If you are getting stuck trying to start up your writing project,
and find yourself avoiding the troubling feelings that brings up,
thus also avoiding doing the writing you need to do,
why not try a few procedures, first, before giving in?
Thing is, if you give in and avoid the sucky feelings
of being stuck getting started
then you are only going to build up the procrastination snowball,
and that’s going to make things worse.
What is this procrastination snowball you speak of?
Well it’s very simple but also very strange.
The simple formula of the procrastination cycle is:
Resistance plus time equals even more resistance.
No matter how small or big is the thing you put off,
the feeling of not wanting to do it will only increase over time,
leading to more resistance and more avoidance, more time,
and so more resistance and so on,
snowballing even the smallest thing
into a giant icy ball of resistance.
There’s a way to not let that happen, nor it’s closely related vexing creature:
The serial restart
You know that one, right?
That’s where you have a first day writing,
have a really bad time,
then avoid it again till next week,
or next month,
and have to start all over again with Day 1,
have the same bad time…
until you’ve worked 10 days over the last four months,
but it’s been the same day,
repeated 10 times,
And you’re still not off to a start.
That’s what can happen if you don’t know how to save yourself
when you’re stuck.
But rather than give up or give in,
you can take a step back.
And there’s a procedure you can do.
Now if you’re not stuck, you don’t need to do this.
It’s just that there aren’t only two choices,
One being: not needing to do anything special,
and two being: repeating snowball procrastination or serial restarting.
There’s a third option.
And here’s the Unstuck Procedure:
1. Back off of starting your piece, but don’t back off of writing. Make a distinction between working on your piece and working on your writing process. This is a hugely important distinction. Most writers who are experiencing challenges are not aware of this distinction or lack the restraint needed to act on it.
If you are stuck getting started writing your piece it can be a lot easier if you have a writing process in place before you begin.
But of course how can you have a writing process in place if you haven’t been able to get started writing?
Simply put, you are writing with the wrong aim in mind.
The first step is to develop your physical sense and emotional connection to writing by establishing a regular writing rhythm.
But it’s not about writing your piece.
It’s about writing plain and simple.
Write anything, on any subject, or meander,
and perhaps once in a while drift, when so inclined,
into the territory of your real writing topic.
Just get into the daily habit and feel of writing.
I have a particularly terrible time getting started (it seems from my experience to be worse than a majority but then again we always feel that our problems are “special”). So when I’m starting out at this stage I’ll write anything. And I mean anything. Any old garbage about my feelings or someone walking in the parking lot that I see. It doesn’t matter because at the end of the writing period the question is not “how good was my writing today” it is “did I write today, for the whole time, and how did it feel?”
In other words my purpose is my process. I’m practicing process and I keep that distinction sharp in my mind.
Now, can I keep it sharp perfectly? Hell no. I still “peek.” I still have terrible thoughts about how pathetic it is that I can’t write anything but observations about people in the parking lot, can’t write a word about my project, and I’m a grown man, I was able to write before but now I’ve lost it, how can I possibly write this whole thing if I can’t even write a decent page, etc. etc.
But I know that I wasn’t there to achieve any of the things my mind belittled me for not achieving.
I was there to sit down and write and get my process going.
It can take me a while to leave this stage of getting the process going, but it always comes.
When I start to feel like sitting down to write is a special luxury, an almost sacred time, nearly daily,
that I get to do something I really want to do,
then I know my process has developed and I’m ready to take on the real piece.
It’s a feeling, not a thought like “You should be so lucky to get to write instead of working on the other side of the coffee counter, with your bad feet.” It’s not a judgment or a thought. It’s a feeling, like you really feel lucky to be sitting here writing now.
Of course it’s not every day that I feel that way, but when you are having at least some days where you feel it’s great to be doing this, then you are ready for the real piece or for the next step.
2. The next step is brainstorming and outlinestorming and draftstorming with your real piece.
At Academic Muse Writing Bootcamp we have special exercises for this stage that get you really focused on developing your thoughts and writing momentum at the same time as engaging in association and exploration on your topic. Many of our writers continue to use these techniques way past this stage and continue on during most of their first drafts, but they are just as good used solely as pre-writing exercises.
But for this stage you can use any brainstorming techniques you know, or focused freewriting, and just play a bit with your ideas and your piece. That probably won’t take you far into your actual draft the same way our bootcamp techniques will, but it will serve the purpose here just fine.
The point of this and the previous stage, each of which one should not move through too quickly, is all about getting unstuck. Again, if you are not struggling then you don’t need to do these things. But if you are struggling you can do these things, and do them for some time, rather than give up.
And when you’ve thoroughly explored those two steps, it’s time to cap it off.
Now you can try to restart your piece on a way better footing than you had when you last started.
The final pre-stage for getting started:
3. Articulating your goal. (A quick step!)
Every writing goal that you have should matter a lot to you and be specific, measurable and doable. There are a lot of things you could be writing. But if you are doing the get unstuck procedure then you need to focus on ONE goal.
You’ve got to find the ONE thing that is going to come first in your life and then you need to define it right.
You need to define your goal and the way you are going to get there:
CHOOSE AND CHART
The main obstacles we will confront here in this shortest stage of the Unstuck Procedure are the tendency to be working on too many things at the same time, and to have vague, unclear outcomes in mind.
Of course, there are so many things you probably want to improve in your life,
but for the purpose of strengthening our unstuck abilities you are going to choose one.
That doesn’t mean you don’t go after other things or that you don’t have other things you gotta do, because of course those things exist.
It’s that you choose ONE thing that is the main thing that matters now and is the ONLY thing you are going to practice this follow-though ability on.
So the important thing is that this one thing is something that matters to you, and then we’ll work on it further: it’s got to be doable, achievable, and most of all, there has to be some way that you can definitely know if you hit the mark, or not.
For example, “make more progress on the chapter” or “read more of the literature” are too fuzzy and indistinct. There’s no sure way to know what the goal is.
And “finish the dissertation at the end of the month” is a goal that might be doable, but only during one month of your lifetime. The other months it’s not doable. So that goal has to be something you can not only mark off in your mind, but also something you can realistically do.
Shooting high to “out-do yourself” is not useful when we are practicing the unstuck procedure.
To increase your unstucking ability you need to practice everything it takes to succeed and not practice anything that is impossible to succeed at.
So here we go:
- Lock the door, shut off your phone, and just blast out on paper a few very important things you can think of right now that would be great thing to do, things that matter to you and with which your life would improve greatly if you could finish them.
- For each one that stands out to you, for a maximum of 3, answer these and the following questions below: What would happen if you could make this happen? What would the benefit and impact on your life be?
- How will this help others? What would the impact be on people around you, on your family perhaps, or on the world or in scholarly fields?
- What kind of skills and powers would you need to make this happen in life? What will have to do specifically to bring this to life?
Now look at the answers to these questions to find the goal that would make the biggest impact on you and those around you.
The rest is to Chart it: make sure your goal is specific, measurable, and achievable. “Specific” means: you can say exactly what you mean to do in order to reach the goal.
For example, you might say “I’m going to finish the chapter” but to be specific you would say “I’m going to write 45 minutes per day for the next 4 weeks and the draft of the chapter will be done February 28.”
Measurable means there will be no question about whether you did it or didn’t.
Achievable means it’s realistic and you have the ability to do it.
Write out your specific, measurable, and achievable goal.
Now this last stage here, mind you, is only a short exercise compared to the previous stages, but it’s a great launching pad.
Finally you can encapsulate that by writing one sentence in the form:
“I will (detail specific steps you will take) so that (define your specific goal) because (include your most meaningful reasons to you).”
You are now ready to go
Remember there are more than the choices of give up or soldier on in pain. You can step back and do the Unstuck Procedure first.
- Mark an absolute distinction between writing your piece and developing your writing process, and work on the latter until you get to the point that you sometimes really enjoy setting down to write.
- Segue that into brainstorming and outlining techniques like those in the Creative Academic Writing Bootcamp or use your own, like focused freewriting.
- Chose and Chart your writing goal properly, right as you go back to starting your writing project again.
Remember this any time that you’ve been trying, but failing, to make progress. You don’t have to keep repeating the same uncomfortable process. And certainly don’t give up before sincerely trying this!