Writers Talk About Writing
How to protect the future you who writes
I started thinking about the concept of "future you" — the writer you will be days, weeks or months down the road — when one of my clients had her family dog die. Hapi Go Lucky was a 16-year-old miniature schnauzer and was much loved. As a result, my client told me she found writing to be hard after the dog had died.
I wasn’t surprised to hear this news from her. Emotion-laden events such as fights, news of illness, accidents, critiques from bosses and the death of pets — can all temporarily derail us. Guess what? This reaction isn’t a weakness or a liability. It’s just something that makes us normal human beings.
Further, not being able to write after such events is not a scheduling problem. It’s an emotional one. So, the answer to it doesn’t lie in better planning. It lies in understanding how to deal with your own emotions.
Here are my suggestions:
Cut yourself some slack
If something rotten has happened to you, don’t regard yourself as a machine that should be able to carry on, regardless. Instead, give yourself the chance to react to what has happened. This will likely mean reducing the amount of time you spend on writing. For example, if you currently spend 45 minutes per day writing, reduce it to 20 minutes; if you spend 30, reduce it to 15 or 10. And if even that seems too daunting, then don’t be afraid to reduce it to somewhere between three and five minutes.
There is merit in maintaining your writing habit to a small degree, because then it won’t be so much work to build it back up again. But don’t think it needs to take massive amounts of time.
Also, be aware that if your current writing project has lost all meaning, you can spend your writing time focusing on whatever is affecting you, whether it’s the loss of a dog or a gnarly boss. The great benefit of being a writer is that you’re already better equipped to process your emotions (by putting them into words) than most people.
Fine-tune your environment to make writing more likely
Reduce the “cost” of writing, by setting up your environment so it is ready and waiting for you. If you write at a desk, always have the desk clean and your computer ready to be turned on. If you need pens, papers or books, have all those tools lined up and ready to go. If you need a cup of coffee or tea before you write, set out the supplies so they are waiting beside the kettle.
You want the act of writing to seem easy and inevitable. Having everything ready to go is a small act of kindness you can perform for yourself that will help ease your way.
Fine-tune your environment to make procrastination less likely
For every positive action, there is always a corresponding negative one. If making your environment more favorable for writing doesn’t motivate you enough, consider taking steps to make procrastinating more difficult. For example, turn off your email while you’re writing. Do the same for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And if you are unable to marshal the self-control for these actions, then consider getting a program like Self-Control (Mac) or Freedom (PC) that will do it for you. (I’m not a re-seller so I’ll get no advantage if you decide to buy.)
Also, be sure to put your cellphone in a different room or lock it in a drawer. Cellphones will suck away far too much of your attention.
Be aware of the quirks of the human brain
Neuroscientists now tell us that our brains are hardwired to behave in specific ways. For example, our brains like to think we’ll always perform better and more reliably in the future. This is the source of certain highly predictable problems such as telling ourselves we’ll get our writing done “later today,” or “this evening,” or “on the weekend.” Instead, what usually happens, is that we feel no more like doing it at those future times, so we procrastinate then, too.
Our brains also assume that we’ll always feel the same way in the future, never allowing that we might feel better or worse. For example, if we feel badly after writing today, we assume we’ll also feel badly tomorrow.
Finally, our brains almost always overestimate the emotional impact of a future event. For example, we believe that if we get that big writing contract, we’ll be happy and delighted, instead of feeling overwhelmed with work and stress.
If you are aware of the standard default patterns your brain likes to follow, you can take steps to manage them. In my experience, the best thing to do is to give yourself exceedingly small goals that you accomplish early in the day and then reward yourself for doing them. Small and steady actions win just about every race.
Learn how to move forward
One of your jobs as a writer is to manage your own emotional life, responding thoughtfully and appropriately to whatever situations are thrown your way. Don’t expect life to be rainbows and unicorns all the time. But don’t expect it to be endless hailstorms and skunks, either.
Safeguard your writing interests by creating a system that will allow you to write (a very small amount), even when life sucks. Your “future you” will thank you.