Strategy Number One: Mindset
Today we’re looking at the first strategy of five approaches to defeating resistance and getting more written. Last week [here] I explained why you need these five strategies. All of us do. Resistance is built into the human psyche.
How you approach resistance, deal with it, and how you think about it can have a profound effect on how much resistance can kick your butt.
White Knuckling It
One of my most favourite books ever, Dune, by Frank Herbert, introduced me to the Litany against Fear.
I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
It seems extreme to be talking about the Litany Against Fear when we are “just” discussing resistance. But really, resistance is the internal enemy. Stephen Pressfield was not out to lunch when he spent three or more books dealing with Resistance as the enemy, and approaching creative work as an act of war against Resistance.
However, that is my point right there.
Even Pressfield approaches Resistance (with a capital R) as a mortal enemy. He is white knuckling it. He is so internally wound up, watching for Resistance to strike, that it’s a wonder he gets any writing done at all.
Bracing yourself and holding your breath, and pushing through resistance doesn’t work.
Resistance is an internal mindset, one you have built all by yourself. The more energy you feed it (via worry and concern, and even just thinking about resistance), the stronger it grows.
The Bene Gesserit had a better idea, with their Litany Against Fear.
You have to learn to let go.
From one of my favourite movies of all time, ever, Star Wars, at the very beginning of the movie, Princess Leia tells Govenor Tarkin:
“The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”
So, too, does your discipline.
Instead, you have to let go. One of the best ways to figure out how to do this, especially if you’re scratching your head right now and wondering what I mean, is to use deep breathing to relax yourself and let go of the tension.
This really does work.
Deep breathing is good for any time and place, but it works particularly well when you are approaching a writing session.
Resistance to writing can kick in well before your appointed hour at your keyboard.
Especially, if you write later in the day, you have hours beforehand to work yourself up into a lather. You mentally rehearse getting to the keyboard and writing thousands of words. In the back of your brain, you worrying about whether you will actually get it done or not. Will something trip you up this time? Would you be distracted by something, and be halfway through your two hours of writing time before you put fingers to keyboard?
The trick is to catch yourself worrying. When you feel the tension start to build, you know that you are letting resistance feed upon your worry.
This is when you should take four or five slow, deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling as deeply as you can. Slow, deep breathing introduces endorphins into your blood systems. Endorphins are a natural happy pill. They will relax you, and you will find it easier to let go of the budding tension. You will stop worrying about whether you write or not.
You can also try deep breathing just before you write. For the same reason, the endorphins help you relax, and let you reach the flow state faster.
Deep breathing could be incorporated into your writing rituals, if you use them.
Regular meditation has the same effect as deep breathing, but it’s more systemic. The ability to let go of peripheral concerns and focus is invaluable for creative writers.
Even if you do neither of these things, watch your self talk, and instead of staring down resistance, merely watch it from the corner of your eye, while you get on with things.
Past Experience Builds Confidence
If you have always ducked writing, then all your mind knows is that you will always avoid writing. It has no other experience to tell it that you can write well, quickly, and prolifically.
The more productive writing sessions you have, the more your confidence will build that you can successfully resist resistance.
Success builds upon itself.
However, if you’ve got a really bad track record for actually sitting at the keyboard, then you will have to grasp for the smallest glimmer of success, and build upon that.
There are other areas in your life, where you are easily able to defeat resistance and get on and do things. Often, it is the work you do for your day job. Having a boss that you are accountable to helps you shove resistance aside and do what you must.
Your workplace experience can assure you that you can sit down and write when you want to. Are you good at a sport or other creative hobby? You will have used discipline to achieve whatever skills you have in those areas. Remind yourself of any successes you’ve had in these areas, especially when you’re worrying about sitting down to write.
The “Writing Is Hard” Mantra
I am horribly guilty of this one. For some reason, the whiny three-year-old in my brain is convinced that writing is one of the hardest activities in the world. Of course, this is complete bullshit.
Rolling a boulder up a mountain is hard. Just ask Sisyphus.
Shoveling muck for eight hours a day under the boiling sun is hard. Professional sports is hard. Law enforcement and military careers are physically tough.
Writers have it easy in comparison.
Writing is not hard. It is not physically tough by any means, unless sitting and/or standing for long periods is so challenging that it becomes difficult (and some people with physical limitations do find sitting for long periods extremely painful. Ditto standing.) Standing desks, comfortable chairs, ergonomic tricks, dictation to avoid repetitive stress injuries, and so much more can be used to work around physical difficulties in writing.
When you avoid writing because your inner child thinks it is too hard, though, the child isn’t worried about the physical difficulties. The child is whining about how mentally hard it is.
When resistance wins by waving this particular flag, it is because you have taken the belief on board that writing is difficult.
You need to get rid of the belief, no matter how deeply buried it is.
The easiest tactic to eliminate the belief is to catch yourself murmuring about how challenging writing is. When you think of the day’s writing session still to come and feel the tension start to build, it is likely because you believe that writing is difficult.
Because the attitude is so deeply buried in most of us, just monitoring your self-talk, and correcting yourself won’t do. Mostly you won’t even be aware that the belief is at work. It is that buried.
Instead, you have to consciously cultivate the belief that writing is fun, which counters the buried belief that it is so difficult.
Besides, writing is fun! It is most especially fun, just after you have had a good writing session, when you finish a book, when you completely nail the sentence, or when you get great feedback from readers. You need to seek out these moments of reinforcement. Build them up in your mind, until you are convinced that writing is the greatest fun you can have while still dressed.
Eventually, the positive reinforcement will replace the negative belief.
Perhaps there are aspects of writing which you find more difficult than others. Perhaps you hate plotting. Perhaps the development of character arcs drives you crazy.
You must think of the small challenges as mere aspects of your craft which you need to work on. Every writer has weaknesses. That’s all they are, though. They are not overwhelming obstacles! As soon as you start thinking of them as difficult, the resistance kicks in.
Learn to love telling stories. To begin with, you may have to settle for loving having written. But embrace the process, and tell yourself to enjoy it. Eventually, you will have a moment of hindsight and realize that you really do love the process now.
Keep Your Mind Clear
Distractions don’t always come at you from your screen, or your phone, or other people.
Most often, the actual source of the distractions is your own mind. Think about it. Think about a time when you have had a brilliant writing session, where you wrote oodles of words which flowed like syrup onto the page. Think of those writing sessions where the story has gripped you, and you simply cannot write fast enough.
If a member of your family had tapped on your office door at that time, you might have been tempted to ignore them. Once you interacted with them, you likely got back to work as quickly as possible after that, and perhaps even resented the interruption a little.
You can eliminate all external distractions, but sooner or later a different one, one that you hadn’t planned on, will pop up.
Whether you respond to that distraction or not is purely up to you. You choose whether you are going to let yourself be distracted. There is a fraction of a second when you actually make a decision whether to close the notification down, shake your head at whoever is standing at the door, or mute your phone.
When you have learned to deal with external distractions , the internal ones will bubble up, instead.
They usually come in the form of panicky thoughts about things you need to do, that you don’t want to overlook or forget. Mental reminders to yourself to remember to get a birthday card. A wavering thought about whether you should go and do your blog post, instead. And worry about Amazon sending you a quality notice, telling you one of your books has errors in it, that makes you twitch to fix it.
Internal distractions of this sort are dealt with by having a robust calendar, task manager and note-taking system that never lets you down.
You will have to work on developing this system, if you don’t have one already. The note-taking part of the system lets you scribble down mental thoughts of this kind, and puts them in a place where you will find them later.
When you have confidence that your tasks, calendar, and notes will always remind you of things that it would be a problem to forget, then it is far easier to let go of distracting thoughts when you are writing.
I personally use a combination of Microsoft Outlook, and Microsoft OneNote, to remember everything I need to do. All the apps mesh with each other. All the programs sync across my devices, so I am never in danger of losing anything. It is kept in the cloud, too. I have spent years developing my systems, and keep tweaking them as I learned more about how I work, and as technology improves.
It may seem hopelessly anal to obsess about things like this, but I have learned that the only way to not get distracted while I’m writing is to have a system that takes away the worry that I might forget something. It lets me get on with my work.
No matter what platform or technology you prefer, there is a system that will the same for you. Even if you are a pen-and-paper person, you can use bullet journals and printed calendars. You can even build your own tailored system with printables and some of the unique binding systems for loose paper which can be found these days [example].
Generally, distracting thoughts of this sort only arise in the first twenty minutes or so of a writing session. After that, you’re usually in flow and almost impossible to nudge out of focus. However, the thoughts can arise still even when you’re in flow. Usually they are related to the current manuscript. These are the easiest distracting thoughts to deal with. xxx simply add a notation right there in the manuscript, surrounded by X marks or # marks or however you like to offset notes to yourself xxx. Later on, you can search for the notation flag, and deal with the thought properly.
Pick The Right Priority
Sometimes, right now is the worst time to be writing. Just because you had it on your calendar that you would be writing right now, if there are other priorities screaming at you–higher priorities–then forcing yourself to write is counterproductive.
The trick is determining if the other priorities really are higher than the need to write. Often, urgent but not important crises can derail you. It is unusual for non-urgent but more important priorities to crop up.
You need to ask the question about whether it is something you really should deal with now, or not. If you decide not to, then clear space on your calendar or task list (although the calendar is better, because it is a commitment) to deal with this more important thing later. The act of putting it on your calendar implies a promise to deal with it, which is usually enough for your mind clear and for you to return to writing without distractions.
The more organized you become, the less often crises will interrupt you. Being organized puts your life on an even keel. There is a reason that the more successful writers are masters of habitual and unvarying routine.
Know Why You Are Writing
There is nothing worse than getting halfway through a book, only to wonder why on earth you started it. It is very difficult to avoid resistance, when your heart isn’t in the book or you don’t know why you’re writing it.
This is a malady that tends to strike writers who write what they feel like writing, when they feel like writing it.
One of the best tactics you can employ to avoid this horrible sinking feeling is to build a production schedule, with release dates for books that you have carefully considered ahead of time.
Knowing why you writing the book, when you start writing it, will offset any doubts halfway through. When the doubts to rise (and sometimes they can, especially in the boggy middle).
If you don’t want to use a production schedule, then before you start a new book, write a page or two on the benefits of writing this particular book, both internal and external.
- Financial benefits, marketing benefits, branding, fan fulfilment, long-term career benefits.
- Craft benefits, including tackling a new and different techniques this time around, all this time nailing first person point of view.
- Perhaps this is the first book in a new sub genre, that you’re excited to try. Or it’s the fiftieth in this genre, but you’re writing it because the fan mail has been overwhelming, and you want to give your loyal readers a reward.
List anything and everything that you will get out of writing this book. Even if you never read the document again, some of the points will stay in the back of your mind, and keep you moving forward.
Be Aware Of The Rise Of Resistance In Your Gut And Your Mind
This is a very short list of ways that resistance can come at you. Unfortunately, the full list is endless. Because we are creatives, we just as creative at finding unique ways to self-sabotage.
Self-knowledge is the key, here. Monitoring yourself, keeping track of progress and identifying new ways that resistance rises and tackling them, is the only way forward.
Defeating resistance is mostly a mental game, even with externalities that conspire to prevent you from writing. You allow those distractions to really take hold.
Next week we will look at the moment when resistance is usually at its highest, and explore ways to deal with it.