Want Sustainable Writing? Monitor Your Writing Stumbling Blocks.

It happened when you were up against a deadline, and you had no other option. You sat down and thought, “I don’t know what I’m saying! How can I write if I don’t know what I’m saying!” But with the looming deadline, you managed to temporarily push past your fear and just start.

At first, it was painful. The voice in your head kept popping up: “this isn’t any good! This isn’t new! Where are you going?” But after you spent a bit of time writing, something changed. It’s hard to describe, but you just felt more comfortable. The words and ideas started to flow, even if they weren’t perfect. You uncovered new ideas, and had a great writing session. At the end, you were shocked: “That was completely different than my normal writing sessions,” you thought.

I wish it could be like that every time!

But that type of session is now rare. After you met the deadline and moved on to another project, you can’t seem to get back to this free flowing writing. You sit down to write but felt anxious about where to start. You reread your notes, but then suddenly have the urge to check your email or sports scores “just to see.” 30 minutes later, you find yourself in an Internet rabbit hole. Seeing your precious writing time ticking away makes you even more anxious. You’re stuck.

Writing is not just producing content, it’s also a process. To write, we also have to create the best possible conditions for ourselves to write. And often creating those conditions is just as hard–but just as crucial–to writing as the content.

If you find yourself on the binge writing treadmill–writing a lot when faced with urgent deadlines, then struggling to make progress after–then it’s time to shift your focus to your writing process.

Writing as a Craft: Focus on Process to Get off the Binge Writing Treadmill

If you’ve ever experienced the above scenario, then you know that you can overcome your own personal writing stumbling blocks (a fierce inner critic, digital distractions, etc.). But sheer terror that you will not make your deadline is not a sustainable way to write.

Instead, use the steps below to identify your own process-oriented stumbling blocks and monitor them. Next week, I’ll help you choose one stumbling block to tackle.

Imagine this work you’ll be doing in the coming weeks to modify your writing routine as working with a personal trainer. We’ll work in four broad phases. First, you need a clear vision of where you’re headed. Second, you need an assessment of where you are now. Third, you need a workout plan with a way to monitor your progress. And finally, you need a way to recalibrate your activities. This week, we’ll tackle the first two steps; next week, we’ll put together your plan.

Step 1: What Does Your Ideal Writing Session Look Like?

Your plan will depend on your personal goals. So, before completing your initial assessment, you need to clarify where you’re heading. Spend at least 30 minutes writing at least a paragraph describing in as much detail as possible what your ideal writing session of no more than 3 hours looks like. Write this description in the present tense and use “I,” as if you are really living it.  Use the following questions to guide you:

  • When do you write and how is this determined?
  • How do you know what to write and what specific task or action item to tackle?
  • How does it feel to start your writing session?
  • What, if anything, do the voices in your head say during your session?
  • Do you stay on task during the whole session? How do you accomplish this?
  • When do you “hit your stride” and how does it feel? What does it look like?
  • How do you end your session? How do you feel after?

Your paragraph should not be so ideal that it is unrealistic. You should try to anticipate what potential stumbling blocks you will face, but narrate how you will overcome them. Take note of how I do this in the sample below.

Sample Ideal Writing Session Description

“I schedule my writing sessions for the week on Sunday evenings. When it is time for my session, I sit down at my desk, open my goal tracking spreadsheet, and take three deep breaths. I fill out my action step for the session, which I had set at the end of the previous writing session. Sometimes I feel anxious about starting, so I count down from 5: 5-4-3-2-1. “Just go,” I tell myself. I start immediately and without hesitation. It takes me about 15 minutes to warm up, and sometimes I start to worry that writing will be difficult that day. My brain screams, “This is hard! Yesterday was easier! Why is it harder today? How are you going to sustain this for 2 hours?” But if my anxiety starts to rise, I remind myself that this is normal, and that these feelings will fade quickly…”

I recommend that you keep this paragraph where you do your writing, and read it calmly before writing sessions as a reminder for where you are headed. Read it with trust that you will get closer and closer to your ideal sessions, even if you are quite far from it right now.

Step 2: Identify and Monitor Your Current Stumbling Blocks (Behaviors and Thought Patterns)

Now it’s time for your assessment.

Download the personal writing stumbling block monitoring worksheet, and keep it on your desk as you work.

For at least a  week, note the major behaviors and thought patterns that interfere with your writing. The worksheet asks you to try to identify potential triggers of these behaviors and thought patterns.

According to Charles Duhigg, habits have five potential triggers: timelocationpreceding eventemotional state (a common trigger for writing stumbling blocks!), and other people, so be sure to quickly assess which (if any) of those triggers are present if you notice the behavior.

Finally, as you monitor, do so nonjudgmentally. For a week, your main responsibility is to just notice what comes up while you’re writing. Take a stance of curiosity toward these behaviors and thoughts, which will help you separate yourself from your behaviors and thoughts.

Use the following scripts as guides, as necessary.

Judgmental Monitoring (What NOT to Do)

  • Ugh. It looks like I’m checking email again. Why do I always do this? I know I’m not supposed to… I should be writing. But I just can’t seem to stop myself. I’ll never be able to break this habit.
  • My brain is telling me that I don’t have anything important to say. Why does this always happen? Why can’t I just ignore it? I guess I really don’t have anything important to say.

Curiosity-Oriented Monitoring (What to Do)

  • Huh. That’s interesting. I’m checking email again. That’s funny. I don’t remember consciously going to my email. Hmmm. Ok, let’s think. What was I doing just before? I guess I’d finished a section of writing and was moving on to a new one, but I wasn’t quite sure where to start. That’s a clue! I’m learning about myself! I’m going to fill out the monitoring worksheet, take three breaths, and begin that section.
  • Wow! I noticed that my brain is telling me negative things! Normally, I don’t notice that that voice is there. That’s interesting. I wonder how long it had been saying negative things in my head without me realizing. Ok, let’s quickly check for triggers: what was happening right before? I’m not quite sure if this has anything to do with it, but I was trying to close read a passage. I guess I was worried that I was summarizing too much, and stating “obvious” things. Ok, I will write that down, take three breaths, and get back to work.

Parting Encouragement

You will likely notice a lot more than you expected to notice this week. That is completely normal. Remember that this week, you are just monitoring–getting your baseline assessment. And keep in mind, too, that you are monitoring behaviors and thought patterns–these are not intrinsic to you as a person. Remember, we will work toward changing these behaviors and thought patterns next week. But for now, knowing what you personally struggle with will give you the data you need for your own, unique action plan.

Finding monitoring your writing process overwhelming? Want support or encouragement as you identify your behaviors and thought patterns? Have a question about how to monitor your writing stumbling blocks? Ask in the comments below or email me!

Writing Stumbling Block Monitoring Worksheet

Ready to finally take control over your writing sessions? First, you need to know what trips you up. Enter your name and email to the right, and I'll send you a worksheet to use to identify and monitor your own, personal writing stumbling blocks.

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