Over the past several months, I have been trying to post to my blog at least once a week. In the past week or so, however, I have failed to do so, as I have not been satisfied with what I have written. To stave off my own writing anxieties, I am focusing on the writing that I have accomplished, rather than on the goals I have not. As a writer who struggles with anxiety, I know from experience how helpful it is to focus on my (limited) successes, rather than on my failures. If you suffer from writing-related anxiety, there’s a good chance that you, too, can benefit from focusing on the things that you have done, not the things that you haven’t.
Often, accomplishments have two faces: one face smiles on what we accomplish, while the other frowns on our failures. Frequently writers tell me that they have not accomplished what they planned or they have not achieved their goals, and while doing so, they push any accomplishments into the background. This creates an anxiety-inducing image that exaggerates problems and minimizes successes. If you commonly take such a view, and lose sight of you progress (however small), try to cultivate a focus on the successes, however small, to help boost emotion and motivation.
If you have writer’s block—i.e., if, due to anxiety, you’re struggling to write——the question is how to engage with writing with less anxiety, allowing you to use your efforts more effectively. Making an effort to focus on success can help.[ In one light, a piece of writing can be a success, while in another, a failure. So, for example, my blog has not had a new post this past week (a failure), but I have developed some ideas that could become posts (a success). Or, for example, your dissertation can be completed and accepted (a success), while at the same time you recognize numerous shortcomings (failures). Or your book can be published (a success), but not get good reviews (a failure). If you’re struggling with anxiety-related writing blocks, it’s valuable to focus on the success, however limited, more than on the shortcomings.]
Success and failure of practice
The success of a writer need not be measured in terms of the words on a page; it can also be measured in terms of the experience of writing. Throughout my series on dealing with writer’s block, I have emphasized the value of approaching writing as a practice and trying to develop a good practice, at least in part because thinking about the practice allows a focus on something other than the stuff that other people can reject. Anxiety about how your readers will respond can be sidestepped, for example, by thinking “I’m just writing notes for myself to organize my thoughts.”
With respect to this question of looking for and focusing on successes, it can be worth remembering that some successes are successes of practice. A good practice session—where you work hard, where you learn new things—can be a success, even if you end it thinking “I have to throw away most of what I just wrote.” From the perspective of producing a work to share with others—a final draft—it’s very frustrating to write for a while and then throw most of that writing away. But from the perspective of building a writing practice, that time spent is something of a success: not only does it meet the goal of practicing diligently and productively, it also sets you up for future success by helping you learn what doesn’t work.
If you’re struggling to write, focusing on the practice, and the successes in practice can help avoid anxiety. In the long run, there will be plenty of forces drawing your attention to external goals like publication. To meet those demands, it really helps if you can, in the short run, close off those voices and focus on developing your own healthy voice to guide your practice. If you are struggling with writer’s block—if you’re getting little done due to anxiety—focusing on the approaching due date on your project raises anxiety and the emotional barrier to writing. The work may be due in x weeks, but does focusing on that due date help? What can help is focusing on your practice, and especially on the small gains as steps to building that practice, even if those steps seem small in comparison to what you hope to accomplish.
Standards of evaluation: the half-full/half-empty glass
Partly, this post arose from a writer struggling with severe anxiety who said to me, “I only wrote for seven minutes, not fifteen.” This writer has demonstrated the ability to break through anxiety to finish projects, but at other times is nearly paralyzed with anxiety. This comment came after they had previously planned to spend 15 minutes writing immediately before our meeting, but, to their chagrin, only wrote seven.
From one perspective, it’s obvious that they did not accomplish what they set out to do. But from another perspective—the perspective of someone who has been struggling to write—seven minutes of writing that produce a sentence is a much better outcome than complete avoidance. The question is whether to evaluate that effort with respect to (a) the hoped-for goal (in which case it is too little), or (b) with respect to recent practice (in which case the seven minutes is an improvement).
Consider the famous glass half full/half empty. From the perspective of the person dying of thirst, that half glass is precious—even a single mouthful would be precious. The parched person might want more, but what would be most on their minds—at least for a moment—is the appreciation for the little water they did get. The writer struggling to write is not at death’s door, perhaps, so writing a little doesn’t give quite as much reward as a sip of water to the parched. But compared to nothing, writing a little is a huge change.
The writer who has not been writing due to anxiety has an empty glass. If they manage to get even a drop of water into it (i.e., working productively for a few minutes), that drop should be celebrated, at least for a moment. It should be celebrated not only for the drop of writing that adds to what you had, but also for demonstrating that you can create those drops of water.
Choosing a focus
The case of the half-full/half-empty glass is typically used to distinguish the optimist from the pessimist—the one sees it as (partly) full, and the other as (partly) empty. In that view, the character of the person leads to their perspective.
But this is also a matter of conscious choice: do I focus on the things that I do have (the water in the glass), or on the things that I don’t (the unfilled portion of the glass)? Even the pessimist can make a conscious choice to focus on the positive. The seven-minute work session might not be what you hoped for, but it is something real. Focusing on those small successes as successes can trigger other emotions than anxiety.
There is a connection between expressing gratitude and mental health, and focusing on the good thing that you have is a form of gratitude. Taking time to appreciate and recognize the value in your efforts can shift your emotional state and reduce anxiety.
If you’re struggling to make progress, appreciate the progress that you do make, rather than berating yourself for all that you have not done.
One could argue that it’s unreasonable to entirely focus on small victories when a larger defeat is taking place. When your deadline is looming, celebrating that seven-minute work session may feel crazy because you need more than seven minutes to hit the deadline. But context matters, and realistic plans matter. That seven-minute work session might be the best you have to offer on that day, and demanding more might lead to more harm than good. Knowing the best course of action is difficult.
Pressuring yourself to work harder and push through anxiety might help you meet a short-term goal, but it might also contribute to additional long-term anxiety. If your modus operandi for finishing projects is to get into a frenzy of furious writing at the last minute, that can create an uncomfortable experience that contributes to future anxiety. Lots of people have found themselves making desperate progress immediately before a deadline.
But lots of people have also missed deadlines entirely because of their anxiety. Plenty of people have simply failed to turn in any work when it was due because writing-related anxiety had become so severe. You have to be realistic: how much can you accomplish? And at what cost? What is going to help you work productively? What will maximize your productivity in the short run? And what will maximize your productivity in the long run? Maybe celebrating minor successes today doesn’t lead to finishing your current project on time, but does contribute to finishing more projects on time in the future. And maybe pushing yourself through an ordeal of last-minute writing does help you finish your current project, but also contributes to writing-related anxiety in the future.
Success and completion
Perfectionism delays many writers. They say, “not good enough.” In the short run, being able to celebrate successes could come in the form of saying “I’ve done enough on that section,” which allows you to move on no matter its condition, rather than getting stuck doubting your work and trying to revise.
Don’t shame yourself
If you are struggling with writing-related anxiety, don’t shame yourself for what you haven’t done; it won’t help reduce your anxiety, but may increase it.
Too often, in too many cases, writers find reasons to tell themselves they are not good enough and they shouldn’t be proud. Thinking that you aren’t good enough is likely to induce anxiety, so it can trigger a negative feedback loop.
If you’re struggling with anxiety that impedes writing, it’s important to focus on the kind of thing that will reduce anxiety (small successes, supportive audiences) and keep yourself from thinking about the things that trigger more anxiety (hostile audiences, heavy workloads). If your long-term goal is to write productively, it’s crucial to give yourself positive reinforcement by celebrating even the small successes.
If you’re trying to build a healthy practice and make progress on writing projects, don’t compare yourself to what you want to be when everything is working well (or where you were at your most productive in the past), compare yourself to where you were yesterday or to your worst days. If you didn’t write yesterday, then every minute that you write today is a small victory worth celebrating. Every small victory lets you say, “I accomplished that small thing (and it wasn’t even that painful/I survived it!). I can do it again or more, today.” Each small victory lays a foundation for future growth. Value your accomplishments to help provide motivation to move forward.