Writer’s Block Is a Myth

The New York Times obituary of Joseph Mitchell heralded his work writing about average and eccentric folks, which he did well… until he didn’t. According to the obit:

If his name is not as widely known as it might have been, that is mostly because for the last three decades of his life, he wrote nary a word that anybody got to see. For years, he would show up at his tiny office at The New Yorker every day and assure his colleagues that he was working on something, but that it was not quite ready…. Whatever it was, nothing of any substance emerged from his typewriter after 1965 and his friends came to think of it as an exceptionally bad case of writer’s block.

The piece goes on to say that his editor suspected that he was plagued by perfectionism. After all, the janitor at The New Yorker cleaned reams of copy out of his wastepaper bin.

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It’s tragic, really. If you haven’t read Up in the Old Hotel, do. It’s a carefully-curated collection of his work profiling unexpected characters. Mitchell sucks you in, grabs hold, and doesn’t let go until the last page.

So, what happened? Was it the infamous “writer’s block” that did him in?

I think writer’s block is a construct–a concept invented to allow talented writers an excuse for not finishing the work. Feeling stuck and stressed and overwhelmed and unmotivated occurs naturally in any creative profession. The fear of failing, of being ridiculed, of pouring your heart, soul, time, and talent into something that might be torn apart? Well, it’s enough to drive anyone crazy.

Crazy enough, perhaps, to stop writing altogether.

I’m guilty of this. I have a big project, a personal one rather than a client project, that I’ve backburnered time and time (and time and time) again. My reason excuse could easily be, “Oh, man. I’m just blocked on this one.” But I know that’s not the case. I know that this is a personal project, and it means a lot to me. I know that, by writing, I risk criticism, ridicule, and burning at the stake.

Okay. Maybe not. Definitely not. But it feels like that, so I don’t write.

So, what does a writer do to overcome this? Well, first off, stop calling it “writer’s block” because you’re letting yourself off the hook.

Then, set yourself a good, solid goal. Note that I didn’t say a big, lofty goal. Just a good, solid one. Like, tell yourself you’re going to write 250 words toward your project each day. That’s not much–one page, double-spaced. You can do it. Heck, you could probably do more, but that’s not your goal. Stick with 250. Hit that word count, then save and close your document.

Do it again the next day and the next day and the next. Before you know it, your project will be up and running, sprinting toward the finish line.

Don’t let yourself claim a case of “writer’s block.” Do the work. Keep at it.

As for Joseph Mitchell, who knows, but we all would’ve been better off to have had more of his work–imperfect as it may have been.

5 Ways to Feel Crazy Productive Every Single Day

Do note that this piece isn’t called “5 ways to be crazy productive.”

This list of five wins will help you feel crazy productive every single day. And who doesn’t want to feel like they’re getting it all done?

5 Ways to Feel Crazy Productive Every Single Day

5 easy, simple, can’t-miss ways to feel crazy productive:

  1. Make your bed as soon as you get up. Seriously. It may seem unnecessary, but if you don’t get anything else done the rest of the day, at least you did that!
  2. Drink 8-10 glasses of water every day. Put it on your to-do list, and relish crossing it off!
  3. Turn off notifications on your cell phone, tablet, and laptop for two hours every morning. You will be astounded – at least, I was – to see how much you get done without all those dings.
  4. As soon as you sit in your desk chair, pull out a sticky note or scrap of paper, and write at the top: The single most important thing for me to accomplish today is____. Then, do that thing! It seems simple, right? But how many times do you think, “It’s already 5:00, and I’ve gotten nothing accomplished!” This will ensure you have your Most Important Thing done!
  5. This last one’s a biggie and something I’ve only recently started. When I plot my day, I now estimate how long a task will take. I write that amount in pencil next to the task or meeting. Then, when I complete the task, I write down how long it actually took. Four days into this routine, and my eyes are open wide! I had my schedule all kinds of under- and over-estimated. Now, I’m honing in on a more accurate idea of what I can accomplish in a day. (By the way, I used almost one hour less time yesterday than anticipated. Hello, bonus nap!)

What about you? How do you set yourself up to feel good about your accomplishments each day? 

Does a work/life balance really exist?

Recently, I was combing through the January 2014 issue of Real Simple. I love this magazine. It feeds my obsession with cleanliness and organization.

Anyway, there was a piece about balance (I didn’t save the mag, so I’m sorry I can’t cite the author). Several contributors gave their definition of balance.

My overwhelming takeaway?

Balance means something different to everyone, and the important thing is to figure out your definition and aim for that. And – gasp! – it doesn’t necessarily mean putting in the exact same amount of effort with your kids as you do at work while maintaining a well-stocked, alphabetized pantry and a closet full of perfectly-tailored clothes.

I don’t know my definition yet – it has something to do with feeling professionally fulfilled while having plenty of time to walk and train with my dogs and hang out with friends and family – but I’m working on it.

So, does a work/life balance really exist?

Yep.

You just have to figure out what it is for you then work toward that.

Create a morning routine

What does your morning routine look like? Do you frantically search for your keys while downing a cup of coffee? Do you bolt out the door a few minutes late every day? Do you practice yoga or meditate? Hit the gym? Hit the snooze button?

morning coffee

I have never been a morning person. Ever. But recently I’ve found some serious value in a morning routine.

Why?

A morning routine sets up your day for success. And you don’t even have to be a “morning person” to take advantage of a routine. Once you adjust to a new way of doing things, it becomes easier to stay on task and on point.

There’s no “right” routine other than finding what’s best for you. (Lifehacker has some tips, though I’d never suggest giving up coffee! zen habits has a suggestion, too, though I can’t imagine waking up at 4:30 in the morning. But, again, it’s about finding what works for you.)

Here’s the loose outline of my morning routine:

  • 7 to 8: My ideal morning routine starts with a steaming mug of coffee between 7 and 8. I know many productivity gurus suggest not checking email first thing in the morning, but that causes me too much mental anguish. I spend that cup of coffee reading emails, checking my Google reader, updating Facebook and Twitter, and making the rounds through my favorite blogs.
  • 8 to 9: Once I’m caught up online, I head out for a dog walk. It usually takes about an hour to get the puppy tired, which is the amount of time it takes for me to wake up fully.
  • 9 to 12: After the walk, I sit down at my desk – with another cup of coffee and my breakfast – with a clear head, ready to tackle my day.

It’s so simple. Three steps, really. But this easy routine has doubled my before-noon productivity.

What about you? What does your typical morning look like? Have you tried to implement a routine?

Image: Gregory Szarkiewicz

10 ways to get out of a creative rut

It happens. We all get stuck. It doesn’t matter the task, either. You could be painting scenery for your child’s class play, arranging columns and rows in your department’s budget spreadsheet, or writing the next great American novel.

It happens to me once a week. I’m plowing through client projects, updating social media campaigns, crossing tasks off my to-do list. Then suddenly I realize I’ve been watching bees buzz around the flowerbed outside my window for the last 20 minutes.

How do you know you’re in a rut? It’s hard to maintain focus. It’s easy to get distracted. It’s hard to keep your butt in your chair. It’s easy to find lots of other things to do (“That’s right! I’ve been meaning to rotate my mattresses!”) that have nothing to do with work.

Okay, so you’re in a rut. Now what?

Here are my 10 ways for getting out of a creative rut:

  1. Allow yourself to set the project aside. Even if you’re on deadline. Even if your kids will be home from school soon. You’re not getting anything done staring at it. So allow yourself to put it down. I can’t tell you how often I used to force myself to work (“You WILL sit here and write this copy!”) even though I wasn’t actually getting any work down. Put it down. Walk away.
  2. Stroll around the block. Don’t think about your project. Focus on the sights and sounds of your neighborhood. Somewhere in the back of your mind, when you’re moving instead of thinking, your mind is working on a solution to whatever got you stuck in the first place.
  3. Snooze. Set your alarm for 30 minutes to recharge. If you wake up and still can’t focus, pull those covers back over your head.
  4. Call that family member who loves to talk. You need to call your mom/uncle/grandma/sister anyway, so do it while you’re already prepared to procrastinate. Bonus: If your mind starts to wander, you may just hit on the next big idea to propel your project forward!
  5. Visit Cute Things Falling Asleep.
  6. Do the opposite of what you’re trying to do. If you’re trying to paint, pick up a crossword puzzle. If you’re trying to write, pay some bills. Exercise a different part of your brain to give your worn-out side a much-needed break.
  7. Tap into your inner child: blow bubbles, color with crayons, cartwheel across your backyard, braid your hair, ride bikes.
  8. That kid from high school you were jealous of/in love with/afraid of? I bet that kid has a Facebook page. You have permission to scroll through all 652 of his/her pictures.
  9. Write a love letter to your significant other or your cat or yourself.
  10. Eat a snack full of protein (or chocolate).

And if none of those work? Take the rest of the day off! You need a break!

Image: bulldogza

Planning for the new year

Did you make any resolutions for 2011?

January’s almost over… How are you doing with those?

Several years ago, I realized a truth about myself: I can not keep resolutions.

Sweeping statements (I will lose weight! I will re-read all the classics! I will clean out my closets!) are the stuff of resolutions. Unfortunately, unspecific ideals aren’t achievable. At least not for me, and I’d wager not for the majority of us.

Why?

Because we’re human!

“I will lose weight” becomes “I’ll work out tomorrow,” which becomes “This weekend I will cook healthy food,” which becomes “Diet starts Monday.” By the time Monday rolls around, you feel like a failure.

Why set yourself up to feel bad?

Instead of resolutions, I recommend goals. These goals must be specific, bite-sized chunks that you can cross off your list (preferably with a flourish). Instead of “I will re-read the classics,” try “I will re-read Great Expectations in January and Moby Dick in February.” Plan all the books you want to read for the year, and cross each one off as you complete it. This type of goal-setting sets you up for success; you’ll feel so accomplished each time you cross a book off your list!

But the big question: What does any of this have to do with writing or running a small business?

To set achievable goals – and you do set goals, right? – the same principle applies. Instead of “I will get more clients and increase revenue,” set really specific goals like “I will meet one new potential client each month by attending a weekly networking breakfast.” Then break that goal into its individual steps: I will send a “nice to meet you” email to the new contact the very next day; I will send an industry-related news article the following week; I will invite her out to coffee at the end of the month. Or whatever fits your biz.

The idea is to break a big goal down into tiny steps. The act of crossing off each step not only will propel you forward, but what’s better than feeling like you’ve accomplished your goals?

Time management made simple

When I was 14, I worked at Burger King. It was an awesome job. My friends worked there, I got to eat fast food for dinner two nights each week, and I could drink as much free soda as I wanted.

Turns out, it was a great job for another reason: I learned about time management.

Each shift started at 4:00 and ended at 8:00. I couldn’t clock in one minute early or out one minute late due to child labor laws. During that four-hour period, I had to take and serve orders, sweep the dining room, restock condiments, take a 30-minute dinner break, and count my drawer. Because I worked with several friends, it was tempting to stand around and chat. The manager spent most of the evening in her office smoking and doing paperwork, so I could have gotten away with it… except my work wouldn’t get done.

So it came down to managing those tasks and that four-hour period. I asked myself: How can I streamline my work so I can budget 30 minutes or so of standing around and talking with my friends?

Budgeting my workload to include goofing-off prepared me for a lifetime of careful time management.

Just like my chatty 14-year-old self, I still budget my workload to include time for friends and family, which is crucial to prevent burnout.

Whenever I find myself getting off balance, I flash back to Burger King. What helped me so carefully budget my time then? My timesheet!

Because my time card had to be so precise, it kept me on track. Now, whenever I get overwhelmed or whenever I can’t figure out how best to manage my time, I whip our a grownup version of my Burger King punch card.

It works amazingly well!

Next time you feel stuck or overwhelmed, try using a timesheet. I guarantee that, even if it doesn’t help you cross things off your list, it will help you to think through and prioritize all those to-dos!

By the way, I recommend the 168 hours time management spreadsheet as a streamlined time tracker system. Not too many bells and whistles, which is super important when tracking your time shouldn’t take much time!

Giving back as a service provider

Now that I work for myself, I can arrange my schedule to be flexible. While most days I’m tethered to my desk from 8 am until sometimes very late, I love the ability to work in some time to give back.

Writing, editing, proofreading, research… All the tasks I do are services that a lot of nonprofit organizations neglect because they’re so busy running their business! It’s really important to be to find ways to give, though financial giving isn’t always the best – or most needed – form of giving. Instead, I’m taking on a handful of service-related tasks, like writing press releases for my local Habitat for Humanity. I like that I can donate my skills to help a stretched-too-thin organization thrive.

How can you find ways to contribute your skills or talents to an organization that needs help?