Progress 3/10/16

Grappling with Mood and Writing

I had a revelation this past week. It was one of those times when I remembered something I’d already learned, but the idea became clearer and more significant. 

I’ve known for a few years now that I struggle with mild depression during the winter months. I live in the Pacific Northwest, where weeks at a time without sunshine are common. Starting about four years ago, I noticed that I struggled with energy, focus, and attitude during these months. 

The strangest part is that I forget it’s going to happen. Because I didn’t experience this until a few years ago, I keep assuming that it isn’t a pattern. Each of the past few winters, I grow unhappy during January and February. Then a sunny day rolls around sometime in March, and I feel amazing. This year, I’m recognizing that I’m going to probably deal with the phenomenon as long as I live in Oregon. Acknowledging that this is a factor should help me to deal with it. 

The SAD has had a major impact on my writing. After months of consistency, I’ve been unreliable in my progress for the past six weeks. I’ve struggled to get up in the mornings, to prioritize, and to take pleasure in accomplishment. 

I bought one of those lamps that simulates daylight and have been using it in the mornings. This should help me to counter-balance the lack of sunshine and get me on track during the mornings. 

Happily the weather should be shifting during the next month. I may not need to worry about it after a few more weeks. 

Creating Mental Toughness to Improve Your Writing Process

The Art of Forming Grit

Last year, I made my most important decision regarding writing: I started doing it every day. A number of factors contributed to this happening, but one of the biggest was that I improved my mental toughness

I don't think of myself as a weak person, mentally or otherwise, but I had to come to grips with the fact that my inconsistency in writing stemmed from a lack of grit. I was cutting myself too much slack. I was making too many excuses. Only after taking steps to develop a stronger mental attitude did I make progress in my writing goals, the chief of which was a daily writing routine.  

The source of my conviction to build mental toughness was unusual for a writer: entrepreneurs. One particular author on entrepreneurship, Tim Ferriss, promotes the idea of increasing mental toughness by regularly doing things that feel uncomfortable. If you're anything like me, just hearing this idea makes you feel uncomfortable. I don't like being feeling awkward, and when I first read the suggestion to deliberately pursue discomfort as an exercise, I thought it was crazy. I little suspected how the idea would change my life.

 

How Entrepreneurs Create Mental Toughness

Ferriss advocates regularly doing things that make a person uncomfortable as a means of gaining greater confidence.  Making difficult choices improves one's ability to cope with the outcome of those decisions. Ferriss gives the practical example of going to a public place, such as the mall, physically lying on the ground, and remaining there for several minutes. The idea is that as the person is lying on the ground, people will be passing, staring at them, and perhaps making comments. The possibility of experiencing this kind of embarrassment scares most of us. On the other hand, willingly enduring this kind of embarrassment has the potential to create grit.

Another entrepreneur by the name of Jia Jiang conducted an experiment he called "100 Days of Rejection." He asked extraordinary favors of complete strangers, knowing that they would probably turn him down. Jiang gives the example of knocking on the front door of a complete stranger’s house and asking to play soccer in their back yard. He did this to develop mental toughness. By performing this experiment over many weeks, Jiang learned valuable lessons about himself and other people. (Among other things, he was amazed at how often strangers agreed to do what he asked.) Most importantly, Jiang became much more comfortable doing things that he previously didn't think he could.

The key lesson from these exercises is that much of what we fear is not as bad as we think. Developing grit, especially as we relate to others, makes us stronger in our decisions and our commitments.

 

How Increased Mental Toughness Has Improved My Life and Habits

Now I should be transparent and admit I never did the exercise of lying down on the floor of the mall, and I didn't make a habit of asking strangers for outrageous favors. However, I did absorb these ideas and began actively making decisions to do things I previously wouldn’t have. For example, I began having heartfelt conversations with people with whom I normally wouldn't. I opened up to strangers on a level that made me uncomfortable. I broached awkward topics with friends and family. And I also began to integrate challenging, daily habits that I’ll describe in a future post.

When I began doing things that I feared, I noticed a change in myself. I was becoming mentally tough. I was developing grit. A few key results surfaced. 

The Power of Outside Perspective 

I began to see value in exploring how other people react to me. This has particular significance for anyone who is introverted like me. When I didn't push myself during interactions, my engagement with people was less interesting. But when I pushed myself to do the awkward things, I learned fascinating lessons about those other people and about myself

The Power of Real Friendship

Doing the awkward things tended to polarize people around me, but that was usually a good thing. I started to learn who my true friends were. Some people responded to my increased honesty in kind. Others waffled and became even more artificial. Frequently, our relationships are based on false assumptions, rather than reality. As I tested relationships by engaging in awkward conversations, I could tell that the practice clicked with certain people. I expect that those people will become more important in my life going forward. 

The Power of Selective Indifference

The more I continue in the habit of doing uncomfortable things, the stronger my resolve grows to ignore the reactions of many people. It bothers me less and less when people disagree with me. Let me be clear--I wasn't ignoring other people. I heard just as well as I always had, but my fear of negative reactions began to diminish. Whereas in the past, fear of the opinions others may have prevented me from doing something important, I was growing indifferent to those pressures. Please don't misunderstand me--I'm not in favor of being an arrogant jackass. I'm saying that when we know an action needs to be taken, it's sometimes important to ignore pressure to the contrary. As I've learned to deal with the possibility of criticism, I've become more consistent in going what is necessary. This is an important skill. 

The Power of a Thick Skin

The result of selective indifference is thicker skin. Because I've stopped freaking out when people dislike what I chose to do, I've become much more effective. This effectiveness manifests itself in my making better decisions more quickly. Much has been written about the power of making fast, confident decisions. It's one of the qualities that sets apart great leaders from ordinary people. By increasing tolerance for outside disapproval and developing our ability to make choices, we increase our effectiveness in almost every sphere.

 

How Grit Can Help Writers

What does this mean for writers? It's quite simple, really. The fear of what other people will say when we call ourselves writers or when ask for their input--this kind of fear paralyzes. As ironic as it might sound given my topic, we need the input of others to improve. Getting out of our own head is difficult. It's paramount that we get outside perspective to make our writing truly effective. There's a balancing act that goes on in this process, however. We must listen to the input of others, but we must not be paralyzed by that input. We must be coolheaded about criticism. This is difficult. None of us really enjoys being criticized, but we have to put ourselves out there for criticism if we are going to improve.

To use an analogy, it's a bit like strength training. No pain no gain. Strength trainers must work their muscles to the point of failure to grow stronger. The people who fail when they lift weights don't push themselves. They're so afraid of reaching that point of muscle failure that they never make gains. This is what it's like when a writer never opens up to criticism. The writer who avoids failure will never reach their potential. 

If hadn't developed mental toughness, I would not be sharing this post. Truthfully, most of what I write makes me cringe. I have high standards for writing--too high for my own abilities to satisfy. If I didn't have grit, perfectionism would destroy my writing; I'd probably spend the rest of the year working on five blog posts. The only way I'm able to produce regular content that I share across social media is because of this principle. By committing to sharing, getting feedback, and seeking to improve, I'm able to write more effectively and potentially help more readers. I couldn't do any of this, however, without grit.

 

Hang Tough

The power of grit lies in the conviction that in spite of setbacks or criticism, a person can emerge more capable and closer to their goals than before. I'm convinced that having mental toughness is utterly crucial for anyone who wants a successful and sustainable writing routine. Open up to this concept, test your grit, and I believe your writing will explode with creativity and power.

 

This post dealt with the concept of grit and why it’s important for writers. Next week, I’ll talk about some specific tactics that I’ve used to increase my mental toughness. 

Progress Update 3/1/16

March 1st was the target for releasing my book on writing process. Unfortunately, it's not ready yet. 

If I hadn't set my target, I wouldn't have made the progress I did. While I need to push back my release date, I'm glad I had an aggressive target. I made better progress as a result. 

Tentatively, I'm setting my new target for April 1st. I continue to revise the draft. Revising is hard! I like drafting much more. Still, I continue to plug away at it. 

Thanks to those who have encouraged me in my progress. I look forward to hearing your feedback when the book is complete!

7 Steps to Save Your Writing When You Let It Down

When You Fall off the Horse

Every writer I’ve met struggles with periods of inactivity. If you haven’t experienced this, the odds are that you will, sooner or later. Falling out of the writing habit is difficult to avoid. Because of this, we should develop a plan to deal with it. 

One reason I strongly advocate for routine is that it guards against falling out of habit. It's much more difficult to completely stop writing if we have a daily ritual. The fact remains, however, that even the most consistent of us will eventually fail.  

Knowing this, we should develop a plan to get back on track as soon as possible. The real danger doesn’t lie in missing a day or two. It lies in not resuming our routine after that day or two. 

We see it all the time. Someone who set a goal for themselves such as writing a book experiences something that interrupts the project. The writer deals with the interruption. Later, instead of picking up and resuming where they left off, the individual never finishes the project. Sometimes, the person gives up on writing completely.

Because we know this happens to writers, we should take steps to prevent this kind of outcome. If we create an action to deal with interruptions, we can be confident that we will resume as soon as possible. Several factors can help with this.

1. Think Beyond Desire

The plan must be more than an emotional drive. Too often, writers rely on sheer willpower to carry them through rough patches. This works great, until we encounter fatigue. Feelings lack consistency. We need a plan that remains viable regardless of how we feel.

2. Make It Specific

Remove uncertainty from the process of getting back on track. Develop specific actions that you will take to set yourself back on a path of consistency. Write down these steps and keep them somewhere prominent, where you will review them regularly until you know them by heart. The remaining tips below can serve as a starting point.

3. Don’t Beat Yourself Up

If you fail your daily writing target, don’t beat yourself up! It happens to the best writers. Cut yourself some slack and recognize that missing a day or two (and perhaps more if you are on vacation) is not certain death for your writing. While failing your routine isn’t ideal, it’s far less of a threat to your writing than the destruction of your confidence. So be easy on yourself. This is not a paradox. It’s entirely reasonable to hold yourself to a high standard of consistency, yet still be kind to yourself if you screw up.  

4. Get Back on Track as Soon as Possible

Resolve to get back on track as soon as possible. Don’t allow yourself to stay stuck. Do whatever is necessary to get started again. Sometimes, this means tossing yourself a softball to get an easy hit. It might take the form of giving yourself permission to write something really simple or silly. Even if what you write is unsharable—even if it’s something that goes straight into the trash, the fact that you wrote it puts you back on the right path. Keep the bar low when getting back into your routine. Perfectionism is a habit killer, and never more so than when you have fallen out of your ritual. 

5. Recognize What Distracted You

It’s important to identify the source of your habit’s interruption. Ask yourself if the source of the disruption could interfere again. If so, what can you do to work around it?

For example, if a commitment to a friend or family member interfered, determine if this could happen again. If so, figure out how to schedule future interactions with this person. That way, they’ll be satisfied that you are committing to them, and you’ll be satisfied that you have protected your writing time. 

If you were distracted by some kind of entertainment, develop a system of rewarding yourself for avoiding that distraction. Perhaps you can tell yourself that you will watch an hour of your favorite show, but only after completing your writing target for the day. It’s unrealistic for most people to completely ignore their favorite forms of relaxation, so barter an exchange between your writing and your hobby. Use the thing that could distract you as a incentive for staying on track.

6. Create a Buffer

One strategy that guards against faltering is to create lead-time between when you write and when you share. This particularly benefits writers who have committed to regularly deliver writing to an audience. If you have a blog, for example, it’s valuable to write well in advance of your posting schedule. The same principle follows if you’re traditionally published, if you’re a student writing papers, or if you’re working on a book and you've announced a deadline. By getting well ahead of the due date for your projects, you’ll always have a buffer if you fall out of habit. As mentioned before, this is valuable because it will prevent you from overreacting emotionally. If we always write at the last minute, any disruption can mess with our scheduled sharing. This in turn can have disastrous effects on our confidence. Getting ahead and staying ahead offers peace of mind, which helps us to remain confident and consistent.

7. Take a Planned Break

Sometimes, a writer simply needs a break from writing. If you’re beginning to feel that writing is a chore, it’s probably a sign that you need a vacation from writing. Sometimes, the break will just be a day or two. Other times, you might need a couple of weeks. I think it’s fine for writers to take a break, but it’s crucial to have a plan for resuming. Commit to restarting the routine when your vacation is over. Know that getting back into the swing of your habit may take a few days. Resolve to push past the inertia you may experience until you can get things rolling again. 

Stay the Course

Sooner or later, most of us will fail in maintaining our writing routine. This isn’t a big deal. The big deal is how we handle that failure. If we allow disappointment to paralyze and prevent us from returning to our routine, we’re in trouble, but with a solid plan and a resolve to get back on track, falling out of routine is just a speed bump. Let’s focus on the long term and shake off any setbacks.

Progress Update 2/23/16

The Value of Distance

This week, I’m reminded of the value of distancing myself from my writing. 

I don’t mean giving up on writing; I mean setting aside a specific project for a certain amount of time. This is a technique I hadn’t used in a long time, and I’d forgotten how valuable it is.

At the end of January, I finished the first draft of my book on the writing process. I had planned to immediately do a second draft. Instead, my whole family got sick, and my schedule went up in flames. I didn’t touch the book project for two weeks. 

For the most part, I stayed consistent with my daily writing routine. (I missed three days.) My writing focused on other projects, however, and the book project sat idle. At first, I was upset about this. Later, I realized that this was a good thing.

When I went back to my book draft, I’d gained valuable distance from the project. The intervening time between finishing the first draft and starting the second had blessed me with perspective. I could see problems that I couldn’t see before. I could also sense what I’d done well. Again, this is one of those techniques that I’ve known for years, but I’d forgotten how powerful it is. 

So while I’m upset that my routine was disrupted, I’m happy about the objectivity I gained with regard to my book. Going forward, I’d like to integrate this technique of taking a break from projects more consistently. 

The Moment You Become a Real Writer

The Inciting Event

Have you had your Harajuku moment as a writer?

Author Tim Ferriss describes an incident when his friend was shopping for clothes and lost his cool. While looking for clothing in a Japanese city, Ferriss’s friend became despondent because none of the clothes he wanted were available in his size. The episode sparked the friend to finally lose the weight that he’d been fighting for a long time. 

Ferriss uses the term Harajuku moment to refer to a specific point in time in which an individual feels overwhelmingly convinced that something needs to happen. The moment is a tipping point. The individual becomes a different person as a result, with an altered attitude and approach. I believe that the principle of a Harajuku moment is often crucial in the formation of a writer. 

The Curse of the Legitimate Excuse

Many of us spend months or years talking about how we intend to write. We say we want to become a writer, but we don't take the necessary steps. I have known so many people who fell into this category; they talked and talked about how they wanted to write more. They shared their ideas for a novel or inspiration for poetry. And yet, the vast majority of these people never take action. They never actually do what’s necessary to become a writer. 

My Harajuku Moment

I've been this person myself. I even earned college degrees related to writing technique and the teaching of writing, but then I became a virtuoso of excuses for why I couldn’t write regularly. It was ridiculous. Yet, I allowed myself to spin these excuses for years. 

My own Harajuku moment happened when I considered how much I could have written if I’d stopped making excuses. I realized that during those years, if I’d simply written a few hundred words every day, I could have completed several novels. The revelation hit me: if I’d just sacrificed a few things to write, I could have penned my own version of Harry Potter. I knew that I’d been legitimately busy. Family, work, professional education, financial woes—all of these things took up time and energy over the years. However, when I considered that in spite of my obligations, I’d spent thousands of hours doing other things to relax, I realized that I was a big liar. Somehow, even though I’d sworn that I had no time to write, I’d still found time to watch Netflix, play games on my phone, and sleep in. This really got to me. 

In a single moment, I was struck by the truth that if writing was truly important to me, I would find time to do it. It’s like Jim Rohn says: “If you really want to do something, you'll find a way; if you don’t, you'll find an excuse." That's a great way to think about the Harajuku moment: it's being confronted with the knowledge that our situation could be much different. It can only be different, however, if we take action. 

In Which I Curse You

What it took for me to change is the same thing that I wish upon you: a Harajuku moment. If you are serious about becoming be a writer, but you haven't taken action to insure that it will become a consistent part of your life, then I hope you experience a dramatic episode of truthful reckoning. I don't say this lightly. I know that most people who want to write have good reasons if they fail. But if the act writing is truly important to you—if it offers you self discovery, the power of expression, the ability to think clearly, or the ability to help others—then I want you to reach a state of existential discomfort that will push you to become a writer. 

It’s much, much better to be filled with resolve than to be filled with regret. If writing is important to you, I hope you will take the steps to make it a part of your life. If that Harajuku moment is necessary, I wish it upon you. 

Progress Update 2/18/16

Disruptions to the Writing Process

This week, I continue to learn the importance of consistency.

No matter how long I’ve engaged in a writing routine, I find that something will come along and try to mess with it. This past month, I’ve dealt with a range of disruptions: 

  • Sickness in my entire family (spread over several weeks)
  • An increase in work-related obligations
  • Loss of sleep
  • Loss of energy
  • Financial headaches

I could go on, but these are enough to demonstrate. I know I’m not alone in struggling with these things. 

The point is that stuff like this will always threaten my writing. I need to be prepared, not just to have a daily commitment to my routine, but also to recognize that the unexpected will happen. Part of my routine needs to involve safeguards against those future threats. 

I’m going to be considering new ways to prevent setbacks from the unforeseeable. In the meantime, here’s to staying on track.

The Myth of the Lonely Writer

Writing is surrounded by many myths. Often, these myths hold us back by promoting unrealistic perceptions about our craft. One such belief is the myth of the lonely writer.  

As with most myths about writing, the idea of the lonely writer stems from a romanticized view of the craft. 

Many of us are drawn to the cliche' of the solitary creative. Isolated in his or her writing space (preferably in a private studio filled with sentimental objects) this character feverishly toils to create a work of literary brilliance. This archetype is fueled by centuries of poetry, novels, and films about writers. While it contains some truth, the cliche' promotes several unrealistic expectations about writing. 

Before I move on, let me stress that I think that solitude benefits most writers. I believe that isolation has a place in a healthy writing practice. What I’m reacting to is an extreme view of independence that has the potential to limit growth.

I could point out many problems with the myth, but I’ll focus on three lies that fuel the romanticization of this concept. These lies relate to the themes of genius, productivity, and grit.   

The Lie of Genius

All of us have heard stories about literary geniuses who sequestered themselves away for years and then later emerged and presented a masterpiece to a waiting world. We’ve heard stories like this about Emily Dickinson or Henry David Thoreau. We’ve been thrilled by these stories. For many of us, these dramatic biographies fueled our initial interest in writing.  

Now, there is truth to the idea that living in solitude can help people to create great works. It's also important to remember, however, that the authors in these stories were usually very unusual people. They weren't the average writer. To suppose that imitating their lifestyle will make us equally successful at writing is a bit like supposing that just because Michael Jordan always ate a steak before a game, we too can eat steak and play world-class basketball. 

In addition, we can't link the solitary habits of certain geniuses with the quality of their work as some kind of cause-and-effect. It could be a matter of simple correlation that they happened to be hermits and they happened to create works of literary genius. We can't assume that the genius of their work follows in cause-and-effect fashion from their solitude.  

We also need to consider that the genius of their work may have happened in spite of their solitude, rather than as a result of their solitude. Really, there's no way to prove that famous lonely writers created their masterpieces because they were in fact, lonely. Who knows, maybe Emily Dickinson would've written even better poetry if she hadn’t been an isolated spinster. Maybe not, but who knows? 

My point is that we can’t assume that key literary figures created works of genius as a result of their solitude. Don't shun the association of your fellow writers or the benefits of criticism on the grounds that you are emulating these literary figures. That usually doesn't work. 

The Lie of Productivity

Efficiency is another matter that writers often get wrong when they think about solitude. There’s truth in the idea that spending time alone can boost productivity. However, it’s also true that many writers who spend too much time in solitude become highly inefficient. Writing in isolation should be characterized by productivity, but for many, it turns into long sessions of staring at their navel.  

The best practice for the typical writer is to balance periods of productive solitude with periods of productive socializing. During the solitude, the writer knuckles down and writes like mad. During the social periods, the writer regroups with one or more other people to share, to encourage, and to offer constructive criticism. Maintaining the balance between these two spheres gives the greatest benefit to most writers.

The Lie of Grit

One last lie is that lonely writers have greater resilience. This is also a myth. 

Again, we can look at certain anomalies—writers who were productive and consistent in their isolated existence—but these are not the norm. The average writer who works in isolation is less likely to complete a project, not more. Every year, millions of people resolve to write a book. Every year, the majority of those people give up after a few days. Typically, those who abandon the project worked in secret and lacked support. 

The isolated writer has the greatest opportunity to squander time and energy. For most of us, great consistency in writing comes from avoiding the hermit mentality. If you lack the grit you need to complete a project, you most likely need support more than solitude. Find encouraging friends. Ask them to keep you accountable, and they will! There's no need to act as if you must pull yourself up by your own bootstraps day after day, week after week, month after month. It’s smart to have friends, colleagues, and peers to rely on. If they can help you stay consistent, leaning on them is not a sign of weakness; it's a sign of intelligence. 

A Balanced Solution 

Don't misunderstand me. I'm not bashing solitude. I love solitude. I probably love it too much. What I've learned, however, after years of mediocre writing output, is that prolific writers usually balance solitude with social accountability. If you can grow and produce by spending oodles of time by yourself, peace be with you. But please, be alert and pay attention to whether solitude truly furthers your writing or holds it back. 

Here's my cold, harsh pronouncement for the day: I believe that for most of us, the myth of the lonely writer is an excuse. It's an excuse to avoid being held accountable by others. It's an excuse to sidestep clear communication in writing, which is difficult. It’s an excuse to treat writing as an exercise in self-aggrandizement, rather than an opportunity to serve. It’s an excuse to fuel our fantasies, our vanity, and even our fears, rather than to employ writing as a means of facing reality. 

Being alone is good. It's powerful. It's even necessary. Like everything in this life, however, solitude can be misused. 

Don't let the myth of the lonely writer twist your practice into something imbalanced. May your work be truly filled with genius, productivity, and grit. I'll be here if you want to share it with me.

 

Progress Update 2/11/16

My progress this past week has been mediocre. As a result, I’m reminded of the absolute importance of focus. Without focus, I can’t hope to advance my writing. 

Last week, I was sick. My illness wore me out, making it difficult to write. I literally fell asleep at my keyboard more than once. This trend has continued because I’m still getting over the cold. I also made a big mistake and agreed to take on extra work for a part-time teaching position. The combination of illness plus extra work has wreaked havoc with my writing routine. 

I have done some writing every day, but I haven’t been consistent in meeting my quota. I’m reminded that I shouldn’t commit to anything that threatens my consistency. If there's doubt in my mind that I can stay steady with my writing, I need to turn down offers to do anything extra. 

Not only has my writing suffered, but my performance on the extra project has not been as strong as it could have been. I’m sure this is true, in part, because I have been frustrated by the disruption of my writing routine, which tends to set a positive tone for my day. 

I’m reminded of a great acronym for the word FOCUS: 

Follow One Course Until Successful. 

That idea of sticking to one course is huge. Most of us are so willing to move on to something new, but we really need to stay with one thing. Let that one thing reach its real potential. Refuse to move on until things are really maxed.

That's my take away for this week. If you’ve experienced a setback in your writing, I hope that this will inspire you. Press on. Don't beat yourself up. Don't dwell on the negative. If you can turn things around by doing just a little bit of writing, you’re on your way to being back in the swing. 

Harness Flow to Boost Writing Process

Have ever found yourself sucked so deeply into your writing that you lost sense of time and your physical surroundings? If this happened to you, it’s likely you experienced the phenomenon known as flow. The concept of flow was popularized by psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (me-HI CHICK-sent-me-HI). 

Flow is a state of concentration so strong that an individual becomes completely absorbed in an activity and loses sense of anything other than that activity. Often, the brain’s chemical byproducts during flow are similar to a drug-induced experience. As a result, flow becomes addictive for many people, such as professional athletes. (The athletic aspect of flow serves as the basis for the book The Rise of Superman, which relates the careers of certain extreme sport enthusiasts.) 

What Flow Is and What It Means for Writers

In Csikszentmihalyi’s book entitled Flow, he describes people who engage in a range of activities. Many of these activities are simple, even mundane by many people’s standards, but they can still confer an intense satisfaction. For example, he talks about a European milkmaid who for decades performs the same simple activity of walking a great distance between her house and a dairy farm, but who still finds this activity engrossing and rewarding. Csikszentmihalyi also describes people in less ordinary circumstances, but who still find deep satisfaction in an activity that many would think was rather dull. For example, he shares the story of political prisoners who entertained themselves and found fulfillment by secretly translating well-known poems into different languages as a team. 

The upshot of Csikszentmihalyi’s book is that happiness in the everyday usually doesn’t come from stereotypical sources such as wealth, fame, or influence. Instead, what Csiksgentmihalyi found was that most people experience the greatest fulfillment from consistently doing an activity that draws that them in fully, engaging and satisfying their impulse to accomplish a task. Reaching this state of flow in a preoccupation that we find rewarding can result in consistent happiness over a long span of time.

How to Use Flow in Writing

I believe this concept of flow is deeply important for anyone who wants to engage in a consistent writing ritual. If a writer can experience flow as a part of their writing process, they will be more productive and more fulfilled. What’s crucial is for the writer to develop a routine—a set of triggers—that will put them into that state of writing flow quickly and consistently.

In both Flow and The Rise of Superman, the authors describe how individuals use certain rituals to get quickly into the flow state. This is one of the reasons why I so regularly write about the importance of a writing routine. When we built key components into our writing routine, those components put us more quickly into an ideal mental status. Part of what I’m trying to help people do when I prescribe those routine components is to get them into consistent flow states. 

I’m going to share five areas that can trigger a writing flow state. If you don’t have one or more of these aspects in your routine, please consider how you can incorporate them. I’m confident that they will help you to be more consistent and more fulfilled in your writing.

The Keys to Writing Flow

1. Session prep 

Do you have a plan of action leading into your writing sessions? If you’re not consistently front-loading your writing time with similar activities, you're missing out on one of the factors that can put you into a flow state. For example, I'm a morning writer. One of the key activities leading up to my writing is breakfast. I’ve found that if I prepare my breakfast ahead of time, keep it simple, and eat it immediately before I begin writing, it puts me very quickly into a flow state. 

Here's another example: I do my best to journal the night before my morning writing session. By journaling, I’m preparing my mind for the writing that I’ll be doing. It’s a trigger that puts me in the proper state of mind to experience flow. Many people journal immediately before doing a writing session. I recommend that you experiment depending on when you're writing, but try to incorporate journaling as another part of the routine to get you into flow. 

Breakfast and journaling are just two examples. Meditation or exercise are two more. It's a process of experimentation to find the elements that should go before your writing session. Work to find those elements and do them consistently to jumpstart the routine and get into flow. 

2. Time of the day 

If you haven't found your ideal time of day for writing, find it. Every successful writer that I’ve read about or talked to has determined when they are most effective. Having found that block of time, they jealously guard and stick to it. This becomes crucial to their achieving flow states as often as possible. I happen to be best at writing in the morning, preferably quite early. Mornings are preferred by many writers, but certainly not all. 

You may need to experiment to find your ideal time. Try writing at different times during the day, experiment with one block for several days, and then try a different time. You want to get really, truly good at that part of day. If you switch around the time, you will not be as effective, and it will be much more difficult to get into that state of flow. Once you found your ideal time, stick with it. 

3. Environment 

The stimuli that surround you have great potential for triggering flow states. Whatever influences our senses has enormous impact on our behavior. The entire school of psychology known as behaviorism is based on this concept. The classic story of Pavlov's dog serves as a great example. When thinking about environment, consider how you can spark a consistent response in yourself for optimal writing. Two key stimuli worth considering are location and sound. 

With regard to location, be aware that writers react differently depending on their personality. Some writers prefer a quiet, isolated office. Others write well when surrounded by busyness and hubbub. So if you're the kind of writer who performs best with silence and solitude, don't go to a busy coffee shop or a crowded library. 

You should also think about what sounds best inspire your writing. Don’t consider music alone. It could be the sound of water. Some people like the sound of an electric fan in the background. If you do settle on music, experiment with different types. Many people find music with lyrics distracting. Others find that it inspires. As with the other considerations, experiment to figure out which sounds work best for you. 

Once you’ve found your ideal environment, stick with it. Just being in your ideal location and your sound of choice will launch you into your writing and increase the potential for a flow state.

4. Comfort 

Be sure that the position of your body supports your writing. I’m constantly amazed by the unhealthy quality of many people’s workstations, as well as how they work at them. 

Much has been written on the importance of an ergonomic desk. If you're sitting, be certain that your seat supports your back and doesn't make you sore. Many people swear by a standing desk. If you’re unsure, look into the characteristics of optimal keyboard and monitor height. Wrist and neck strain can be prevented. You don't want to be reaching too high for the keyboard and cause strain on your wrist. Make sure that your screen is also at a good height. It's amazing how many people work at a desk while bending over a display that is too low, causing strain in their neck, back, and shoulders. Elevate your screen to eye level. It's also possible to have a screen too high. Any bodily tension, regardless of the source, causes fatigue and decreases your chance of a flow state.

5. Technology 

How you employ technology can strengthen a strong routine or destroy it. Be realistic.

If you’re using a computer, be sure that it’s reliable. Using a crummy computer can be a huge distraction. I had an old computer that I used for years, and I was so frustrated by the experience that I’d avoid writing. Eventually, I upgraded, and I now have a computer that I love. So if your technology is holding you back, please find a way to upgrade. It’s worth it.

Second, be sure that your technology isn’t distracting you. Turn off anything that might break your concentration. Don't leave social media running in the background. If you’re going to get a lot of messages or emails, turn those things off. Look into a service like freedom.to, which allows you to block particular websites and apps so you can focus on your writing.

Also, if you're using some kind of program for typing, try to find one that will maximize your focus. I love using Scrivener, partly because it has an excellent distraction-free composition mode. This composition mode blacks out the screen with the exception of a simple white page. I love this feature, and it always gets me focused on my writing. 

If you have a phone, tablet, or some other device that could distract, you must either force yourself to ignore it or take whatever measures necessary to prevent it from distracting you. Silence the phone, turn off the signal, put it in a drawer, or remove it completely from the room. Do whatever necessary to remain focused.

May the Flow Be with You

Now if you investigate each of these five areas and do your best to incorporate your best version of each of them, I believe you stand a good chance of achieving writing flow on a regular basis. These are the factors that have the greatest potential of giving you the experience of flow in writing. 

I can't stress enough how vital it is to practice.  Be open to experimentation. Your writing routine should be thought of as an iterative process. Solidify certain components of your routine and then insert something new. Make a variation on it and then solidify that variation. Constantly test the various elements of your routine until you arrive at your ideal.

Watching a page fill up with words is a magical thing. Add to that the utter absorption and rush of ideas that come with flow, and you have one of the best creative experiences. I’ve enjoyed a deep writing flow on multiple occasions. I emerged hours later having been oblivious to the passage of time. The best part may have been the euphoria that followed. Even hours after a strong flow experience, you will still be on a high of excitement over what you did with your writing. That is one of the best experiences a writer can have. If you haven't had it yet, I trust you will soon.  

 

Progress Update 2/1/16

Yesterday marked the end of the period of time I allowed myself for my first draft on my current book project. My goal was to write at least 25,000 words. Last night, I hit 24,241. I called that good enough and went to bed. I've included a screenshot of my target word counter on Scrivener. 

(By the way, setting and achieving word counts is one of my favorite features on Scrivener. I can even tell the program to average out my contribution for each day to keep me on track. I love hearing the program making an audible "ding!" when I reach my daily target.)

Now for any of you who write regularly, you know that 25,000 words is pretty short for a book. (By comparison, National Novel Writing Month suggests 50,000 in just 30 days.) I’m keeping my target low for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to set a goal that I knew I could achieve when I started drafting in December. I work two jobs that fill most of my time six days a week. I’m only able to write for about an hour a day. So setting the bar low has helped me to stay focused. 

Also, I know that short books are often preferred by readers of practical non-fiction. I want to share a work on writing process that people will actually read and find useful, not a long book that readers will abandon after a couple of chapter.

Going forward, I need to revise. The next few weeks will be dedicated to that. I’ll be looking at the various parts and evaluating their relation to the whole. 

It’s a little weird going through the stages of the writing process with this book, given that’s the topic of the work itself. The meta quality messes with my mind sometimes. 

Stay posted for more info about the book. What are you working on?

How to Never Run Out of Writing Material: The Bradbury Formula

If you ever hanker for inspiration from a great author, take a look at Ray Bradbury. Not only did he create many celebrated works, he was also a fascinating human being with a remarkable attitude toward life. I love reading about Bradbury, and in particular, I love to read about how he approached writing. 

In his little book on composition entitled Zen in the Art of Writing, Bradbury shares a secret to his incredible energy, which always bursts forth in his writing:

“Here is my formula...what do you love, and what do you hate?”

He goes on to describe how valuable an exercise it is—and how utterly reliable—to write about one's passions. This remains a surefire means of finding writing material. As long as a writer feels, that person can find something to write about. Bradbury continues later: 

“Ideas lie everywhere, like apples fallen and melting in the grass for lack of wayfaring strangers with an eye and a tongue for beauty.”

Bradbury’s formula—starting with love and hate to generate writing—has stuck with me for many years. On any given project, if I struggle to begin, I always go back to his advice. The things that I feel passionately about have formed my foundation for countless hours of writing. 

So I recommend the same approach to you. If you find yourself staring at a blank page, recall Bradbury’s formula. Can you write about something you feel strongly about? Do that. Even if the angle you take at first doesn’t work in the long run, you got started, and that's the most important thing.

Now Bradbury wasn’t stupid, and he recognizes that what we write in a passion often needs work later. He emphasizes the joy of writing about things we feel deeply about at the start, and he stresses that we should worry about fixing it at a different time:

“Today—explode—fly apart—disintegrate! The other six or seven drafts are going to be pure torture. So why not enjoy the first draft, in the hope that your joy will seek and find others in the world who, reading your story, will catch fire, too?” 

Enjoying that first draft—the utter freedom of it—has become crucial to my process. I wouldn’t dream of approaching it in any other way. 

So if you find yourself stuck, I highly encourage you to do a quick brainstorm. Ask yourself, “What do I love, and what do I hate?” Write about that. Draft from passion, and the pages will come to life. 

Progress Update 1/25/16

More experimentation with dictation

I’ve had a great week. Among other things, I’ve made some progress in my experiments with dictation. While I’m not sold on my approach, I’m getting closer to a useful method. If you’re like me and have a long drive to work, using some of that to dictate is a great way to get some writing done.

I’ve settled on using an iOS app called Dragon Dictation. I’d heard of Dragon before trying it, but the reviews I read were mixed. I’m glad I gave it a shot, because it’s been the best solution I’ve used. 

Let me share some tips that have made the process work more smoothly for me. 

First, if you happen to use the app while driving, you’ll probably want something to hold your phone so you can have your hands free. I purchased a magnetic mount for my phone that makes this easy. 

Also, I’ve found that the road noise can make it difficult for the app to hear my words clearly. I improved the clarity of my voice by plugging in the earbuds that came with my phone. (The factory earbuds have a built in microphone to help with making phone calls.) Using the microphone significantly improved the clarity of my voice, and as a result, made the app much more functional. 

I’ve been impressed with how long I can talk to the app before pressing the button that transcribes my speech. With the other apps I tried (including the speech to text function native to my iPhone), I was forced to stop talking at frequent intervals to allow the app to catch up. This was frustrating for obvious reasons. Maintaining my train of thought was extremely difficult when I continually had to give the app a chance to catch up. I haven’t needed to do this with the Dragon app. To be honest, I don’t know just how long I could talk before pressing the button to record and transcribe. Every few seconds, I push the button to let the app transcribe what I’ve said. 

When I’m done driving, I just copy and paste the transcription into my Evernote app. Later, I work on it in Scrivener on my computer.

I’m looking forward to making dictation a more regular part of my commute and making more progress with my daily writing. If you’ve had luck with dictation, I’d love to hear what you did. Also, if you decide to give it a try, let me know how it works!

The Sound of Consistency: Using Audio to Drive Your Writing Routine

Does a steady writing routine have a particular sound?

I’ve spent months experimenting with various kinds of background noise as I write each morning. I’ve also listened to writers at various skill levels discuss how sound impacts their routine. My conclusion is that sound can play a major role in the formation of a strong writing habit.

Now, I’d love to tell you that a certain song is the key. 

Surprise! Here it is! Just listen to “X” by Band Y.

It’s a little more complicated than that. Finding your ideal background noise, the one that gets you into a state of writing flow, will take some experimentation. As is the case with all writing process, you’ll need to pair best practice with your personality. I recommend that you try different variations for three writing sessions. See which elements do the most to promote your writing. Drop what doesn’t work. Keep and iterate what does until you hone your optimal sound. My most important tip: find sounds that you don't normally hear. If you pick noises unique to your writing, they will have a more powerful impact on your routine.  Let me share a few more specifics to get you started.

Music vs. ambient sounds

Many writers find that some kind of music forms the best audio backdrop for their writing. Some people swear that music distracts them. If you don’t get good results with music, try some kind of ambient sound. These sounds could come from a machine or an app, like the ones that play sounds from nature. You could even buy one of those desktop water fountains. Again, you should try both music and ambient sounds and see which really drives your writing. 

Lyrics—good or bad?

I’ve lost track of the number of writers who’ve told me, “I can’t listen to lyrics when I write.” I’m among this number. Lyrics invariably derail my thoughts as I write. Now, you may find that this isn’t true for you. At any rate, I recommend that if you decide that music is your best writing sound, try listening to music both with and without lyrics. See which variety best inspires your focus. 

Genres—friends in disguise

Don’t assume that just because you enjoy a particular kind of music that it will be your ideal writing noise. You may be surprised to find that music from a genre you’ve never enjoyed before actually focuses your writing. A few years back, I tried listening to a few tracks from the post-rock genre while drafting. This was a genre I’d never been interested in previously. I discovered something remarkable. While I didn’t enjoy post-rock during other activities (such as during a workout or while driving), something about the genre really motivated my writing. Bands such as Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor started to form a crucial part of my routine. I found that this kind of music stimulated my creativity in ways that my favorite genres did not. I also realized that having a unique genre that I only listened to when I wrote made the element of sound a more powerful part of my routine. So if you listen to music while writing, don’t assume that the best choice is your typical musical preference. Look for the genre that motivates the creative side of you.

Consistency

One thing remains crucial after you find your best writing sound: stick with it for a long time. The most important part of maintaining a steady routine is to keep the various elements consistent. Having the same noises in your environment—especially if they are unique to your writing habit—will snap you into the routine. You remember Pavlov's dog, right? That's what you want to do to your writing brain: condition it to respond to an audible trigger.

 

These days, when I sit down to write, I immediately put on my headphones and turn on my ideal writing sound. The noises that I listen to each session have a similarity, so I’m immediately in writing mode. I have found that this helps me to get past the uncertainty that once made it difficult for me to start my writing sessions. Now, instead of staring at that blinking cursor, I get writing quickly and make rapid progress.

(If you’re curious, my current sounds of choice come from an app called Brain.fm. It’s an awesome beta product from a rising startup.)

Progress Update 1/18/16

I’ve had a busy writing week. 

My book progress continues. I’m well over halfway in my first draft. My target is to finish the initial draft by the end of the month and then spend February revising and editing the work. 

I still haven’t settled on a name for the book. For now, I can tell you that it focuses on obstacles in the writing process. Specifically, I emphasize that writing involves two distinct mentalities, one creative and the other analytical. The key to writing more prolifically, I argue, is to manage those two mentalities well. The book offers ways of thinking and techniques to help make writing less painful and more productive. I’m not writing a handbook, so don’t suppose that it will be a list of rules about grammar or other conventions. Rather, it’s an exploration of how thinking about writing in a particular way can make it less difficult. 

My plan is to offer some excerpts from my draft in future posts. I hope that you’ll offer some feedback, so I can revise to make the finished work as useful as possible. 

Whatever you might be writing, I hope it goes well! Please consider telling me about your project in the comments here or in an email. I’d love to hear.

Use These Accountability Hacks for Writing Consistency

If you’re seeking to improve your writing routine, do not neglect the power of accountability. This past year, I developed a daily writing habit. While a range of factors have contributed to my consistency, one tactic trumps all others: accountability.

I don’t particularly like the term accountability. Acknowledging that we need accountability isn’t fun, but if we can get past the humbling truth that we do better with someone (or something) holding us to our goals, we’ll be better off. Let me share a few ideas for utilizing accountability and staying on a path to more prolific writing.

Buddies

The simplest method is to find a friend who will inquire at predetermined intervals about your writing consistency. Preferably, this friend knows you well enough that the accountability process will be comfortable for both of you. In other words, this friend needs to kick you in the pants if you screw up. It’s no good having an accountability partner if they’re bashful about giving you a hard time. At the same time, you need to feel comfortable with this person offering you criticism. If you can’t handle this person’s style of feedback, the arrangement won’t succeed.

If you can’t find a close friend, you should still do your best to find a one-on-one partner. This kind of encounter has the biggest impact on behavior because we hate the idea of letting down someone who will talk to us about our goals. 

The frequency of these meetings is flexible. I recommend going for weekly. Just be sure to set a specific time and consistently attend the sessions

Forums

For a great supplement to a personal accountability partner, find an online forum that allows for accountability

Each week I post to a forum with fellow bloggers. A couple of my friends in that forum consistently offer feedback on my progress. Similarly, I post my weekly progress in an update post on beyondtheblinkingcursor.com. This process of posting weekly and getting feedback forms an important part of my process. The practice has solidified my habit. I don’t want to disappoint my friends or readers, so I’m very reluctant to miss a day. 

When sharing progress about routine, it’s better to have real numbers. Just telling a friend, “Yeah, I did good this week,” really doesn’t cut it. You need specifics. I find two things really help with this: journals and apps. 

Journals

A journal could be a physical book or some kind of digital journaling solution. I highly recommend buying something nice so that you’ll feel committed to using it. For a physical notebook, I’m partial to something leather, such as the handmade journals at Oberon Design. As far as digital journals go, many swear by something like Day1. It’s also easy enough to set up a journal on some kind of ordinary note-taking solution, such as Evernote. 

The key with keeping a journal is to make it simple and consistent. Track your progression as a writer. Write down what’s working for you and what isn’t. Note your mood and your distractions. Jot down encouraging statements for yourself. Be brutally honest. I highly recommend doing this immediately before bedtime. Pondering your habit puts you in a great frame of mind for the following day and increases your commitment.

Apps

You should also consider using an app. These will typically be a virtual accountability, because most of them do not integrate with interpersonal accountability. I find that the simplest of these are usually the best. Be wary of overly-complicated accountability apps. These tend to defeat the intended purpose. If the app you are considering contains a plethora of features, you may want to look for something more streamlined. 

A couple of apps that offer a simple reminder function for habit formation are Todoist or Commit. The list of similar apps is enormous. Try a few and stick with the one that most inspires your routine

Rewards

I need to recommend one last thing with regard to accountability and habit creation for writers: rewards. Find a way to reward yourself for consistent writing. Work this into your accountability. Tell an accountability partner about your specific writing goal for the week. (Examples include: maintaining a certain minimum word count or writing for a specific block of time.) Also mention a specific reward that you will give yourself when you achieve this goal. It shouldn’t be something that will distract you from your ritual or hurt your bank account, but choose something that you'll genuinely enjoy. This is a powerful way to reinforce your consistency. After you’ve done this, try pushing the deadline for your reward a bit further back. So, if you rewarded yourself after a week of consistency, move the reward to a period of two weeks, then three, and so on.

 

Creating and maintaining a writing ritual will boost your confidence and creativity on a daily basis. Follow these guidelines for setting up accountability to set yourself up for success.

Progress Update 1/10/15

This was another solid week for my writing progress. I just passed the halfway point for my target length on my book draft! I continued my writing streak—I’ve now written at least 500 words for twenty consecutive days. 

Talking as Writing

I experimented with a new writing method this week: dictation. Several people have suggested that I try dictating because I have a long work commute. While I’m not sold on the approach, I am intrigued by the possibility of greatly increasing my daily writing output. 

I’ll keep testing methods, but for now, I'll share the positive and negative outcomes.

Positives:

  • Much higher output than my morning ritual alone. On the days that I dictated for just part of my commute, I doubled or tripled my word count.
  • A greater number of supplemental ideas. Something about dictating allowed me to make some unexpected connections.

Negatives:

  • Listening to the dictation and typing out what I’d said was frustrating and surprisingly time-consuming. I tried to find an application that would to this for me, but wasn’t able to find something that worked well. (Let me know if you have a recommendation.) As it is, dictating and then typing is more time-intensive for me than just composing at the computer. 
  • The quality of the dictated draft was far inferior to what I normally compose. The dictated material was also jumbled, repetitive, and occasionally incoherent. Revising and editing these sections will be more work than the other passages.

Perhaps more practice will improve my opinion of dictating as a compositional method. For now, I’m on the fence.

 

Don't Make a Resolution if You Want to Write More

This past week, I thought about my approach to the next year. You probably did something similar. My take on this topic is a little different than some: I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions. 

I wrote about my thoughts and posted them on medium.com, a site that allows any user to blog in a shared format. I’m adding the link because that post discusses my writing ritual. I think my readers at BTBC will recognize some of the themes.

I believe that resolutions can sometimes work for people, but I also believe that many folks deeply discourage themselves if they fail. The post explains what I believe is a much better approach for achieving our goals:

Resolutions Suck--Do This Instead

If you read this, please let me know what you think in the comments here. And it’s okay if you don’t agree with me!

Progress Update 1/3/16

Finding the Groove

This past week has been much smoother that the week prior. While the week of Christmas was a disaster for my family, with every person in my immediate family getting sick, this week was easy and relaxing. I stayed consistent with my writing and built on the previous week’s success. 

I’m excited to see the book draft develop. I’m on a 13 day streak of not missing a day. My word count is almost 8000. I’m on track to finish the initial draft in February—then, it will be time to revise and edit. 

Let me give another plug for the iOS app called Commit. While the $3 price is steep for what does (relative to other apps), I think it’s the best $3 I’ve spent in a long time. The brilliance of the app is its simplicity. It does only one thing: track the number of consecutive days that you have completed a specific task. One or more tasks can be saved on the app. On my app, I’ve saved the question, “Did you write 500 words today?” A big button fills the middle of the page. All I do is press that button if I’ve written my quota for the day. The only other feature is a scale at the bottom of the screen. That scale shows the unbroken chain of days that the activity has been completed. 

As simple as the app may be, it’s made a difference for me. Something about seeing that chain of successful days motivates me and makes me very unwilling to miss a session. Let’s see how far I can go!

How’s your writing? The new year is a great time to establish habits that will keep you writing steadily.

4 Tips to Make Your Writing Time Count

I can’t emphasize too strongly how important it is to guard your writing time. This is probably the most important lesson that I’ve learned in the past year. All of the ambition, desire, and good intentions of an aspiring writer are worthless without a writing schedule. Once a writer has set a daily time for writing, that writer must defend and support the activity. Here are four key tips to keep in mind.

1. Evaluate

You need to find the ideal time for writing. It should be the same block of time every day, with maybe a day or two off. For me, it’s mornings. That’s when I’m the sharpest mentally. That’s when I know I won’t be disturbed by my family. It’s a period that I can count on almost every day. 

Maybe you’re an evening person. Perhaps you can only make time during a lunch break or right after you get home from work. Whatever the block of time, commit to it. 

2. Defend

As soon as you’ve set aside that time to write, it will come under attack. If it’s mornings like me, you’ll want to sleep in. If it’s evenings, you be tempted to chill on the couch. You may find that loved ones resent your commitment. They may think that you should be doing something with them instead of writing. It could even be your dog, whining at you to take him for a walk. 

Whatever the source of the attack, you must resolve to defend that writing time. Keep it safe. Make it a precious part of you day that you relish. Missing it should tear you apart. If you do miss, get back on track as soon as possible.

3. Recount

Find a way to track your sessions. Keep a log of your writing in a journal or an app.  Some people buy a big calendar and draw out a big X through every day that they’ve written. And don’t forget about the value of being accountable to other people. It’s very helpful to have at least one other person to whom you report on a regular basis.

It’s best if you can see the results of an unbroken chain of sessions. This will make you very reluctant to miss. Draw on the energy of all of the previous days to fuel your commitment. I’ve found that this energy not only keeps me from missing, it also pushes me to write even more than my target word count.

4. Frontload

One last tip that many writers neglect: perfect the activities leading up to your daily writing session. It’s best to have some kind of ritual that gets you in the right frame of mind. While you could just jump into the writing, a better course is to warm into the activity.

Because I write in the morning, my ritual starts the night before. Little things that I do prepare me for the writing in the morning. I set the timer on the coffee machine. I put the pan on the stove to cook my eggs. I jot down some goals in a journal after I climb into bed. All these things get me prepped for the writing, and I honestly find that doing them makes it much easier to faithfully adhere to my daily session.

 

In conclusion, I find that setting a specific time to write and supporting that session by practicing defense, accountability, and frontloading strategies have been crucial to my growing success in developing my writing habit. I strongly encourage you to adopt this approach.