Whether you love writing, hate writing, or find yourself somewhere in between, you’ve probably felt at a loss for words. I know I’ve been there.
Whenever this happens to me, I spend some time down a rabbit hole of reading, researching, and learning way too much about my topic, until something snaps me out of my trance.
Then in a fit of self-loathing, I say to myself, “just write the thing!”
But that’s a lot like telling a screaming, kicking toddler to “just calm down!” How often does that work? Like a screaming child, my ego needs something else from me before it can calm down and get the job done.
What does help depends on why my brain has regressed to this toddler-like state. In these moments of writer’s block, I find that there is usually one of three things going on: procrastination, imposter syndrome, or analysis paralysis.
Let’s talk about the root of these problems, so we can start to look for solutions.
I recently read an article about two different writing styles: plotters and pantsers. Plotters like to plan their writing carefully before their fingers ever hit the keyboard. They start with a detailed outline. They research ahead of time and they always know where their writing is going from the first word.
Pantsers (Does this term remind you of middle school boy bullies from the 80’s or is it just me?) on the other hand, like to fly by the seat of their pants. They get an idea for a blog post, they sit down and let it flow out of them. They may or may not go back to their stream-of-consciousness and give it an organizational make-over.
I have taken to calling myself a recovering pantser lately because I’m trying to be more intentional about my writing. But I also spent years as a plotter. I wrote all of my academic papers that way, for example.
Now, I bring this up because I think plotters and pantsers alike assume the solution to procrastination is to become more like the other. Plotters think, “if I could just be more spontaneous with my writing, I wouldn’t waste so much time planning.” And pantsers think, “if I could just get in the habit of planning my writing, I wouldn’t waste so much time staring at a blank page or building fantastic squirrel obstacle courses in my backyard (totally worth the 20 minutes of procrastination time).”
In reality, though, the root of procrastination goes deeper than your writing style. There’s a reason procrastination is a common trait among perfectionists. We procrastinate when we feel vulnerable about what we’re writing.
We think deadlines will help and they can make the difference between getting something, anything written and writing nothing at all. But there’s also something so thrilling (and so so stressful) about finishing something in a ridiculously short amount of time. For daredevils like me, procrastination is my version of “living on the edge.” So deadlines can actually make procrastination worse.
Procrastination fixes to try:
- Make this your mantra: “Done is better than perfect.”
- Shift your thinking. What do non-procrastinators do differently from you (besides avoid procrastinating, of course)? What would it look like if you were a non-procrastinator? How would you act? How would you look at the world? How would you feel?
- Practice procrastinating on procrastination. When you feel the urge to procrastinate, force yourself to do the vulnerable thing you would rather avoid. Promise yourself you can have a reward if you spend even 5 minutes on the task. If you get into a flow, do whatever you can to not fall out of that space. Sometimes it’s a matter of simply starting.
Imposter syndrome is no joke. Even (or maybe especially) wildly successful people feel like imposters. What is imposter syndrome? It’s the feeling that your success is a fluke, rather than the result of hard work. You feel undeserving of others’ praise and like you don’t belong. Psychologists describe imposter syndrome as the inability to “internalize and own [your] successes.”
One moment in my life stands out here. I remember when I finished the final requirement to receive my Masters degree. The oral, comprehensive exam was the culmination of two years of studying, taking course work, and preparing to answer questions based on a massive reading list. I sat for two hours in front of a panel of three professors (including a couple of Jesuit priests wearing their collars), while they fired questions at me.
Once it was all over, I stepped out into the hall to see my friends in the program waiting for me. The first words out of my mouth were, “Do you ever feel like a fraud?” I knew I had passed the exam. I felt good about my performance. It was tough, but I had also studied really intensely for at least three months to prepare for the exam. And yet, I felt like I had somehow tricked those professors into giving me the M.A. Yep. That’s imposter syndrome.
When imposter syndrome gets in the way of our writing or putting ourselves “out there,” it comes from a place of fear. Just as procrastination is often about the fear of others’ criticizing what we write, imposter syndrome is often about the fear of others’ seeing the “real us.”
Imposter syndrome fixes to try:
- Reframe your thinking. The only real difference between those who experience imposter syndrome and those who do not is how they frame challenges. Acknowledge your privilege, but also acknowledge the ways in which you’ve earned your success through hard work and self-discipline.
- Talk about how you’re feeling with someone you trust who can give you some perspective, especially when you are launching something new or playing big.
I’m particularly susceptible to this problem when I’m writing. I LOVE research. If I could figure out how to get paid to read and do research all day long, I would be in heaven. The trouble is usually, someone expects you to share what you learn with the world. And, again, vulnerability comes with being the thought leader or expert. One response to this kind of vulnerability is analysis paralysis.
Analysis paralysis starts with the inability to make a decision. Someone asks you for feedback and you freeze because you don’t know where to start or you worry about how others will receive your criticism. You get ready to craft an email and it takes you an hour. You want to go on a fabulous vacation and it takes you six months of serious planning to figure things out.
When I’m in “fix mode” here, I tend to run away from analysis paralysis and err on the side of impulsivity because I know otherwise, I won’t be able to make a move. I’m also aware of psychological research that shows having fewer choices actually makes us happier and making fast decisions often leads to better results than overthinking our options.
Analysis paralysis fixes to try:
- Stop researching. Seriously. Just stop. When we fall down the rabbit hole of research, we’re often using it as a crutch to avoid the scary thing called writing (and we can get stuck in the analysis paralysis-procrastination loop).
- Start writing. When we force ourselves to stop researching and just write whatever comes to mind, the ideas will start to flow. Just resist the urge to yell at or shame your toddler ego.
- Make an outline. Writing an outline counts as writing in this case. Sometimes an outline, or even just a fresh angle, is all it takes for the ideas to flow. Maybe the plotters are onto something after all.
Finally, there aren’t many writing problems that can’t be solved by a good writing session with friends. Seriously. I’m now running 90-minute group writing sessions on Zoom called “Write the Thing!” Anyone can hop on and get some accountability. The energy somehow helps you kick your procrastination, imposter syndrome, and analysis paralysis to the curb. It’s the closest thing to magic I know of. Sign up and join us some time!
Photo credit: lightfieldstudios