to set aside some time to read more, or reader books in areas you aren’t reading now, or even sign up for a class that will stimulate you intellectually and get you thinking.
Or maybe you recognize that the period where you were completely blocked coincided with that period where you were working so much overtime at work that you never had time to cook, and you ate fast food or frozen food three meals per day, depriving you of the vital nutrients needed to concentrate. Your system might be to learn how to prepare meals ahead in bulk and freeze them so you won’t fall into that trap again, or start cooking in the crockpot so there’s always a healthy dinner waiting when you get home plus leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch.
What if you realize that your number one rationalization for not writing is that your friends always want to go out after work and you can’t say no to your friends? This is a tough one, but it is possible to strike a balance between your need for writing time and your need for fun. Maybe your system is that you hang out after work Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but you stay home to write Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Or maybe shift your writing time to your lunch break so you’ve done your day’s writing before happy hour comes around.
Here are some examples of systems that might or might not work for you:
Writing obstacle: Can’t resist checking Facebook every fifteen minutes.
System: Set a time and write for fifteen minutes with Facebook disabled (or with all internet-enabled devices in another room). Then set a timer for five minutes and browse Facebook as a reward before doing another fifteen minute sprint.
Writing obstacle: Every time you sit down to write, you end up staring at the blank screen, unable to type.
System: Start with a freewriting exercise related to your main project, or a few minutes of journaling to brain dump all the thoughts that are circling through your mind.
Writing obstacle: Neighbors are loud and distract you during your writing time.
System: If this is a regular occurrence, block out the noise with music, earplugs, or noise-cancelling headphones, or write outside the home.
Writing obstacle: Too tired to write after dinner.
System: Make time to write earlier in the day, even if that means getting up before your kids do and falling asleep early.
Writing obstacle: Don’t know where to start.
System: Make a list of twenty places where you could start, without judging any of them. If you’re not sure which one you like best, write two or three of the best and see which opening grabs you.
Writing obstacle: Can only write 100 words per day because you rewrite every sentence a dozen times before you’re willing to move on.
System: Try typing with the screen turned off, so it’s impossible to go back an edit, or use your tablet/phone’s dictation software to speak the words instead of writing them. Remind yourself that you will go back and edit later, so it’s okay if these words aren’t perfect.
You may want to read about how other writers work, and experiment with their systems (which you’ll discover range from the boring to the bizarre).
But system only works if you follow it–and you’ll only follow it if it fits with the rest of your life. So be realistic as you’re designing your unique writing systems. Don’t try to force yourself to write at 4 a.m. if you know you’re a night owl, or to write on the computer if the words only come when you’ve got a pen in your hand.
What writing systems do you already use to get unstuck? What writing systems are you interested in trying?