Overcoming Writer’s Block By Building Better Habits

“I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.”

— Ernest Hemingway

What is Writer’s Block?

One of the greatest hurdles that writers have had since the dawn of the written word has been to overcome writer’s block. It’s a time when frustration, anxiety, and fear of failure tend to creep in. We want to write, but we can’t seem to find the inspiration within us to do so.

Oftentimes, when we’re stricken with the inability to write, we tend to overthink our prose. We worry that the first draft won’t be perfect, or we simply get overwhelmed with the sheer vastness and size of the undertaking of publishing a novel, or even a short story for that matter.

But these hurdles aren’t foreign to other creative types as well. Unless you’re working an assembly line, creativity is required in most occupations. Artists, musicians, fashion designers, jewelry designers, architects, and countless other occupations require some degree of creativity.

So why is that you don’t hear about architect’s block or designer’s block? Why is that writer’s block has become the most popularized term amongst the creative world. Is there some differentiation between writers and other creative types? Or, is that writers are generally the ones to lament more about it?

Well, there most certainly are other creative blocks, but writer’s block has become a term that’s been so popularized. However, simply put, writer’s block is steeped in myth. What writer’s block is boils down to bad habits. So, curing it involves a habit shift, or a habit overhaul if you will.

Curing Writer’s Block

After an exhaustive search of the Web for the term “cures for writer’s block,” I was surprised at just how much of a variation in suggestions there seems to be for writer’s block. Of course, writer’s block itself isn’t an incurable disease, nor is it a physical disease. In fact, it’s described as the author’s loss in the ability to produce work.

The range of suggestions goes from free writing, to timed writing, to making lists, brainstorming, group sessions, and so on. Also, there seems to be no shortage of wacky suggestions for curing writer’s block as well, such as listening to the rain, shutting down your computer, washing the dishes, and so on.

But, overcoming writer’s block can be simple when the focus is on habits and the development of good writing habits. And, if you’ve followed along with my blog for any amount of time now, you know that I stress the importance of good habits. Habits create the foundation for our lives, and most certainly, good writing habits can allow us to overcome any degree of writer’s block.

Building Better Habits

The best way that you can overcome writer’s block doesn’t have to do with coming up with wacky or zany methods for getting your writing done. Curing writer’s block and overcoming the difficulties associated with the creative process reside in the development of better habits.

Since habits are at the foundation of all that we are, it’s the cultivation of better habits that will allow us to push past our present-day limitations and break down mental barriers.

And, I’m not just saying this from the outside looking in. I’m the prolific author of over 40 books. Sure, there are times that I get stymied in the creative process. But it’s through the cultivation of good habits that I’m able to push past those perceived limitations in my creative-mind.

How to Build Better Writing Habits

Most authors are stymied because their habits really don’t empower them. And, habits, which are etched into the neural pathways of our minds, control so much of our focus and behavior. If we “feel” like we can’t write, and our underlying habits of procrastination, avoidance, and emotion-numbing activities such as over-surfing the Web or watching too much television build setback after setback, the mind has greater difficulty overcoming these hurdles as time passes.

Over time, it gets harder and harder to overcome writer’s block because the habits of procrastination and not writing becomes more and more ingrained. So, a habit shift has to occur. We have to review the behavioral routines that are causing us to not write, and we have to embed small changes into those routines so that it will empower us. Then, we have rinse and repeat.

Here’s how it works…

Step #1 — Identifying The Routine

The first step in overcoming writer’s block by building better habits is to identify the routine of behavior that you’re running when you’re not writing. Why is this so important? Well, the mind has a clever way of hiding fears and anxieties as excuses. It allows us to reason that we can’t do something or don’t want to do something that we know we need to do, because of some other mentally-pressing matter.

However, by identifying the routine in the mind, you can help to break the bad habit and build better ones. This is going to take some careful awareness on your part. Thoroughly examine the mental reasoning and routine of behavior that you go through when you sit at your desk to write. What are the thought processes in the mind? Why are you overwhelmed or stifled for creativity?

So, for example, let’s take a look at one such routine of behavior. Clark is a journalist looking to start a career as an author. His workload at the paper is high and he wants to break away from the 9-to-5. Clark’s goal is to become a best-selling author and not have to be a slave to deadlines working for someone else.

  1. Clark thinks about writing his novel and contemplates ideas of what he wants to write about.
  2. Clark begins to write an outline but becomes overwhelmed – anxiety sets in.
  3. Clark quickly realizes that he has other work deadlines and suddenly shifts his focus.
  4. Clark starts to write his news piece for work and the time slips by – he uses up all of his free time for the day.

Step #2 — Analyze The Breakdown

In every routine, there’s a step that leads to a breakdown in concentration and a shift in focus. For Clark, that step was #2. In that step, clark became overwhelmed. He thought about the sheer vastness of the project of writing a book and simply put it off. Anxiety set in for him and the fear of not meeting his deadline at work was overriding of his desire to write creatively.

Of course, in this analysis, Clark’s breakdown was in that step of overwhelm. This is where the psychic apparatus took over and the subconscious thought processes forced him to avoid pain and gain pleasure in the short term. But, the pain-pleasure paradigm, if applied to the long term, would see him put off writing for his job and write like the wind for his novel.

But, the pain-pleasure paradigm doesn’t generally apply to the long term. The mind doesn’t want us to see the long-term results when they’re detrimental; it only focuses on the short-term pleasure. We put off doing our taxes until the last minute, because at the last minute, the pain of not doing it exceeds the pleasure of putting it off any longer. And students put off studying for an exam or writing a paper until the last minute because of the same pain-pleasure paradigm.

Analyze the breakdown here and look at it carefully. What specifically did Clark think about to get overwhelmed? The answers might surprise you. This analysis of the breakdown is highly important since it’s going to be at the root cause of the not-writing habit that forms and strengthens over time.

Here’s an example of the analysis for Clark:

  1. Clark’s overwhelm involved the sheer vastness of the project – when he thought about how much work had to be done, his mind shut down and retreated from the potential pain of an exhaustive process.
  2. Clark’s anxiety stemmed from his fear of being a failure – he thought about spending months or even years on writing a book and having it be ridiculed by his friends, family members, or peers.
  3. Clark’s nervousness involved not being bale to produce good work at his job due to a loss of focus – although the novel would be great for his long-term income, he was afraid the quality of his journalistic efforts at work would suffer. He thought about potentially losing his job and not having any income to support himself.

Step #3 — Disrupt the Routine

In order to build better habits, we have to first disrupt the routine of the bad habit. In this example, Clark is unable to write due to a breakdown in his desire for building a good writing routine. He overthinks, overanalyzes, and gets overwhelmed. We can see the fear and anxiety that Clark faces as his mind weighs and analyzes everything against the pain-pleasure paradigm.

In order to disrupt this routine, you first have to be able to identify it and analyze the breakdown. Once you see the breakdown, there are two things that you need to do in order to disrupt this routine:

  1. Come up with excuses on why all of the mind’s thoughts are false. Clark has to reason why he wants something and why he’s able to achieve it. This is going to allow him to get past the fear, anxiety, and nervousness of achieving his goal of writing a novel.
  2. Come up with one or two exercises that will allow you to disrupt the routine as soon as it occurs. For example, in Clark’s situation, he decides to read his excuses and engage in one hour of free writing. He decides to write stream-of-consciousness to disrupt the routine of not writing.

Step #4 — Integrate New Behaviors

The fourth step in overcoming writer’s block by building better habits is to integrate new behaviors into your routines. The goal is to build a routine that will empower you and not limit you. If you have a tendency to procrastinate and put things off, not only do you have to disrupt that pattern, but you have insert a new behavior in as well.

This is easier said than done, but all you have to keep in mind that this merely requires consistent effort on a daily basis. As the days, weeks, and months progress, that new pattern will be built up over time. You have to come up with new behaviors that you can integrate into your routine. Pick one or two writing exercises and do them until inspiration strikes.

There’s also a necessary mental shift in focus. Most writers are perfectionists – they want to write the next best literary novel and tend to overthink the process too much. If writing is a passion, which it is for most writers, the focus should be on just writing and not overthinking the process. If you overthink the process in any area of your life, you’ll get frustrated and give up easily.

For Clark, he picked writing exercises to integrate into his routine. His new routine looked something like this:

  1. Clark thinks about writing his novel
  2. Clark starts to write an outline of his novel
  3. Clark gets overwhelmed
  4. Clark shifts his focus and interrupts his pattern
  5. Clark chooses one writing exercise and sets a timer for 15 minutes
  6. Clark free-writes until inspiration hits then begins to write his novel

Step #5 — Rebuild and Repeat

The only way that you can build a habit is through constant repetitious behavior over time. Habits don’t form easily. They take months and months to actually solidify in the neural pathways of the mind. And, bad habits that have been around for years are seemingly impossible to break because they are etched so deeply in those same neural pathways.

Once you identify a new routine, you have to rebuild your habits and repeat. By integrating new behaviors that will empower you and not limit you, you can build better writing habits and overcome writer’s block. All you have to do is commit to repeating the routine for at least three months. This is the most difficult part of building better habits, but if you can get past that initial hurdle, you can most certainly take it all the way.