Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Of Time, Happiness, Creativity and Writing Accomplishments....

Do you dread writing? Feel uncomfortable and daunted by it? Want only to delay, postpone or procrastinate?

Some psychologists have studied the relationship between our mental state and our creative output. And here's the interesting point: they have found that being in a good mood is essential for creativity and productivity.

Teresa Amabile, a Harvard professor who has spent 40 years studying creativity, says that a positive working environment is more creative than a stressful one. “When creativity is under the gun,” she says, “it usually ends up getting killed.”

I certainly learned the truth of this statement when I spent 10 years in the daily newspaper industry. While most of us who worked there thrived under the pressure, we also understood that most newspaper writing was formulaic and way too predictable.

Here’s how Amabile frames the situation:

“Our study indicates that the more time pressure people feel on a given day, the less likely they will be able to think creatively. Surprisingly, though, people seem to be largely unaware of this phenomenon. In their assessments of their own creativity each day, participants … generally perceived themselves as having been more creative when time pressure was high. Sadly, their diaries gave the lie to those self-assessments. There was clearly less and less creative thinking in evidence as time pressure increased.”

Amabile suggests several ways to protect your creativity. First, she recommends single-tasking rather than multi-tasking. (More on the downsides of multitasking here.)

For writers, single-tasking means teasing apart the different jobs associated with writing: researching, thinking, mindmapping, putting words on the page, incubating and editing, and doing each separately. Trying to do more than one task at a time will not only slow you, but it will also impair your creativity.

Amabile also recommends interpreting time pressure as meaningful urgency rather than just pressure. “People [who succeeded] understood why solving a problem or completing a job was crucial,” she says, “and they bought into that urgency, feeling as though they were on a mission.”

I very much liked her time-pressure/creativity matrix. Go to her Harvard Business Review article and scroll down to the time pressure/creativity matrix about halfway through the post.

But Amabile also observes that the absence of time pressure is no guarantee that people will be more creative. Instead, she says, people become more creative when they believe they are on an expedition and able to connect with a sense of fun related to the project.

Now, I know that “fun” is the last word on many of your minds when it comes to writing. So, here's what I suggest you do: Start with just five-minutes’ worth of writing every day.

Does that sound silly to you? Perhaps you think: “How will writing a first draft in five-minute increments lead to greater productivity?” Or, “how will I ever finish my thesis or dissertation doing it only in five-minute chunks?”

So, let me admit that, of course, eventually, you will need to spend more time on your writing project. But not right away. If you want to procrastinate, procrastinate about spending a long time on your writing. Never procrastinate about getting started. This is why the five-minute strategy works.

Because, what reasonable excuse can you come up with for not being able to spend five minutes on your writing project? Even if you’re organizing a major event on an unrelated subject — let’s say a workshop — you can write for five minutes. Even if a pipe bursts in your wall, you can write for five minutes while waiting for the plumber to arrive. Even if your boss gives you a massive project that’s due at the end of the day, you can write for five minutes on your own. It’s just five minutes!

The mistake I see many people make is that they set massive, soul-destroying goals for themselves, and then they (predictably) fail to meet them. This failure makes them feel disappointed and discouraged with themselves so they don’t want to do any writing the next day. I call this process the “cycle of pain and suffering.”

Instead, if you follow the "cycle of goodness" — which begins with setting an embarrassingly easy goal and ends with achieving it — you’ll far more easily be able to write. As a result, you’ll feel happy and accomplished – and that feeling will make it easier for you to achieve tomorrow’s writing goal.

Here are some other benefits to writing for just five minutes a day:

  • You’ll be pushing the peanut — your writing project — a little bit forward every day.
  • Because you’re working on it daily, you’ll remember exactly where you are in the project and you’ll take less time playing “catch up” in the way you would if you looked at it only once a week (or, less often than that.)
  • The words you write will accumulate gradually into a truly impressive total. Write just 300 words a day – the length of a medium-sized email — and you’ll have 78,000 words at the end of a year. That’s the length of a book.

You can achieve just about any goal by taking small, steady steps. Often, the smaller those steps, the better.

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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.