7 Strategies for Overcoming Procrastination and Reclaiming Your Creative Mojo (part 1)
‘I have been having trouble with my motivation to write. I just feel as though I have no ideas and I haven’t felt like writing recently … What do you do when you aren’t in the mood to write and feel like you have no ideas?’
Can you relate?
When I received this question from a young writer I’ve been mentoring, the first thing I did was to reply with a confession: I, too, had been struggling to sit down, stop procrastinating and just get on with the act of writing.
I suspect I’m not the only one.
To answer my student’s question, however, I reflected on the strategies that have helped me stop procrastinating and start writing. None of them are new or revolutionary, but they’re practical techniques that I actually do practise. So, I share them here in case they encourage and motivate other young (and not-so-young) writers.
1. Morning Pages
Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, encourages all creatives (not just writers) to write three pages longhand every day. The content is not important and is often stream-of-consciousness.
I have a shelf of exercise books filled with morning pages, accumulated over the past decade. Entries often begin with something akin to ‘I don’t feel like writing. I don’t know what to write!’ At times, I’ve wondered if there’s a way to give this kind of journaling more of a focus in order to make it feel more purposeful.
I concede, however, that usually by the end of my three pages, an idea begins to emerge, whether that be a character in my current work-in-progress, a blog post topic, or something entirely new. It really is as though I’m writing my way into writing.
2. Writing Prompts
When my kids were small, I met with my friend and fellow writer, Sonia Helbig, every Tuesday night. We’d select writing prompts from a book, and we’d make each other write. We generated numerous ideas for stories that way.
Writing prompts certainly offer a starting point when you don’t already have an idea busting out of your head and onto the page (or screen), but they can also be adapted to apply to something you’re already working on.
Five of my favourites, which I come back to again and again, can be found elsewhere on my blog. The ‘what if’ and ’10 questions’ exercises are particularly useful when I’m stuck in the middle of piece of writing, unsure of the direction I want it to take.
3. Just 10 Minutes
When my son was a baby, the only time I had to write (other than meeting up with my friend once a week) was during his afternoon nap. At that point, I often felt like a rest myself, rather than sitting at my desk, but I knew that if I waited for inspiration to hit, I’d never write a word. So, I’d ‘trick’ myself into writing by saying, ‘Just 10 minutes’. If I still felt like sleeping after that time, I could. Usually that 10 minutes was all it took to return to the world of my story and I’d find the energy to keep writing until the baby awoke.
4. Writing Sprints and the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro technique simply involves setting a timer for 25 minutes to work on a task. When time’s up, take a break for five minutes and repeat. If you’re able to do four of these, that’s two hours of writing; however, done regularly, even one block of 25 minutes a day can add up to a substantial amount of words over time. It’s called the pomodoro technique simply because the guy who developed it, Francesco Cirillo, used an old-fashioned kitchen timer in shape of a tomato (‘pomodoro’ in Italian) during his university days.
Historical fiction author, Natasha Lester, uses a similar technique, but sets her timer for 30 minutes and calls them ‘writing sprints’. You can read what she has to say about these in her blog post about her writing routine.
5. Crappy First Drafts
It’s been almost two years since my first book was published, and I’m feeling the pressure to ‘produce’ my next manuscript. I don’t have it. But when I focus on the end-result, rather than appreciate the process, the sense of overwhelm starts to build. It’s at this point I’m most likely to procrastinate because the task seems to huge to even bother starting.
Instead, I need to give myself permission to write that crappy first draft without worrying about the end product. I can edit a badly written page; I can’t edit a blank one.
6. Shut Up and Write with a partner
I’m much more likely to exercise if I’m meeting a friend or playing as part of a team. This is because I have to turn up or else let them down. Left to my own will-power, I’d probably opt out of heading out the door, especially on cold winter mornings.
Similarly, I’ve found it helpful to meet up with a few creative friends for ‘shut up and write’ sessions. Using the pomodoro technique, we set the timer and start writing. One note of caution – you do need to ensure you actually shut up and write, or it simply becomes a social catch-up. Using the timer does help manage this and encourage staying on task.
If you’re in Perth, and would benefit from a Shut Up and Write Session get in touch. If you’re in Melbourne, I can put you in contact with someone over there. If you’re elsewhere and organise something similar, let us know!
7. Shut Down the Internet
Even once I begin writing, I sometimes struggle to stay focused. Sitting down at my desk or (more often) at my local cafe isn’t so hard. But before long, I find myself checking my emails or facebook notifications. Sometimes, I’ll ‘quickly’ look up some piece of research I ‘need’ to do. Before I know it, half an hour or more has disappeared, and I’m back at the beginning in terms of being in a creative zone.
According to the research, that’s hardly surprising. Apparently, once we’re distracted by an email, social media, or even a human interruption, it can take up to 23 minutes to regain our focus in addition to the actual time we gave to the distraction in the first place.
Until recently I didn’t use the internet on my laptop, mainly because I didn’t want risk a virus destroying my biggest writing tool, and it certainly helped me avoid online distractions. Several writers I know use the Freedom app, which blocks internet access at specified times, and someone else I know switches to flight mode.
This is perhaps my biggest challenge at the moment. It’s so easy to reach for my phone instead of my pen. But on the days I’m able to resist, especially first thing in the morning, and instead sit in silence with my cup of tea, my head physically feels clearer. The white noise of social media is replaced by the white space necessary for creativity. If I sit in that white space long enough, the ideas start to arrive unforced and I’m reaching for my journal to copy them down.
Over to You
What do you do when you aren’t in the mood for writing and/or feel you have no ideas?