Stuck with a bad case of writer’s block? Ready to quit on your story after getting harsh feedback you sense deep down is true? Caught in a cycle of rewriting early chapters instead of producing new ones? If anxiety is hijacking your writing time, distracting you and leading to negative self-talk and procrastination, it might be time to address your mindset. The mistakes we make, the way we respond, and the impact on our self-worth are all matters of perception not personality traits. They’re habits. Behaviors. And behaviors can be changed.
Live and Learn
We all stumble sometimes. When babies fall, they get up and keep trucking toward their simple and immediate desire. Toddlers learn to cry until someone picks them up to soothe their frustration and hurt feelings. School-age kids cast blame and get angry in order to distance themselves from the embarrassment of being laughed at. But it’s only as adults that we truly master the art of tying our self-worth to performance and expectations, resorting to unpleasant and harmful responses when things don’t go the way we want. My husband calls it “throwing your toys out of the pram.” We can become so insecure, so afraid of failing and at the same time so driven to succeed that we spin in circles, halting all progress.
The truth is writing is failing. Over and over, until you succeed. It’s picking yourself up every time you fall and doing the same for your friends. It’s deadlines and rewrites, critiques and edits. It’s putting yourself out there again and again, hoping someone will fall in love with your work, and feeling slapped down with each form rejection or no response. Don’t let that discourage you, plan for it!
Getting through writer’s block, building confidence after it’s been shaken, and being more productive all begin with changing your habits. Moving away from bad habits of avoidance and distraction while moving toward good habits of self-compassion and discipline. For example, I’m not a procrastinator, I procrastinate because I’m afraid of my first drafts being garbage. First drafts are bad—accept it and move on. You aren’t a perfectionist, you strive for perfection to avoid rejection. But any story will be a home run to someone out there, and even award-winning stories are tedious and a slog for some readers. Let it go.
The more yourself you are, the better you’ll feel and the more you’ll connect with your work and love it. And when you feel good about what you’re doing readers will be more engaged. It’s almost impossible to feel confident and competent when you believe you’re failing over and over. So, start with your mindset!
1) Set aside time each day to reflect on your reasons.
Why are you writing? What does it mean to you? Why does it matter? You can do it in the morning or evening. Or both! Make time to be alone with your thoughts and remind yourself of the big goals, the dream. I have a cute morning and nighttime reflections journal with questions and blanks to fill in, as well as blank pages for doodles.
2) Break big goals into smaller ones.
Sometimes the dream is too terrifying or nebulous. It can stop us from taking the first step, or maybe we got off to a strong start but then it falls apart. Break big goals into smaller ones. Don’t think you have to write a sequel in the next year, break it into drafts, acts, chapters, or pages. I use my planner to set daily and monthly goals. Set goals you can achieve. Be clear and specific. Start small. Maybe that’s writing for two hours each morning before work. Maybe it’s getting 5k words each weekend. Tell people about your goals, write them on your mirror with washable markers. Whatever it takes to make it real.
3) Track your progress and be accountable.
I bought a dry erase board with the days of the week on it and fill in my daily word count. With that proof hanging over my desk, it’s hard to deny a lack of progress or worthy accomplishments. Find a way to track progress and hold yourself accountable. Give yourself credit for meeting those first goals before you increase the difficulty. Use small rewards for when you reach goals. I like stickers. If accountability is something you struggle with, enlist a family member or friend you can “report to” and who will reach out and harass ask you about your progress. Maybe make a contract with your helper. Come up with a penalty you’ll pay them if you don’t meet your goal.
4) Acknowledge the bad habits and create a habit of change.
The first step to changing a bad habit is understanding it. I procrastinate because I’m afraid what I write will be garbage and I want it to turn out so good. That fear of not meeting expectations paralyzed me for a long time. Look at your own habits and decide which are standing in the way of where you want to be. What can you do to change them? Make lists. Talk with other writers and get their opinions. Odds are they’re familiar with perfectionism, procrastination, writer’s block, fear of rejection, etc.. The goal is to understand why you do the behavior. Whenever I start negative self-talk, I acknowledge that my first draft will likely be awful, but that is the starting point of every story and I am strong enough to survive the editing process.
5) Acknowledge the challenges and make a plan to overcome them.
If you’ve had the bad habits for some time, it may feel like they’re ingrained. I assure you, that’s not true. You have the power to change your habits, but first you must change your mindset. Treat yourself with compassion. Understand what triggers bad behavior. If when your alarm goes off to write you find yourself putting on another episode of your favorite binge-worthy show, you may have to find another place to write. If you wake up in the morning and get distracted by dishes and vacuuming, stay in bed for an hour and do your writing before you see the filth. Or better yet, ask your family to pitch in a little more so you can carve out an hour or two to get outside and write at the park or café. If your problem is that you rewrite and rewrite and don’t make progress, give yourself an ultimatum—you can read the page leading up to what you’re working on today, but no more, and then you must put down new words.
6) Clean up your environment.
A tidy desk or cute office is great for focus but I’m going bigger. Remove temptations that keep you from your goal. If that’s phone video games, delete them for now. If it’s social media, put your phone away in another room while you’re writing on the clock. If it’s kids, pets, or friends interrupting, take care of their immediate needs and set boundaries like “When I’m in my office I’m not available but I’ll come out at 5:30 to start dinner.” Turn off your phone, leave the house, put in earbuds so you don’t have to listen to Dora the Explorer of Judge Judy, whatever it takes. Every time you start to question whether you’re a good parent/ spouse/ friend/ daughter, remember that setting boundaries is a healthy behavior—much better than the behavior your family sees when you’re stressed and frantic.
7) Avoid self-sabotage and saboteurs.
Yep, don’t frack it all up by binge-watching past seasons of Survivor because you’re “too tired to write.” If you’re supposed to be writing, sit at that desk and write. Or don’t. But don’t reward yourself with mindless garbage or junk food while actively engaging in avoidance or procrastination. That only reinforces the bad habit. Same goes for people. If you have a writer friend who lives in that same old place of excuses and complaining, avoid that person and their mindset until you have a handle on your new habits. It sounds mean, but while your new mindset is fragile don’t test it with people who’ll sabotage your progress. You may find that after a month of implementing your new positive changes it’s no big thing to listen to someone complain about how hard writing is…but you may find you no longer have patience to listen.
8) Replace a negative habit with a positive one.
One fast way to immediately impact your attitude is to swap out your bad habits for good ones. If you find yourself engaging in negative self-talk, ask what’s something positive you could tell yourself. Worrying about what you haven’t gotten done? Look at all the stickers in your planner and remind yourself how much you’ve accomplished. If you’re struggling with one of your new habits, rather than quitting and getting discouraged, look at those lists and your ultimate reason for doing all of this. Why are you writing? What does it mean to you? Use that to pull yourself back up and keep working.
The steps are simple, but I didn’t say they’re easy. Each one takes time and dedication, and you will likely suffer setbacks. When you do, forgive yourself and treat yourself with compassion and kindness. Use your reflection time to consider why you had the setback and how you can recover from it the next day.
Another tactic I can’t recommend enough is to stagger the start of your goals. For example, I started like this:
Day 1—eating breakfast
Day 3—waking up at 6am
Day 6—stopped biting my nails
Day 8—write one morning before 9am twice a week
Day 15—write every morning for 90 minutes
…and so on. You should select habits that will align with your goals both in your personal or professional life, and also mesh with your writing goals. Make sure to plan for everything that’s important to you. Schedule time with your family or spouse and make sure they don’t feel neglected by your new writing schedule. By prioritizing everything that matters you will feel more relaxed and capable of balancing everything, which in turn will free up your writing time and allow you to make the most of it.
What’s the hardest part of staying on track?
How have you overcome procrastination or writer’s block?
What do you include in your writing routines?
What rewards are you willing to work for?
Follow A. Howitt’s journey as a fantasy writer on her Facebook page.