Dealing with writer’s block, Tip 2: Sort your concerns

People who face anxiety-related writing blocks experience a range of different emotional concerns, and  often it is the combination of different concerns that lead to a writing block (See note on writing blocks, at bottom of post).  When fears/doubts/anxieties come in groups, the emotional response is stronger, and it becomes harder to see any of the concerns individually, which makes it harder to eliminate or reduce any of them.  In this post, I’m going to do a rough typology of different fears, and suggest and exercise to sort out concerns so that you can begin to untangle the variety of fears that trigger the emotional response that becomes a writing block. A typology can help in sorting out different anxieties, and can help in making addressing specific anxieties so as to reduce their impact on the writing process.

Why a typology?

As I have previously argued, sorting out different types of writing-related concerns is a good preliminary step toward making plans that can reduce those anxieties and limit their impact on your writing practice.  The typology here is offered as a tool to help distinguish different anxieties that you might experience. It should not be viewed as intellectually rigorous, but rather as a loose guide to identifying and distinguishing your own issues. It is not meant to restrict or limit your concerns—it’s possible that you have concerns that I do not include in my typology—but rather to help you analyze those concerns, so that each concern can be addressed individually rather than en masse, making it possible to begin to make plans for responding to, and possibly eliminating or reducing the concern.

A Typology of Writers’ Fears

  • Fear of rejection (“They won’t accept my work.”)
  • Fear of failure (“I won’t be able to do what I should do”)
  • fear of ridicule (“They will mock and mistreat me”)
  • fear of personal inadequacy (“I’m not good enough”)
  • fear of suffering (“writing sucks”)
  • fear of specific people (“my professor/parents/etc. is so mean!”)

These different types are not mutually exclusive; many come together, as, for example, with a hypothetical cruel teacher/professor who not only grades a work down but also makes cutting comments about your lack of ability.  Recognizing the different dimensions of the anxiety allows a writer the chance to separate out the different dimensions of the criticism, seeing both those that are accurate (the actual errors and weaknesses in the work) from those that are not (a general critique on ability or character that is contrary to evidence of previous experience). 

Realistic and unrealistic anxieties

There is one criterion that deserves its own sorting, separate from the typology, and that is the division between those anxieties that are realistic and relevant and those that are not.  Some anxieties are entirely realistic and therefore very difficult to dispel, most notably the concern that a work will not be accepted. While you may be able to reduce your emotional response to that situation, it’s a real and realistic concern: your work may not be accepted. It’s not a concern that is casually dismissed (though you don’t want to focus on it!). By contrast, emotional difficulties relating to a person in your past—a former teacher, your parents—are not relevant or realistic (in the sense that they are not current, even if the emotional issues remain). It may not be easy to set aside that internal critic that you learned from your past, but it is certainly realistic to do so: someone from your past is not going to read your present work. Concern yourself with the people to whom you will submit your work in the future, not those to whom you submitted it in the past. If you focus on the realistic present concerns and thereby limit or eliminate unrealistic and irrelevant anxieties, the overall level of anxiety is reduced and the more realistic fears that remain may be more easily negotiated.

Exercise 1: How realistic are your worst worries?

[Exercises are for practice, not for performance. They are to learn about yourself and your strengths and weaknesses, and also to increase your skill and ease in putting ideas into words on the page (i.e., writing). Writing an exercise like this will help develop your writing skill generally, which will support your writing in more formal efforts. Don’t worry about making mistakes; just do it for the exercise. Try, but don’t try hard. This exercise is not about pushing your limits of tolerance; it’s about doing something relatively easy to get the sense that not all writing is a difficult battle for precision.]

List some of your writing-related anxieties. For each item in the list, how realistic is that concern?  Are there any concerns that stem from previous experiences that have no bearing on your future performance (e.g., a professor or teacher you no longer work with)?

Goals of this exercise:

  • 1. Put ideas into words on the page (write something!)
  • 2. Identify realistic anxieties for planning purposes
  • 3. Identify unrealistic anxieties for mental health purposes
  • 4. To write without fear of making a mistake
  • 5. To write with minimal effort

To be avoided:

  • 1. Getting stressed over doing the exercise
  • 2. Working hard

Sorting Obstacles

If you struggle with anxieties related to writing—struggle to the point that anxiety significantly interferes with your ability to write—then there’s a good chance that you’ll feel a lot of anxiety when trying to list your anxieties.  Thinking about worrisome things is often a trigger for anxiety, so the exercise I’ve described above could be unpleasant or even counter-productive. If you feel it so, please be kind to yourself and gentle: you’re not going to reduce anxiety by self-criticism.  While the exercise might trigger anxiety, it might also help to calm it. Often, sorting through a group of problems, and seeing the issues clearly can also provide some comfort: no longer are you facing a massive, indistinct monster, instead you have a swarm of lesser issues, some of which you can deal with effectively.  

In the long run, sorting out different obstacles is a preliminary to making plans of action to address those different obstacles. Often, a sorting process of this sort will also lead to some ideas for how to work more effectively. One a problem has been named, solutions are often implicit.  For example, if you recognize a specific cause of anxiety as being related to an unrealistic concern—your fear of your high school writing teacher who won’t be seeing what you’re writing now, for example—it is pretty obvious that the solution is to stop worrying about that person (of course, knowing that you should stop worrying about an unrealistic anxiety does not immediately eliminate or reduce that concern or stop you from worrying, but at least if that specific fear rears its head, you can remind yourself that its not relevant and perhaps even focus your attention elsewhere).

Exercise 2: Where do your fears fit in the typology?

What are the fears that impact your writing process?  Are they concerns about how other people will treat you, or are they concerns about your own shortcomings, or both? How do the issues that block you fit into the typology? Do you have any fears/doubts/anxieties that impact your writing but don’t fit into any of the types described above?

This exercise is, again, more about the process of putting words on the page and the insights you might gain during that process than it is about what you write.  It’s also about engaging in writing without any pressure for any outcome.

Conclusion

My plan for future posts is to discuss different specific concerns about writing and how to address some of them to reduce or, when possible, eliminate, related anxieties. This post gets a start on that process by identifying the specific concerns to which a writer must respond.

Note on Writing Blocks:

As discussed here, “writing blocks” are emotional/intellectual issues that interfere with the writing of people who are otherwise, organized and diligent. Laziness is not a writer’s block—if you don’t try, that’s not a writing block. Competing demands are not writing blocks (in the sense discussed in this post, at least): if you have to care for children that’s not a writing block (though a writing block might lead to you say that your kids need all your available time when you could cut out an hour or 30 minutes for writing if it weren’t for the writing-related anxieties).

Dealing with Writer’s Block, Tip 1: Identify the Causes

To deal with and reduce or eliminate writing blocks, an important first step is to identify the causes of the block.  Until that has been accomplished, it’s difficult to make any plans for change.

I’m going to focus on writing blocks related to fears, doubts, and anxieties. In my experience, writing blocks spring from two main sources: those that spring from fears and anxieties and those that spring from dislike (or even hatred) of the project (See note on writing blocks, below).  Of course fears and anxieties can lead to hatred, and hatred can lead to fears and anxieties, so these two sorts of writing blocks are not entirely independent of each other. But to the extent that a writing block springs from dislike or disinterest in the project (and that dislike or disinterest does not have root causes in any fear, doubt, or anxiety), I don’t have much to say about it, beyond “choose to do it, or choose to walk away.”  I can’t think of any exercises or practice that would make someone interested in work that they hate.

But for writing blocks that have roots in fears, doubts, and anxieties, the writing blocks can be lessened or entirely removed through the development of a good practice and the use of writing exercises.

Exercise and Healthy Practice

In the long run, success as a writer comes from a regular practice of writing. By and large, people who publish regularly are people who work at writing on a regular basis.  Therefore, if you want to write, you should be thinking about how to build a regular practice of writing.  There are regular practices that are built on negative emotions, and this kind of practice—a merciless “try harder or you’ll never be good enough” mindset—can lead to growing emotional barriers. If you push yourself to suffer through a task, it would hardly be surprising if you developed anxieties around that task. 

My basic approach to reducing or eliminating writing blocks sits in the context of building a healthy practice motivated by positive ideals. As you develop a healthy practice, many anxieties and fears can fall away, reducing emotional barriers, even if some anxieties may remain.

Central in developing a healthy writing practice that reduces anxiety is to engage in writing exercises. The crucial factor of a writing exercise is that it is viewed as a trial aimed at building skill, not a final product for presentation. In such exercises, early errors are expected as part of the process of improvement. The concern is for going through the process.  A writing exercise can be viewed as a parallel to a musician playing scales: the scales are not practiced for their own sake, but to help build skill that can be applied to later performances.

To some extent, the key here is shifting focus from product to practice: rather than creating a good written work, create a good writer. In the long run, a good writer will be able to create many good written works. In this context any time you write anything—lists, emails, texts, journal entries, as well as more formal pieces of writing—you’re practicing the general skill of writing, which is to find words to express some idea or information. 

Writing exercises, like the musician’s scales, are a private practice, and being private, it’s not necessary to be concerned with what other people would think of what you write.

Exercise 1: Identify Your Fears, Doubts, and Anxieties

If you are struggling with any sort of anxiety barrier to writing, one very useful writing exercise is to try to identify all the different fears, doubts, and anxieties.  Make a list of all the anxieties, doubts, and fears that you have related to your writing.  Be as detailed as possible. A good list of anxieties provides a starting place for a process of identifying specific concerns that can be addressed in some way. Some writing-related fears are real and can’t simply be dismissed—“It’ll get rejected,” is a very real possibility to acknowledge. Other fears are less accurate—“writing sucks; it’s torture,” isn’t accurate for all writers and is, in a way, a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you tell yourself writing will be painful, you may never develop a non-painful practice.  For many writers, fears of criticism by people from their past trigger anxiety, but making these fears explicit reveals that they can be dismissed as past concerns, not present ones.

In the exercise of writing about your writing-related concerns, not only do you practice your ability to turn ideas into words on the page, but you also gain insight into your process of writing, and that insight can be used to refine and improve your practice.

A word of caution and care: An exercise of writing about anxieties can trigger anxiety, so be gentle with yourself. Spend a few minutes writing down different anxieties, doubts, or fears as a starting point.  Repeat the exercise often, but not so often that it triggers anxieties. Practice identifying your concerns.

In future work, you can focus on specific individual concerns to seek ways to eliminate or otherwise manage/reduce that concern. (I anticipate writing some future posts on dealing with specific concerns/anxieties that many writers experience.) 

Diagnosis is the first step to treatment

If you are struggling with writer’s block—if you’ve written in the past, but are getting stuck now due to anxiety that arises in the writing practice—a first step is to identify the causes of difficulty.  Many anxieties about writing can be eliminated in the process of developing a healthful, productive, and sometimes enjoyable writing practice, but only if those anxieties can be identified and addressed. Writing is always going to demand effort, and will always offer some chance of failure, so it’s never completely free of emotional challenges, but you can develop a healthy practice in part by identifying and then eliminating or reducing the unnecessary concerns.

Note on writing blocks: failure to write does not always count as a writing block. One can only have “writer’s block” if one (a) is generally responsible and self-disciplined, (b) dedicates time to trying to write, and (c) has had some success as a writer in the past.  The second condition speaks to the notion that you must already have learned to write—as demonstrated by having written successfully in the past (as a student in school, at least)–before it’s reasonable to worry about writer’s blocks. There are many things that impede writing that I would not count as writing blocks. Severe illness or injury that prevent writing are not writer’s block. Inability to schedule time to write, whether due to competing responsibilities or to laziness, is not a writer’s block.

Seeking Hope; Building Hope

I am not an optimist. I do not believe things will work out well.  Take these statements as a context for this essay about the importance of seeking (and building) hope.  In my previous post, I wrote about the elusive nature of truth and how, even in the absence of absolute, undeniable truths, it is still important and valuable to continue to seek the truth. There is a small parallel here: like truth, we benefit from seeking hope even though hope may be elusive. 

Hope is an emotion or intellectual state

Hope is an emotional/imaginative construct: it is the anticipation or even expectation of something good. When we have hope, that is a real emotional benefit. But too often, our hopes are slim and seem hugely improbable. When hopes seem too far out of reach, they are often replaced by despair and apathy.

Hopes too easily realized do little to improve emotional states: to “hope” that you can do something trivial gives little emotional boost: the “hope” that you can successfully prepare a cup of tea is not going to inspire you to carry out some other difficult task in the same way that your hopes for a good vacation may inspire you to quickly wrap up loose ends at work.

A writer ought to have big hopes (while also being realistic about them).  I was talking with a writer who said he had something important that should matter to everyone, and then immediately backtracked to ask “who am I to be so egotistical?” But a writer needs that ego.  It’s true and good for this writer to have concern that his work isn’t good enough—that concern can drive efforts to improve on weaknesses, and it’s realistic to accept that one may have weaknesses—but it’s also important that he have the hope that he can be great. Without the hope of greatness, and if you constantly tell yourself that you aren’t good enough to achieve greatness, you won’t make the effort.  Most of us won’t achieve greatness, but many or even most of us can achieve good work. But almost none of us will achieve either good work or greatness without striving for that highest level of achievement and significance that we imagine.

Speaking personally, for over a decade, I’ve been writing to help other writers. I believe that I can help other writers, and I even believe that the ideas I have to share can help the vast majority of struggling writers. But I also have to accept that my work has mostly gone unnoticed.  My blog has never had many readers; my books have never had many readers. Maybe they’re not even as good as I imagine.  All of that is true, and still I hope that I can help people who struggle to write.  Pragmatically, these two conflicting views—that I can greatly help lots of people, and that I help very few people—are both possible. It’s possible that I “could” help, even if I don’t.  Hope operates in a realm of uncertainty.  It’s possible that I could win the lottery, even though it’s very unlikely. If I focus on the possibility of winning, I will take the chance, and thus will write (or will enter the lottery). If I focus on the low probability of success, then I might not take the action.

Ignoring the probabilities

To build hope, it’s sometimes important to deny the probabilities, or even the perceived realities.  Buying a lottery ticket is a form of denying the probabilities: your lottery ticket is very unlikely to win you anything, much less a jackpot of millions. The logical choice is to pass on the lottery ticket because the expected return is less than the cast of paying.  At the same time, if the cost of entry is low, it may be worth taking a chance if for no other reason than to have some hope—as the saying goes, you can’t win if you don’t play.

Writing and other endeavors of skill share some of this dynamic: it’s good to envision greatness, even though the chance of achieving greatness is small.  Still, writing and other skilled activities have additional dimensions that shift the dynamic: although the necessary investment of effort in a writing practice is not trivial—you have to keep investing day after day—writing can offer positive returns even if you don’t hit the jackpot of becoming a rich bestseller.

Building hope

If you buy a lottery ticket, there’s nothing you can do to increase your chance of winning on that ticket, and beyond the chance of winning, there are few rewards available. Still, if we look at hope as providing an emotional boost, that in itself is something of a benefit (and, for a truly depressed person, perhaps the $2 cost of buying a lottery ticket is worth the hope temporary hope that is created).

With writing and other skilled activities, each successive attempt to write may spark some new hope. “If I try this time,” you can say to yourself, “I will get better results than last time.” With practices that depend on skill, this hope will, in the long run, be realized because practice does lead to improved skill.

While you need some hope to make the effort to write, if you invest that effort, there is a good chance that you will build more hope as you build your abilities as a writer, and as you develop new ideas that could be turned into good writing.

The more you practice, the more you build skill, and therefore the more you have reason to hope that your work will provide you some benefit (beyond any benefits you may get from the practice of writing—there are some, but that’s a subject for a separate discussion).

Continuing the Search

Hope is ephemeral; it looks to the future and when the future arrives, whether the hope is realized or not, the hope itself must pass away because it is no longer relevant. If you hope that something will happen by next Sunday, that specific hope will necessary be eliminated next Sunday, whether it is realized or denied. Therefore, it is necessary to keep revising our hopes and looking to a new potentially positive future. A skill-building practice like writing is good for building hopes because each practice session can be driven by the hope of doing something that you did not do in the previous session. Instead of feeling like work is simply a treadmill of drudgery, it is possible to view it as a ramp of hope; each new practice session may be the one in which you write your most brilliant work yet.

Without hope, life is miserable, and without hope it’s almost impossible to make life any better, because it takes some element of hope to act: if you don’t look forward to any benefit from an action, you’re unlikely to take that action. (I don’t mean this is a purely transactional sense: helping another person is a benefit for which one can hope, even without compensation for that help.)  If you despair, a practice in which you hope to build skill, and also aspire to greater goals, is one way to build a little hope to fight back against the despair.

I am not an optimist, and I believe that bad outcomes are generally likely. But when it comes to practice, I do believe that disciplined practice offers a reasonable a chance to build reasonable hopes and experience the benefit of hope rather than just suffering despair.  Practicing a skill like writing is no guarantee that things will turn out well, but a healthy practice helps build reasonable hopes for positive outcomes.

Finding comfort in writing practice 3: Finding time for ideas

[This claims to be the third in a series, but I posted the first and second on LinkedIn, to test whether posting as LinkedIn articles boosted my views.]

This is my third post in the series on finding comfort in a writing practice, and, in a way, I’m finally reaching the points that I initially wanted to make.  I started this series to help a parent I know whose writing practice has been thrown off due to child care demands. I’m not a parent, so I know the concerns of parenting only secondhand.   But I’m pretty sure that a lot of the general suggestions I made in the previous post about developing a practice are far more difficult, if not impossible, for parents. The parent of a young child may never have 15 minutes undisturbed to write, and may never be able to nail down a regular time to write. And, of course, when a parent does have time that they’re not directly caring for their children, there are pressing practical needs that will take precedence over writing—all sorts of self-care and housework. Even if there are a few minutes to write, the chances appear unexpectedly—the desired writing routine may seem out of reach.  It would be a bit facile to just say “make a commitment to your schedule.”

Although I’m not a parent, there are some points that I feel qualified to make.  These are largely ideas about a general relationship with writing and how writing fits into our lives.  In particular, what interests me is how to fit writing into the little empty spaces in out lives. Because the most important dimension of writing is the ideas that we want to express, we can actually work on our writing without actually writing, or with only a little writing.  In the long-run, completing a significant written work—a doctoral dissertation or work for publication—takes many uninterrupted hours of focused attention; I don’t want to suggest otherwise. But, in terms of building a writing practice that can provide some comfort in the moment, and that can be productive in the long run, the imaginative work that fits into the little spaces in life is extremely valuable.

Write because you’re interested, or even fascinated

Ideally, people will write about ideas that interest or fascinate them. In practice, lots of people end up working on projects that don’t interest them. That’s unfortunate, but a little outside the scope of this article, because it was inspired by someone who is interested in their work. Sometimes, however, people who have lost interest in a previously interesting project can re-ignite their interest by re-evaluating their relationship with the project, and my suggestions here might help with that.

The key here is that, if you’re interested in an idea, you’ll think about it, and thinking about your ideas makes a difference.

Visualization and imagination

Imagining how and what you’re going to do, helps you do it better.  Many of the same neural circuits that fire when you actually do something also fire when you imagine doing that thing.  Visualization doesn’t replace practice—especially not for a writer, for whom it is absolutely necessary to get words on to the page—but it can be a strong supplement to it.  For people with difficult schedules, visualization can lay a foundation for productivity by using brief moments of time to develop ideas and phrases that can later be put into writing.

It’s easy to find time for a single thought

Life is filled with moments where there is time for idle thought. Can you fill those moments with thoughts about the ideas you want to write about, or thoughts about how to express those ideas? If you’re sitting at a traffic light on your way to the grocery store, you have time to ask yourself “how would I express that idea?” Or “what is the most important conclusion I can draw from that?”  There’s time for such passing thoughts when cooking, or when doing laundry, or bathing, etc.

Thinking about what you would write, or how you could explain an idea to different people, is a way of engaging the ideas that you will ultimately write about.  Thinking about what to write helps develop ideas and can help you find phrases.  Maybe you don’t write down that thought you had while stopped at the traffic light, but maybe you get a chance to make a quick note on your cell phone while waiting on line at the grocery. And, perhaps most importantly, thinking about a subject helps keep it near the forefront of your mind.

Building patterns of thought

The more you think about an idea, the easier it becomes to call that idea to mind. The most obvious case of this is repetition: the more you repeat something—a name or a phone number or a poem, for example—the easier it is to remember it. Ideas don’t have the same fixity as the words of a poem printed in a book, but they do have some of the same continuity.  If you think about your subject today, you have a place to start thinking about that idea tomorrow.  If you don’t think about your subject for a week, then you have to search your memory for the ideas that you were thinking a week ago.

And the more you build patterns of thought, the more likely the thought will pop up in your mind spontaneously in idle moments.  An idea that you have been considering is more likely to appear in dreams than one you have not.

Geek out

Pretty much everyone knows someone who is extremely interested and absorbed in some idea, pursuit, or activity.  Such people are often mocked as geeks for their focused interest on subjects.  Whatever the interest—be it a game, or a sport, or a job, music, art, etc.—it becomes a dominating focus on a person’s attention. In academia, of course, scholars often “geek out” on their subject of study. Such focus is often derided, but the person who is focused in that way often enjoys the focus and finds meaning in it.  If you are a writer who is struggling to find time to write, and struggling to find time to attend to your work, a geek-out approach can be useful in building patterns of thought.  Focus on your interests; think about them whenever you can.  The more you do, the easier it will be to write when you do find the time.

If you’re writing fiction, think about your fictional characters and setting. If you’re writing non-fiction, think about your subject as much as possible.

Reflections in daily life

Non-fiction writers can often see traces of their subject matter in daily life.  Someone studying human behavior in a specific field of endeavor—in restaurants, for example—may not be able to go to restaurants to observe people in action, but they can still think about how people behave. Perhaps something they observe in their family will remind them of how people act in restaurants.  Or perhaps someone is studying some human characteristic—intelligence, for example—in some specific setting (restaurants, for example), and even though they may not be able to go to a restaurant, they can observe people around them—their families, people at grocery stores—and ask how intelligence (or humility, or honesty, wisdom, creativity, etc.) plays out in the situations they can observe and compare those observations with their ideas about how the characteristic of interest plays out in the specific setting that they are concerned with.

To be sure, not all non-fiction studies have reflections in daily life, but if yours does, then you can develop your thinking on the subject even if you aren’t writing.

Exercises

How would you explain your idea and your interest to your child or children? Or, more generally, how would you explain to a 5-year-old? Or a 10-year-old? Or a teenager?

What would you say you study? Why do you study it? What good is studying it?

What is your “elevator pitch” to a peer? To someone who might offer you a job? To someone who might publish your work?

Conclusion

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, schedules have been upset, and finding time to write is difficult, especially for parents who are now tasked with constant childcare. But, as I have argued in this series of articles, a positive writing practice can provide a form of comfort, offering a chance to focus on things other than the stressful state of the world.  Therefore, it would be good to be able to focus on writing, and especially on the ideas that interest people.  In this article, I have focused on the purely intellectual part of writing—the development of ideas for writing.  Thinking about what you would write if you had the time is a habit that you can develop. All it takes is a focus of attention in the spare moments when the mind wanders.  In the long run, thinking is not enough for a writer, but developing patterns of thought and developing the habit of thinking about your writing—not as an adversary, but as a fascination—can help make actual writing more effective when you find time to sit down to it.

Keeping to the heart of it: Another guitar lesson for my sister

My previous post was inspired by my sister asking me for tips to teach herself guitar and the parallels between what I wanted to say to her and what I would say to a writer/researcher who was struggling to develop an effective writing/research practice.  I’m going to keep down that same path here, while, perhaps, stretching the parallel a little too far.

Keeping the beat; Keeping to the heart of the matter

One of the suggestions I made was that she work on keeping the beat. “Rhythm is everything,” I wrote.  On reflection, I feel like this is true in two ways, though at the time, I was only thinking of one of those meanings.

The first meaning is about music alone (not writing, at least as I was thinking of it): Music depends on rhythm more than it depends on tonality. So, to my sister and any other aspiring guitarist, I would say that getting the rhythm right (especially the strumming/picking) is more important than getting the notes right. Ultimately, of course, you want to get both right. But the question is how to learn and how to learn effectively. Because rhythm is at the heart of music—because music isn’t really music until there is a rhythm—it is the thing that the musician most needs to get right.  With respect to my sister, in particular, I know that she has solid command of the tonal dimension as a singer, and as a singer she is also possessed of sufficient internal rhythm to sing with other people. Given this, it makes even more sense for her to learn rhythm first and foremost—that’s what will enable her to accompany herself, even if she’s only strumming once for each new chord.

The parallel to writing is a little tenuous here—what’s most important in writing is not rhythm, but idea. But at the same time, it’s a reasonable parallel to remind the writer that the crucial element in their creation is the idea that they want to communicate.  This is what the writer needs to practice to develop skill as a writer, but also to develop a personal voice.

Practice and motivation

Speaking generally, practice is better when you focus on what’s really important.  In music, superior rhythm will make better music, and better music generally contributes to more enjoyment of the practice. In writing, superior focus on ideas will be generally lead to a more positive experience—it’s more enjoyable to develop an idea than it is to get bogged down in concern for grammar, for example.

Focusing on priorities can help in dealing with the real difficulties that practices face. This can be particularly true in areas of complexity that are relatively low priority.  In playing the guitar, it is easy to see the strings and the frets as complicated, and spend a lot of energy thinking about mastering that complexity. These things are important, it’s true, but there’s a reason that right-handed guitars put the fretboard in the left hand: the real priority, and the real difficulty is in the action of the righthand, which controls the rhythm. In writing, a lot of people get stuck worrying about grammar—grammar is important, often complex, and one of the first things schools teach about writing. But grammar isn’t at the heart of writing. Ideas are. And people worrying about getting grammar right can lose touch with the ideas that motivated them in the first place, and that can lead to the practice becoming tedious and boring, rather than a way to do something that feels important. To judge whether the grammar or the ideas are more important, think of what is possible for an author: can an author have an editor to fix bad grammar? Yup. Can an author have someone else come up with ideas? Not ethically, at least.

The rhythm of practice

The second meaning of “rhythm is everything,” that occurred to me was that the larger life rhythms of practice are also crucial.

Practice is going to develop better if it’s done regularly and frequently (but without overdoing it).  Given the neurophysiological component of playing guitar (or any other practice, really, including writing), it’s not surprising to think about how practicing every day, or almost every day, will have greater efficacy than occasional practice.

For my sister to become a good guitarist—good enough that she can enjoy playing—she really needs to play a little bit every day. Fifteen minutes a day, seven days a week (totaling one hour, forty-five minutes) is going to do more to help her growth as a guitarist than three dedicated hours each Saturday.

Writing, too, benefits more from regular daily practice than it does from occasional intensive bursts.  There is a real obvious physiological component to writing that practice will help develop—whether you write by hand, by typing on a keyboard, or by dictation (using voice recognition, perhaps), there is a physical element that can become easier with practice.  I never studied typing, for example, but I’ve been using a QWERTY keyboard for decades and there is a certain physiological familiarity that helps me write with far greater ease than writing by hand or using a touch-screen interface. The ease of using the tool that develops with practice allows greater attention on what is important because less attention is needed for the physiological element.  

There is another level at which the rhythm of practice is crucial for the writer, and that is at the level of ideas.  If you think about your work and try to write something every day, then everyday, your brain focuses on your ideas for writing.  The regular practice keeps the ideas fresh in your attention.  If you write early everyday, it’s more likely that you’ll think abut the writing project later in the day. If you write late in the day, everyday, you’re more likely to think your writing early in the day.  If you’re writing only once a week, there’s a good chance that the demands of life will keep you from thinking about your writing project (you may even compartmentalize it, saying “I think about my project in the time I have scheduled for it”). If that’s working for you, great, but for people who are struggling to develop a project a regular practice is better,  The regular practice, however brief, makes it easier to start each work session by following up on the previous session’s work. The weekly practice often has to spend a lot of effort just getting back up to speed on where the work left off.

Keep it simple; keep the challenges relatively small (on the small scale)

To develop a practice that can be maintained, it’s useful to do things that you can accomplish successfully and build upon.  Don’t worry about doing the most difficult stuff immediately.  Worry about doing something that moves you forward.

I specifically suggested that my sister work on moving between the G and C chords, a common and fairly simple chord transition to make.  For a beginner, making that change while keeping a steady beat and also strumming/picking with the other hand is plenty of challenge. And adding in singing while keeping the beat is another level of difficulty. But this represents a small enough challenge that it can be accomplished relatively easily, at least in basic form. 

The ability to accomplish something is important in developing a practice, because it provides positive feedback. And simple doesn’t necessarily mean bad.  There are excellent, enjoyable two-chord songs that could be played using C and G (”Feelin’ Alright,” by Dave Mason/Traffic, and recorded by Joe Cocker, is I-IV, which, in the key of G, is G-C). Simple two-chord songs are obviously not works of complexity to be compared with great symphonic works, but that doesn’t stop them from being great music—not at least if we evaluate the music on its ability to reach a wide audience. A parallel to writing still holds: if you can express a simple idea in writing, or one part of a larger idea, that provides the satisfaction of accomplishment, and is also valuable in its own right.  So doing simple stuff helps build the practice.  And then, in the long, run, the practice develops skills to do more, better.

With each accomplishment, of course, a new challenge can be added, and as practice develops and strengthens itself, there is room to work on developing things other than the simplest fundamentals.  A guitarist who can keep the beat playing simple chords, can work on playing more complex chords. A writer who is getting simple ideas down on the page in simple sentences can work on writing out more complex ideas in more complex sentences.  But underlying the development is the continued rhythm/idea that holds the musical/writerly exploration together.

A Guitar Lesson for My Sister, Or A Paean to Practice.

My sister asked me for tips on teaching herself to strum basic chords on guitar while she sings. Since I taught myself to strum basic chords while I sing, I’m a reasonable person to ask.  The most simple answer—which I gave her, and which is hardly a surprise, I expect—is to practice.  We were texting and she put her “sigh” into words. 

But when I say “practice,” I want her to see that idea in the same light as I do—as something good.  That’s why I’m writing a “paean”—a song of praise—though it’s not really a song, but an essay.  And, I suppose, it’s not really to my sister, or not only to my sister, because these are the fundamental ideas that I think lie at the heart of good writing, or even, good living.

Practice, I must admit, is a central idea in how I approach life. It’s not a concern that rises to the level of obsession, but it is something that I think about and preach for.  (And, naturally, I try to practice what I preach on this subject.) Practice, I believe, leads to a better life—not just for me but for people in general. But I don’t want to digress too much into talking about practice because this is ostensibly a guitar lesson for my sister. 

Practice is difficult

If I were singing a song of praise for practice, it would be easier to ignore or leave aside the manifest difficulties of practice, but an essay making an argument for practice should deal with the complexities of the issue.

There are good reasons to sigh if someone tells you that you need to practice to accomplish your goal.  Practice is difficult. It’s time consuming. It’s frustrating. It can be painful. To ignore these aspects of practice would be to ignore reality.

To practice the guitar as a beginner means making unmusical noises. It means fingers that hurt from pressing on fine, taut wires (nylon strings can make fingers sore; steel strings are worse). And it means the frustrations of trying to get untrained fingers to make precise motions.  These frustrations may be exacerbated by the fact that for the beginner, it the less competent hand that requires the necessary fine motor control to properly fret the strings.  (In the long run, this makes sense for the guitar, because it is the picking that is the more difficult part, which is why right-handed guitars put the fretboard in the left hand, and left-handed guitarists—Hendrix, McCartney, e.g.,—put the fret board in their right hand.  This is, I think, counter=intuitive because the fretboard, with all the multiple frets and multiple strings, appears complicated, while the strumming/picking appears simpler—as just the sweeping of the pick across the strings.)

Failure is frustrating, and practice begins with a lot of failure.  My sister, for all her musicality, and for all her manual dexterity, will probably do more noise making than music making in her practice, at least to start.

And even once she’s practiced enough that she spends more time making music than noise, there will still be difficulties. Practice tends to bump up against limitations. 

Practice can be boring

To do something right—especially something musical—repetition helps.  You want your fingers to go to the right strings and the right frets at the right speed? Repeat the motion, over and over, and you’ll get better.  

Repetition gets boring, though. Boring and frustrating. When you switch between those two chords for the 100th time, you may well be bored. Bored and frustrated—it’s not out of the question that you get bored of the  simple task you’re practicing even before you can do it well.  That’s both boring and frustrating. Practices are like that.  The habits/skills/abilities that support a strong, competent practice don’t develop without repetition.  Trying to play a song? Keep working through it until you play it well. Trying to write a document? Keep writing and revising!

Practice is often frustrating

The anodyne to boredom is to try something new. But, in practice, trying something new means trying something that you haven’t practiced before, and that means that you’re likely to come up against your own limitations again.

Once you have mastered that first simple song—at which point you may well be sick of it from having played it so many times—you will be tempted to learn something new. But, since you won’t have practiced that new song, playing it will be difficult and frustrating, and may have a low reward/frustration ratio.

Practice tends to be like this, in whatever arena.  To avoid boredom, we try new things, but those new things are difficult and frustrating, and the way to master them is to practice, which can wind back to boredom (while including a healthy dose of frustration).

The key, I think, is to find the balance between these two areas—where there is sufficient challenge that it’s not boring, and sufficient competence that it’s not too frustrating.  If we can find that balance, we can possibly find some of the best moments of our lives.

Practice can be rewarding

Practice isn’t always unpleasant. It is not just a move from boredom to frustration and back.  Practice is also exhilarating and often enjoyable.  It carries rewards both in the long run and in the immediate present.

The long-run rewards of practice are, I think, the most obvious.  The expectation is that the frustration and difficulty of practice will payoff with a long-term accomplishment. If you work hard enough, then you have he satisfaction of a job well done.  To be sure, this is a very real and very worthy aspect of practice: there is a lot of long-term comfort in being able to look back at a job well done.

At the same time, there’s another kind of pleasure that can accompany practice, and this is the sense, in the moment, that you’re doing something well.  This is distinct from retrospective pride, though it is certainly related.  But the sense of pleasure in the moment of practice is not so much, I think, pride at an accomplishment, but rather a sense of personal power and ability. And it’s not just satisfaction with self, as it can be absorption into the act.

A very large part of why I learned to play guitar was because I love music, and although my musicianship isn’t nearly up to the standards of the recording stars whose work I love, it is enough to spark my own appreciation of music. I may not play that two-chord song as well as my heroes, but I can play it well enough that I enjoy the song.  Similarly, there are times when I’m writing when I’m entirely caught up in an idea that I think is interesting, and the interest in the idea I’m trying to convey is itself a form a pleasure.

In short, I think practice offers three kinds of reward: the long-term accomplishments; the short-term sense of power/ability; and the absorption into something of interest.

Conclusion

My main point here, I suppose, is not so much to dispel negativity about practicing as to balance than negativity with the positive side, especially the positive aspect that gets overlooked: the pleasure in practice.

Yes, practice is difficult and frustrating.  But that is not the only face of practice.  Practice is also pleasurable and uplifting.  There are times when practice is difficult, perhaps even painful.  But in a good, healthy practice, there should also be times when you feel your strength and ability, and times when you can celebrate accomplishments. 

Perhaps this is all a product of my personal experience: the best things in my life have grown out of practice and effort and working through problems. There are good things that I’ve enjoyed–movies, books, television–that didn’t require effort or investment. But those were small things compared to the satisfactions I’ve felt when my writing, or my music, were going well. And that is why, I write this paean to practice.

On Following Rules

Over the course of my life, I have often found it difficult to follow rules or instructions that didn’t make sense to me.  This is distinct from finding it difficult to follow instructions because I don’t like being ordered around. Like many people, I dislike being ordered around. Sometimes I resist instructions or rules that actually make perfect sense just because I dislike being ordered around. But that’s not the kind of difficulty following rules that interests me here. This is about following instructions without understanding those instructions.

Throughout my schooling, I found it difficult to do things “just because.” If instructions didn’t make sense to me, then it was hard to follow them. When math classes told me to just learn the process, I struggled. As a writer, when writing was something I was forced to do, and the rules of grammar were just rules I had to follow, they made no sense and I struggled to follow them. Once I realized that writing was something I wanted to do (or at least that it was a way to communicate ideas I wanted to communicate), and I saw grammar and punctuation as helping me accomplish what I wanted, grammar and punctuation became much easier. Still, recognizing grammar and punctuation as tools to communicate does not make me sympathetic to small-minded grammarians who want to reduce grammar to simple rules. Rules can help, but they can also hinder.

My new book, Literature Review and Research Design, is very much an outgrowth of the spirit that following rules can be a problem.  In this blog post, I’m primarily in the personal side of this—the sense of motivation and purpose—and the difference between doing things because they make sense to you and doing them because someone says you have to (or should). 

Research and Rules

Research (and life more generally) doesn’t always follow rules.  Crucial to research, in particular, is a willingness to challenge accepted ideas and accepted methods.  But the willingness to challenge accepted ideas and methods has to be blended with the confidence to take action. And where does the confidence to act come from?

Rules can be a very good thing. One place to find confidence to act is by following rules: if you follow the instructions laid out by someone who came before you—someone with expertise (or at least who claimed expertise)—then rules can provide a structure that gives confidence: “If I follow the recipe precisely, I will get a good result.” This ability to follow instructions is extremely valuable in learning of any sort.

But rules need to be applied judiciously.  Rules applied in the wrong context can lead to poor results. Following the wrong rule at the wrong time can lead to error. For example, the common English spelling rule “i before e except after c” isn’t going to help you spell height or weight right. Knowing a rule, or having a set of instructions to follow is not a guarantee of success. Understanding how or when to apply a rule is crucial.

The problem I have in following rules is when I can’t see the sense of purpose.  That lack of insight makes it hard for me to understand how to apply the rules—without knowing how things worked, it’s very difficult to use the rules.  I suppose I mostly think about this in the area of grammar where I really struggled for a long time.  When writing was a task imposed by school teachers, the rules of grammar were just another structure that made an unpleasant exercise even more unpleasant. Now that I have ideas I want to communicate, those rules can help, and having that sense of purpose provides me guidance in applying the rules of grammar and knowing when to violate them.

Writers led astray

In my experience, many dissertation writers struggle because they don’t understand the place and purpose of literature and literature review in the research process. This is at least partly attributable to the fact that “literature review” can mean many different things, and following the rules to create the wrong kind of literature can be a counter-productive time sink. Having a better sense of how research proceeds can help writers avoid this problem.

At the large scale, there common conceptions of the scientific process that hold a mistaken view about what the scientist/research does and how science/research works in practice. This mistaken view plays into the problems that many researchers have with the literature review, particularly at the beginning of the research process. At a smaller scale, I think this comes from specific misconceptions about the purpose of the literature review itself.  These are not entirely unrelated, but I think it worth separating them. 

Common mistaken view of research

On the large scale, the concern that I see for the placement of the literature review in the research process is that it is common to think of research as starting with a definition of the problem.  But in research, as well as in research design, defining the question is a problem in its own right.  For research, in the large, defining a question is difficult because it is often difficult to define concepts (and there is the related difficulty of how to observe/measure those concepts—the problem of operationalization).  

Furthermore, this notion that research starts by defining a question tends to ignore some practical realities of research.  Firstly, there is the simple issue of time and growth: learning often involves discovering that the old questions we asked weren’t the right questions, and this means that over time the project definition/problem definition that seems best will change. 

Additionally, defining a project typically involves not only the theoretical concerns of the researcher, but also a negotiation with a research community—for a dissertation writer, their community starts with their professors. You don’t just come up with a project: you have to convince people to support it, and that often involves accepting their input.

These issues in defining problems are resolved with practice that develops the judgement to know which questions are worth asking, a confidence in the choice of theories and methods, and a way of convincing other members of the research community to support the work.  But these issues of defining a research problem/question complicate the use of literature review—or at least certain kinds of literature reviews.

Common confusion about “literature review”

And on the more specific scale, there is the question of what a literature review is and what it is used for. The phrase “literature review” can refer to a wide range of different activities. On the one hand, “literature review” can be a process of gathering and reading literature and learning from it. On the other, it can be a presentation of material to an audience. Different types of literature review suit different contexts. In some contexts, working on the wrong type of literature review can be wasted effort or even a positive barrier to progress.

A lot of people approach the literature review as partly a task of reading everything of potential relevance and partly a display of that wide range of sources and ideas. This is, I think, a fairly common view of what a literature review should be. It is a view that probably causes a fair amount of grief.  If your purpose is to design your own research project—something that requires focus and commitment despite uncertainty–then tasks that spread your attention across many competing ideas will be a terrible distraction, and possibly a source of growing doubt.

Choosing when to follow the rules

The way I see it, the dissertation project is primarily about learning to make your own choices about how to manage your work and your efforts. You choose the project; you choose how to study it; you choose who to present the work. (Admittedly, all this occurs in the context of a community that may exert a lot of influence over what you can do, but still, the goal is to work independently.)  Among the choices are those of which rules to follow and when.

Sometimes I think that the most crucial personal factor that determines success as a researcher is a degree of blind self-confidence—a strong belief in the self, so that the questions and uncertainties that deter those who are less certain do not slow or stop the researcher.  Every researcher faces uncertainties. Some researchers carefully survey each uncertainty as a serious obstacle. Others roll right over those doubts with blind self-confidence. While a researcher needs to be able to learn from criticism, and to learn their own problems and problems with their research, a researcher also needs to be able to put aside doubt in favor of action. But I don’t want to make this about self-confidence, but rather about having a sense of purpose.

The clearer you own sense of purpose, the easier it is to make the choice to follow rules or not. Or which rules to follow.

In the case of dissertations and literature reviews for dissertations, there are a lot of people out there propounding rules for behavior that will allegedly lead to success (in the literature review specifically and the dissertation more generally)—including me—so maybe the question is: which rules will you choose, and why?

My recommendation for a place to start a literature review: look at the American Psychological Association Publication Manual’s discussion of the introduction to a scholarly article, and especially the “background” section of that. (This is based on the 6th edition. The 7th edition was recently released, but I do not yet have a copy.) 

An Irony of Finishing My Book

Back in January, I was talking with the author of a book that was about to come out. I had been thinking in terms of celebrating his job well done, and was wondering what his next project was gong to be. He surprised me, then, by talking about how he planned to spend the year promoting the book he had just finished. It seemed to me both a good decision on his part, and a somewhat depressing reality.  He had been working on that book for more than a decade, so it seems like being able to finish the project would be welcome.

The reality is, however, that books want promotion, and generally the people who have to promote them are their authors. Authors give talks. Authors write to people about their book, asking them to read it, to review it. They work to get the word out.

When I was trying to put the final pieces in place—reading the page proofs, doing the index—I started thinking about working on my next project. But, not really. Immediately after finishing the page proofs, I started working on blog posts, videos, and letters to people.

I think that I have “finished” my book a number of times over the years.  There was the time that I finished the first complete draft and gave it to someone else to read. There was the time that I finished a completely revised draft and gave it to someone else to read. There was the time that I finished a draft and began writing proposals for agents/publishers. And then there was the time I finished revising the draft to use what I learned writing the proposals.  Then, once I finished that draft, I had the proposals to write. And once I had a proposal accepted, I needed to work on the contract. Then I revised the draft in response to the reviews, finishing the project yet again.  Not long after than, I had to read the copy-edited files to check the work of the copy editor and get an almost last chance at changes.  (At the copy-editing stage, the publishers were emphatic about not making significant changes—they even gave me locked files—not that I wanted to make big changes. I wanted to be finished.)  And only a little while after that, I had to read the page proofs and do the index.  And then, I was finished! The publisher took the files, and began production of the book.

Except that I’m not finished. I may be finished writing the book itself, but the book project continues.  This blog post—a short one for me—is part of that process. Three videos are in production.  Sending out promotional copies is on my to-do list, though I think I’ll wait until after Christmas before I brave the post office to send stuff to people.

There is a famous saying that a work of art is never completed, only abandoned (from Paul Valéry).  I have always thought about that saying in terms of being willing to let the work go in the sense of not messing around with the work itself once it reaches a certain point.  But as I write this post, I see a different view of it: not only can you abandon the work itself, you can abandon the larger project as a whole.  One possible option I face is to simply let the book go.  Not make any promotional effort.  But that just doesn’t seem like a good idea in terms of my larger career as a writer, writing coach, and editor.  Having invested a lot of effort into my book, and having gotten support for it from my publisher, it seems to be worth the continued effort to see if I can help it along its way.

I was recently pondering what it means to be a writer.  Without wanting to get into a semantic debate, it seems to me that part of being a writer is this indeterminate nature of projects.  They don’t just grow and finish.  They jump along in fits and starts with multiple drafts reviewed by multiple people, and include all sorts of related effort to promote the book—first to agents or publishers, then to potential readers.

At this point, my feelings about being done are mixed.  As, indeed, my feelings about projects generally are.  On the one hand, I have my conviction that my book and my ideas provide dissertation writers with valuable insights.  My book can help negotiate some of the problems with the early stages of writing a dissertation, in particular, problems in dealing with the literature and in designing/defining and developing a research project. And it’s done!  On the other hand, I made a lot of choices—what to include and what to exclude; how to present ideas, etc—that maybe weren’t the best choices. I must admit anxiety over potentially bad reviews (and I expect there are a lot of people who would reject my ideas out of hand if they read them).  And I have even greater anxiety over the book not being noticed at all!  Into this mixed-bag of emotions is thrown the choice of whether to keep working on this project—at this point to produce promotional materials and to reach out to people—or not.

On a final note, I want to say that even though the project is still ongoing, there is still reason to celebrate an important accomplishment within that larger process.  Yes, I may not be done working on my book, but I got my book published!

Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice

Maintaining practice after completing a project

It has been over a month since I last posted to my blog (and much to my pleasant surprise, that gap was even noticed by someone).  Despite the hiatus, it was a reasonably productive time, as my efforts were simply directed to other efforts.

The two main endeavors that have been taking my time are 1. finishing my book, and 2. making some videos.

My book is about to come out. 

It will be available on December 16th.  Over the last month+, I have checked the copy-edited files, read and corrected the page proofs twice, and also done the index.  That all was mostly done by mid-November, and the book has been out of my hands for some time now.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have worked on making some videos to help promote my book and my business.  I’m not good at visual stuff; I don’t really think in visual terms, so it’s hard for me to translate the ideas that I want to discuss in a visual presentation.  I am used to talking with people about these ideas (and writing about these ideas), so the upshot is that these most recent videos are basically just me giving powerpoint presentations, and all the slides are text (and sometimes even a fair amount of text). Moving to a more sophisticated visual language is something that will only evolve over time and practice. The videographer actually brought up his concern for visual consistency between this series of videos and any future videos (which I intend to do). I think/hope/expect that these will be superior to previous videos I made, which were also basically powerpoint presentations, but which were produced using the tools I had on hand (i.e., my laptop’s built-in camera and microphone and free video software). 

As of now, the videos are in the process of being made, and my tasks are, at the least, changing. This is all to say that I have been working recently, but that due to the progress I have been making, I no longer have the same set of tasks to work on. 

Currently, I need to find new rhythms to replace the rhythms that were shaped by the needs of finishing the previous projects, and now that those projects are essentially done, I’m a little bit at loose ends as I try to figure out where I will be focusing my energy next.  This post is very much an exercise in trying to wrap loose ends into something that I can post on my blog. and to generate some new momentum on writing blog posts, when I haven’t given them much thought in a while.

Partly the issue is in choosing where to focus my efforts. It’s not that I don’t have things that I could work on, it’s just a question of deciding which. Blogging is something of a sidebar—it’s something I do while I’m also working on something else—so it’s a relatively good task for a short term, transitional moments in a writing practice.  

Prioritizing different tasks is always difficult because the necessary choices are fraught with uncertainty.  This is one reason that it can be difficult to get moving on a new task immediately after completing a previous one.  But choices of what to work on are good ones to decide relatively quickly: better to get writing, than to sit wondering what to write about.

That’s my main message for this post, and for myself at this moment: get writing, don’t sit around wondering what to write about.  I’m going to wrap this up here just so that I can post it, and then I’ll get on to a next project. Or at least get on to choosing a new project to work on.

Taking a long view

My current plan for blogging is aimed at posting a new essay each week on Mondays.  This doesn’t always happen. Indeed, with respect to actually posting on Mondays, it’s been happening infrequently.  This is not ideal.  Of course, life isn’t always ideal, and learning to deal with the difficulties of the moment is valuable. This post is about taking a long view toward writing and writing projects, so that the difficulties of the moment don’t stop you in the long run.

I am thinking, in part, about a client who hasn’t gotten work done recently due to the death of a loved one. He wrote to me a few days ago to apologize that he has not been able to get moving on his project.  He is on a schedule—the project really needs to be done in about 9 months—so it’s not as if there is no concern for productivity.  But this is definitely enough time that taking the long view is meaningful.  The big question for this writer is not what he does in the next week or two; the question is what he does in the next nine months.  Sure, we can say that losing two weeks is losing almost 10% of the total time he has available, but that doesn’t take into account differences in his relationship to his work.  Basically the question is whether losing two weeks is worth it, if it helps the writer work more effectively over the remaining 90% of his available time.

Small changes in productivity make a big difference over long time periods

Suppose writing a project requires 100 units of work. (Yes, it’s a little silly to try to quantize work so simplistically, but it helps illustrate the issue.)  If a writer does 1 unit each week, then the writer will finish the project in 100 weeks.  But, especially with a lengthy project, a slight increase in productivity can result in a reasonably significant reduction in time: If a writer does 1.1 units of work a week, that 100-unit writing project will take about 91 weeks.

Let’s say the writer who lost his loved one has to do 100 units of work in 40 weeks time—that’s 2.5 units of work per week.  If he loses two weeks, then he has to do 100 units of work in 38 weeks, or 2.63 units a week.  Moving from 2.5 units/week to 2.63 units/week requires increasing productivity by about 5.2%, which doesn’t seem like a great increase productivity.  If we assume that each unit of work takes about 10 hours, then doing 2.5 units/week requires 25 hours of effort. So to increase productivity by the necessary 5.2% would mean spending about an extra hour and 20 minutes per week (assuming that productivity per hour does not decrease).

So, if we take the long view with respect to a writing project or writing practice, it becomes easier to take short periods of time off, especially if taking that time off can help improve productivity.

Can taking time off improve productivity?

The question actually has two parts because we can measure productivity in two different ways: in terms of absolute product, and in terms of productivity per unit of time.  With respect to completing a project like a dissertation or book, it is the absolute productivity that is of immediate importance: the manuscript must be written and submitted, and that’s all there is to it.  But in terms of a writing practice, the question of productivity per unit of time is more interesting: it’s not so much a question of completing a single work, so much as of what you get for your efforts.

When talking about taking time off increasing productivity, this split in measures of productivity leads to a split in the question. One question is: can taking time off increase overall productivity? The other question is: can taking time off increase productivity per unit of time?  For a writer facing a deadline, the first question is the one that is most obviously important: will I get the whole work done?  But for that writer, the question of productivity per unit of time has a crucial impact on the question of overall productivity, as illustrated in the simple example above.

I want to argue for the value of time off in increasing productivity per unit of time. It should be obvious that in the right contexts, time off can improve productivity.  This is pretty obvious in extreme cases: someone working 120 hours a week will probably be more productive per hour if they start working “only” 60 hours per week.  Meanwhile, it seems entirely questionable that someone struggling with writer’s block might not similarly benefit: if productivity is low and time spent is also low, can taking time off help improve productivity? This is more questionable.  But if productivity is already low, then it seems like a reasonable effort to try to improve productivity, and worry about losing time (in which, due to low productivity, little would be accomplished) doesn’t help.

One way to increase productivity is to improve your relationship with your work.  It has been argued that procrastination can stem from resentment (Fiore’s The Now Habit), and one way to resent your work is to feel trapped by it.  This writer who lost his loved one might resent his work if he feels forced to it at a time when he’s grieving, so my concern is that forcing himself to work (or my pushing him to work too aggressively) will not improve long-term production.  At the same time, I do want to encourage this writer to think about his work as a potential escape from his grief—engagement in an activity can, at least for short periods, give some relief from emotional difficulties.  This all is part and parcel of his relationship with his work.  I want to focus on helping him improve his relationship with his work, because I think that writers, who often lose enthusiasm for their projects as they near their completion, can gain great benefit from rediscovering the lost passion that initially inspired a work.  Creating such a shift of attitude can be facilitated by taking some time off.

How much can productivity increase?

In my quantized example above, I indicated that time off in a long project can be made up with small increases in productivity.  That is somewhat dependent on context, however.  The amount that productivity can increase is dependent on how productive one already is. 

Someone who is already very productive, and working a lot, won’t easily increase productivity.  If someone is working 100 hours a week and using the time effectively, then it might be really hard to get a 5% increase in productivity.

But, for people who have been getting stuck on a big project, like the writer who lost his loved one, the story is very different.  People who are stuck on big projects are often people who are facing particularly low productivity with respect to their historical norms.  A dissertation writer who gets stuck and fails to make progress on a dissertation is almost always someone at a relatively low level of productivity compared to their own history.  People advance to writing a dissertation because of their demonstrated ability to do scholarly work. So often, productivity levels with respect to large projects are relatively low compared to previously established performance.

A writer whose anxiety stops her from sitting down to write is producing no writing at all.  If she has a history of previous success as a writer, then there’s an opportunity for massive improvement. Recently, I worked with a dissertation writer over about nine months, at the end of which, she successfully defended a dissertation. During the first few months, little progress was made—perhaps one chapter was revised during the first three months we worked together. During the last six months, however, the remaining three chapters were revised and new introductions and conclusions were written, drafts submitted to committee members and revisions made with respect to the feedback received.  More importantly, perhaps, the writer went from saying “I can’t get anything done; I’m not getting anything done,” to saying “I am making progress.”  I can’t precisely quantify that difference, but that’s the real key, if we take the long view.

Emotions are key

I believe in practice. I preach the importance of practice. I push people to write every day (I also push myself to write every day).  But, in a long view, practice wants to be built on a good foundation—a foundation that brings the writer back to the writing day after day.  Emotions are key in that foundation.  If you feel bad about what you’re doing, and if doing what you’re doing makes you feel bad, it’s going to be really hard to maintain a good level of effort.  If, for example, writing is a source of anxiety, or if you resent your writing because it keeps you from attending to other important things in your life, then it’s hard to keep going.

In this long view of writing practice, taking time off for mental health and doing other things to support a positive relationship with writing help lay the foundation for a positive practice that allows the writer to access their abilities and put them into action on a more regular basis.  Writing is hard. It requires effort.  But, like many things that require effort, it is also rewarding.  If we develop a good relationship with writing, then maintaining a healthy and productive practice is much easier and helps unlock greater levels of productivity as focus and energy shift away from the anxiety or resentment and back towards the interests that really motivate us. And if we do that, in the long run, we’re going to be more productive.