Are you in your write mind? How to overcome writer’s block

That big presentation, report, or assignment isn’t going to write itself. And yet, you feel compelled to finish every non-essential task on your to-do list instead. Or you’re staring at a blank screen with nothing in your brain but panic. Meanwhile, the clock ticks loudly in the background—metaphorically, at least.

It’s official. You’ve got writer’s block.

Like any kind of creative impasse, writer’s block can have a variety of causes—perfectionism, self-doubt, uncertainty about your subject, fear of failure. The good news? Since much of writer’s block starts with your own thoughts and beliefs, you have the power to overcome it. Here are five ways to jump-start a stalled project.

Don’t let panic get the better of you

It’s stressful to feel stuck while a deadline looms. Unfortunately, stress can short-circuit the higher brain functions you need to write and think creatively, enabling more primitive parts of the brain to take over. To calm down—and put your pre-frontal cortex back in the driver’s seat—try these strategies:

  • Get moving: Going for even a short walk will increase feel-good endorphins, ease anxiety, and help you mentally, and literally, distance yourself from a stress-inducing project.
  • Try deep breathing exercises, which experts say can slow your heartbeat, lower blood pressure, increase oxygenation, and help you relax.
  • Practice mindfulness: Purposeful attention to the sensations in your body, your surroundings, and your thoughts in the present moment can help to calm your mind.

Check your assumptions

Do you believe that writing should flow effortlessly? That it’s easier for everyone else? The vast amount of literature on the subject is proof that it’s not. Writing is a process, and good writing happens in stages. You’re not going to get it absolutely right the first time around, so don’t try. Just dive in, with full permission to write an imperfect—or even terrible—first draft.

And who says you have to write in order? Sometimes the beginning is the most daunting because it’s hard to introduce your topic before you’ve defined it. So start with the easier parts, even if they’re in the middle. You’ll not only feel a sense of movement and accomplishment, but chances are, you’ll be so steeped in your topic when you’re done that the rest of your project will seem more doable.

Brainstorm, mind map, or outline

Feeling so stuck you can’t actually begin? Take some of the pressure off—create a brainstorming document that no one else will ever see. Don’t worry about the order, or a logical flow, or even about complete sentences. Hate something you’ve jotted down? Just keep going. The point here is to free your brain to come up with the main ideas and how they connect—without the interference of your inner editor, whose job is to judge, refine, and be critical. That’ll be very useful later on, but now? Not so much.

You may find that it’s hard to keep that editor-brain out of the way while you’re typing at your desk, so try moving to a more relaxing locale, like a café or park. Or try a non-linear style of brainstorming, like mind-mapping. Scribble your ideas on a legal pad or, even better, commandeer that huge whiteboard in the conference room and go nuts.

And while an outline may give you flashbacks to junior high, it can be an incredibly useful tool to help you organize the ideas you’ve brainstormed, make sure all the important points are covered, and ensure your project has a logical flow. Best of all, an outline helps you break your writing project up into smaller chunks—and once those are defined, they’re a lot easier to tackle.

Create your own deadlines

Sometimes what’s keeping you stuck isn’t an abundance of internal pressure—it’s not quite enough of the external kind. If you need a challenge or a greater sense of urgency to get started, there’s The Most Dangerous Writing App, which will delete your work if you stop typing for more than five seconds. You choose the length of time to keep going, and it does the rest.

If that idea gives you the hives, take it down a notch—build mini-deadlines into your project that give you a sense of structure and accountability. Enlist co-workers, or even better, your boss, to meet with you at each stage to go over what you’ve accomplished and what you’ll be working on next. Everyone loves to give feedback—and they don’t need to know they’re also keeping you on track.

Let your unconscious mind do some of the heavy lifting

When you’re feeling stuck, sometimes the best thing to do is…take a break. A number of studies suggest that our unconscious minds are an important part of problem-solving and the creative process. You’ve probably experienced it yourself—setting a challenge aside and then finding that solutions or new ideas bubble up while you’re driving, doing the dishes, out for a walk, or in the shower.

Psychologists call it incubation, and there a number of hypotheses about what’s going on. It may be that, while our conscious minds are occupied with something else, our unconscious minds are reframing the problem or quickly trying out new combinations of ideas. Or it’s possible that fatigued brains just benefit from a little rest. To get the strongest incubation effect, research shows that light mental activity—gardening, light reading—works better than either sleep or intense mental activity.

This might also help to explain the research that shows taking regular breaks correlates to higher productivity. But the line between a break and procrastination can be blurry, so it pays to experiment and see what works best for you. And build in lots of time for challenging projects so you can take advantage of more incubation periods.

When you’re feeling stuck on a big project, it can feel like you’ll never get un-stuck. But remember: writer’s block happens to most of us. If you approach it with curiosity, a sense of humor, and most importantly, some self-compassion, you can be moving forward in no time.
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