The end of writing. When will it take me up again? Franz Kafka wrote in his diary one gloomy day in 1915. His entries are a testament to a tormented soul that cannot get anything done. Anyone who writes on a regular basis knows: The question is not if but when this happens to you. And since I have to deal with writer’s block all the time, I thought I share the strategies I use personally. So here they are. My tips on how to overcome writer’s block and all the productivity hacks I had to deploy to finish this very article. But first, a quick reflection on the nature of writer’s block.
The Nature of Writer’s Block
Writer’s block is a condition associated with writing or creative endeavours in general. The author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown. It’s usually caused by a combination of psychological and external factors, such as distractions, lack of motivation, self-doubt and a sense of being overwhelmed. Symptoms can include procrastination, blanking on ideas and a feeling of being stuck or uninspired.
So much for the technical definition of writer’s block. We all know there’s more to it, though. If Franz Kafka is any indication, the condition can last for months. It can involve a “lack of appetite”, “unending torments” and a general sense of existential dread. And why shouldn’t it? Imagine a pianist losing the ability to play her Steinway & Sons every other month. Or a bricklayer paralysed by the idea of having to finish the second floor before the roofers show up.
But somehow writing is different. Its end product is much more subjective. And therefore relies more on the relationship of the writer with his or her inner self. Singer-songwriter John Mayer put it beautifully when he said:
Writer’s block is when that two people inside of you, the writer and the reader, when the reader doesn’t love the writer. Or when the listener doesn’t love the player. And so writer’s block is not a failure to write. It is a failure to catch this feedback loop of enjoying what you’re seeing and wanna contribute more to it.
To avoid blockage, Mayer implied, writers must develop a sense of when they’re “ready to sit down and go for it”. The question then becomes how we can reconcile our inner writer with the reader.
7 Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block
Here are seven strategies I use to overcome the existential dread of not being able to write.
1. Read More
If I sense a mild form of writer’s block onset, I usually start by panicking. Is this it? Will I ever be able to write a single word again? Probably not. But once my inner analyst takes over, I start by exploring the problem. And the number one culprit is usually my lack of input in the form of knowledge.
You see, writing is about exploring ideas, linking them with one another and finding similarities and differences. Connecting the dots if you will. More often than not, my writing is stuck for the simple reason that I have no dots to connect. Perhaps I was relying on a superficial understanding of a topic. Or I hoped I could conjure something up based on what I already knew. Like driving a car on an empty battery.
The obvious solution is to pick up a book and do more research. While I did have an idea of strategies I use to overcome writer’s block for this post, I couldn’t really string them together cohesively until I came across John Mayer’s explanation. Reading creates the dots we connect. My inner writer didn’t love the inner reader. Because he thought he could cut corners and get away with it.
2. Read Less
My second tip on how to overcome writer’s block may sound a bit misleading. So let me explain. There are times when I’m not paralysed by the lack of reading but by doing too much of it. I might immerse myself in one idea and soon be led down a rabbit hole. The problem is that it’s a highly branched rabbit hole with no ends. Instead of finishing one essay, I start three other drafts on related topics. Just in case, before the inspiration is gone.
In other words, there’s an overabundance of ideas to process and they keep on coming. In the end, I’m overwhelmed by all the information, not knowing where to begin and how to structure what I learned into a coherent thought. My solution for this conundrum is to one, stop reading things not directly relevant to what I’m supposed to focus on. But also to use my system of merely collecting and recording the dots so I can find them later.
It’s an output problem. My inner writer, we might say, is inundated with dots and can’t keep up. This is why it’s important to limit myself from time to time. Such as focusing on writing that article about writer’s block, which also means ignoring the numerous other ideas about creativity that bubble up.
3. Unleash Your Inner Toddler
Apart from input and output, there’s a third problem I keep running into. And this problem is about the outcome. It occurs when I have done the reading and can easily put words on paper. But whatever comes of it bores my inner reader to death. It’s an unmistakable sign that whatever topic or angle I chose does not grip me. And if I’m bored by my own writing, I can only imagine what the reader would feel.
So what do you do? Well, either you pivot to a different topic. One you’re burning to grapple with. Or you find a new angle for the piece you’re struggling with. A secret weapon to achieving this is the unleashing of my inner toddler. It’s based on a method proposed by Jerry Seinfeld, which I featured in a previous post about how to get better at writing:
The key to being a good writer, is to treat yourself like a baby, very extremely nurturing and loving.
Then switch over to Lou Gossett in An Officer and a Gentleman. And just be a harsh prick, a ball-busting son of a bitch: ‘That is just not good enough. That’s gotta come out, or it’s gotta be re-done or thrown away.’
So flipping back and forth between those two brain quadrants is the key to writing. When you’re wrting you wanna treat your brain like a toddler. It’s just all nurturing and loving and supportiveness. And then when you look at it the next day you wanna be just a hardass. And you switch back and forth.Jerry Seinfeld
Does your writing sound like a PowerPoint presentation for the National Summit of Compliance & Conformity? Have your inner toddler crash the place with his or her impulsivity and silliness. Is perfectionism holding you back? Start scribbling down whatever your juvenile self conjures up. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous or cringe-worthy it is. Write down in a stream-of-consciousness manner. As long as your name is not Taika Waititi, you can always discipline yourself later. At least that’s how this last paragraph came to be.
4. Ask Yourself a Question
There’s the rare occasion when everything is running smoothly. I’m motivated to write and pump out paragraph after paragraph. But suddenly I get stuck at one. Something is keeping me from continuing a thought. Here it often helps if I ask myself a question. Asking good questions is an art form. Questions are versatile instruments to elicit information and discover the truth. And they also work on ourselves.
It’s as simple as it is powerful. The questions you ask yourself can relate to the claims you make, explanations you gave, or examples you chose. A general Why are you avoiding finishing this piece even though it’s almost done? might work. Or you can be more content-specific: What makes asking yourself a question a good strategy to overcome writer’s block?
This approach opens up a conversation with yourself, between your inner writer and your inner reader if you will. It’s amazing what bubbles up from your unconscious. If you keep switching between the writer and the reader, the toddler and the sergeant, you can learn an awful lot about where your writing is lacking and what it takes to satisfy both parties.
5. Change Locations
Next on my list of remedies for overcoming writer’s block is my work routine. Looking back I might realise I’ve worked for seven days straight, sitting alone in a room staring at a piece of digital paper. If deadlines loom and I still have gas in the tank, a change in the work environment often helps.
I’ve set myself up so I can work on multiple devices. On a laptop, a tablet and even my phone. Changing screens and workplaces helps me get the creative juices flowing again. Don’t fight it. Go with the flow, pivot to another location and everything will come together. However, if push comes to shove between writer and reader, there’s one more option to consider.
If none of the above solutions to overcome writer’s block worked, there’s one last productivity hack that usually does it for me: give up. Not entirely, but for now. “Procrastination is the soul rebelling against entrapment,” Nassim Taleb wrote in The Bed of Procrustes. So why not set yourself free and see what happens?
Put down the pen and go for a walk. Get a workout in or go hit the bags. I’ve noticed that much of my writer’s block happens when I’ve been spending way too much time in front of a computer screen. The solution is some sort of physical activity to level out the brainy one. More often than not this creates a whole new problem. Suddenly the ideas are flowing so much that I have to constantly interrupt my workout to write them down. So it’s good to have a notepad in arm’s reach.
A final reason to simply yield to writer’s block comes courtesy of Neil Gaiman. He suggests giving yourself permission to do nothing, to “sit at your desk, stare out at the world”, and perhaps meditate for an hour. Yes, you’re allowed to do that. It’s a legitimate option. If you do it long enough, Gaiman says, you might find that “writing is actually more interesting than doing nothing after a while”.
7. Shave a Yak
Finally, there’s Yak Shaving. Yak Shaving is a potential form of procrastination. The term was coined by MIT student Carlin Vieri who noticed: Pursuing a big goal often leads to little trivial tasks that are nonetheless still relevant to your main project. Yak Shaving can be used to justify activities not directly linked to your work. Or it can be misused to justify procrastination. Let’s take the example of having to finish writing a book.
To avoid the dreaded work we might go shopping for a pullover (because how are we supposed to write if we’re cold). We begin researching the newest and best fabrics (because how are we to pick the right pullover if we’re uneducated). A few steps later we find ourselves shaving the metaphorical yak. The point is, each trivial task is still remotely connected to our original goal. But is leading us further away from what we have to do.
In its worst form, Yak Shaving is about misguided habits and micro routines. Obviously, we prefer doing the smaller tasks over tackling the big ones. So why not work our way up from trivial activities? To get back into finishing this essay, I started by reading a random paragraph. Then correcting a trivial spelling mistake. Changing a sentence. Or two. Editing the whole paragraph while I was at it. And so on.
Writer’s Block and Self-Discipline
Truth be told, productivity hacks tend to be temporary short-term solutions. There’s no way to hack your way to being a productive writer. Overcoming temporary writer’s block is one thing. Building the habitual discipline of writing every day, no matter how you feel is another. Take it from Steven King who knew that:
stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit.
So instead of being the person who avoids writing completely, be the person who at least powers up their laptop every morning. Instead of being the person who only powers up their laptop, be the person who at least stares at the computer screen for an hour. Instead of being the person who only stares at the screen, be the person who at least writes one word a day. Or a sentence. Or god forbid a hundred words.
I try to incorporate the productivity hacks above into my daily routine as much as possible. But more of a measure to prevent getting stuck in the first place. And low and behold, my writer’s block has decreased a whopping 73% over the past two years. And while my inner toddler just made that number up, he also knows: True productivity lies in consistency; in not leaving motivation to chance but making yourself independent from it.