My Writer's Block
I've been writing daily for 129 days. I've been publishing 2 articles per week for 18 weeks. Then I slipped, stumbled, and it took me almost two months to recover.
What causes my writer's block? What does it feel like? What do I do about it?
Here's everything you ever wanted to know, and more:
How my writing started
Last fall, I decided to take my personal brand seriously: I got a new website going, started figuring out Twitter, and got back to writing regularly.
I know you haven't clicked the last link, so here's the gist:
Writing helps me think and express myself more clearly. And sharing my thoughts with the world is a perfect way to connect with people and create opportunities.
You might call me the biggest fan of serendipity (after David Perell).
Anyway, last fall was the perfect time to get into writing. I had recently quit my job and wanted to focus on personal projects for a bit. Fall and winter are great for focused work: they're my least favorite seasons, but they're oh so productive!
So I had all the time in the world to write. Here's how it started:
- On November 14th, right after my birthday, I started writing daily. The idea was to see if I can be consistent about writing.
- By December 14th, I had ~30 drafts in Evernote. This was my proof of concept. My proof of consistency. I was ready to start publishing online.
- On December 26th, I launched my website with Ghost and published my first article, Me + Audiobooks = The Love Story. It's short, check it out!
The article got zero reads, but I didn't care in the least. I knew people would come eventually. My goal was to get stuff out of my head and put it out there.
This is how writing became my focus for the next couple months. The plan was to write daily and publish twice a week, and I intended to stick to it no matter what.
And it was going great!
By mid-February, I had ~80 daily drafts and almost 20 articles published. I was quite impressed by my own consistency, not gonna lie. And just a bit proud.
Then it stopped going as great.
How it stopped
A few things.
First, and foremost, I lost my focus.
By the time spring rolled around, I had a lot more going on than just writing:
- I got back on Twitter, figured it out, and started making Twitter friends.
- I signed up for 3x/week swimming lessons. Learning to swim properly was something I've been thinking about for years.
- I focused on product management, started polishing my skills, building connections in the PM world and casually looking for my next job.
- ...and now there was also this war thing happening nearby.
And let me tell you - all of this stuff TAKES TIME:
Besides, it was spring! My favorite season. Nature wakes up, and so do I. Spring means more time outside, more time with friends, more time just being alive.
Man do I love spring.
Anyway, you probably see where it's going.
Yep, my focus on writing took a massive hit. Writing went from being the #1 priority to being one of a dozen different activities. The amount of time and attention I was putting into my articles went way down. So did the quality.
I had to publish unfinished articles more than once. I stopped feeling good about my writing. As in, "yo this piece sucks, I don't even feel like publishing it".
But I had to if I wanted to stick to my schedule. It was clearly unsustainable, but I knew I'll have a hard time picking it back up if I lose the momentum.
Finally, it all unraveled. And it unraveled FAST:
- On April 11, I stumbled. I skipped my daily writing for the first time in 129 days. It was a busy day and writing completely slipped out of my mind.
- On April 21, I gave up on daily drafts altogether. I just couldn't do it. Instead, I decided to focus on finishing the articles I had in the pipeline.
- On May 1, I published How to Twitter: The Martin Way. This wrapped up my 18-week streak of publishing twice a week.
Publishing that last piece weirdly felt like a climax. A grand finale. I mean, it was just an article, nothing special about it. But it felt special. It only took me a few days to get it from idea to publishing, and I felt absolutely exhausted. Spent.
(The article later ended up on HackerNews and making rounds on Twitter, and got 11,000+ reads in just two days.)
A few days later I left to visit a friend in Slovakia, my first trip abroad since fall.
Here's the thing about traveling:
I enjoy traveling, but it WRECKS my routines. It's the #1 reason I don't travel as much lately. I can't get anything meaningful done on the move, and it takes me a while to recalibrate back into a productive mood once I'm back home.
And since I was already struggling to write at home, I knew there was zero chance I'll keep up with my writing habit in Slovakia. So I decided to take a break officially. I paused my daily drafts and put my publishing on hold.
The plan was to relax, regroup, and resume writing once I'm back home.
It was a good plan. A great one, even.
Life had other plans, though.
I returned, and almost immediately left for London to hang out with the local indie hackers, product managers, a bunch of friends, and my mom.
London was great:
Not a lot of writing, though - although I briefly got back to my daily drafts. People who are capable of combining travel, socializing, and deep work: HOW??
Then I took a trip to Belarus in early June, which is a whole separate story.
Finally, I managed to restart my daily writing on June 8, exactly 7 weeks after I broke my streak. And it took me almost another month to publish the article that you're reading right now.
My short pause turned into a 2-month writing hiatus. I knew it would.
Why did it take so long?
What did it feel to be incapable of writing even a couple sentences per day?
I'm glad you asked!
Here's what went through my head during all these weeks:
What my writer's block is not
First, a few words on what my writer's block isn't.
According to science, some of the common triggers of writer's block are:
- Apathy and the lack of creative spark. "Meh."
- Anger due to being unnoticed. "No one reads my stuff!"
- Anxiety due to worrying you're not good enough. "What if my writing sucks?"
- ...and issues with being compared to others.
And on top of that, I came up with a couple more possible reasons:
- Lack of writing prompts. "I don't know what to write about!"
- Lack of time. "I'm too busy!"
- Lack of skill. "I can't write!"
One of these things applies to me. Guess which one?
But here's everything that doesn't cause my writer's block:
I don't care that people don't care about my writing. I mean, it'd be great if more people read my stuff, but it doesn't bother me too much.
Because to me, writing isn't about getting famous. It's not about getting paid to write (although it would be nice). It's about taking stuff out of my head and putting it on metaphorical paper.
If this article makes a single person go "hmm", it was worth writing. And even when I don't publish, I still get value out of the process of writing.
So, the lack of popularity is not an issue.
It's also not about not being good enough. My writing is good enough and I know it.
Look, it might not be good enough to make me a best-selling author. Probably not good enough to earn me crazy figures. But people do read my articles and find some of them valuable, and that's what counts.
What about comparing myself to others? Nah.
It used to be a massive problem for me back when I was an entrepreneur. Waking up feeling envious of everyone who was more "successful" than me was a regular occurrence.
It's not a great way to live your life. Absolutely sad and counterproductive.
Fortunately, I found a better way. Nowadays, I don't envy people who are in a "better" place than me. Instead, I look up to them to see if I can learn something. It makes life so much easier. Highly recommended!
Lack of things to write about? Absolutely not.
If you think you don't have anything to write about, you're probably wrong.
Spend a few minutes mindfully paying attention to your thoughts and you'll realize you have an infinite stream of writing prompts right there in your head. Not all of them are great writing prompts, but they're there nevertheless.
In my case, journaling helps. If I'm meticulous about writing down thoughts, I easily have at least a couple article-worthy ones by the end of the day. That's at least a dozen per week just from background thinking, not actively brainstorming.
If anything, the challenge is the opposite. Too many things to write about! But that's a better problem to have.
Lack of time? Not really.
Sure, I have less spare time now than I had back in winter. A lot more going on in life. The days of being able to sit down and write for 11 hours straight are over. And publishing two articles per week might be too much under these circumstances.
But writing isn't all or nothing. The alternative to cranking out articles isn't to abandon writing altogether. There's a better way:
Slow down, take it easy, but stay consistent. If you're serious about writing, you can find 15-30 minutes per day for it. And that's infinitely better than nothing.
No matter how busy I am, I absolutely do have at least a couple hours per week to dedicate to writing. That's not the primary cause of my writer's block.
Lack of skill? Still nope.
It's not like I woke up one day and suddenly forgot how to write. I might not have deliberately practiced my writing skills these past few months, but I can still do it.
Now, all of this begs the question:
Why haven't I published anything in two months?
The answer is easy and complicated at the same time:
The lack of meaning
When was the last time you felt like absolutely nothing you do matters?
If the answer is never, I'm happy for you! Hope it stays this way forever.
If the answer isn't never, then you know what losing meaning feels like.
I had three main reasons to start writing again back in December:
- Get a decade's worth of thoughts out of my head. Make space for new things, help someone else who struggles with the same problems in the meantime.
- Restart my personal brand. The best way to do it is to set up a website and publish things. Everything else is secondary.
- Improve my writing skills. And how do you do that? Primarily by writing.
All very noble reasons. A lot of meaning right there!
This made it relatively easy to stick to my writing schedule. I wasn't always feeling motivated to write, but the presence of meaning always brought me back.
By May, I'd done a good job pursuing my goals:
- I published a good chunk of what I had planned to.
- I now had a semblance of a personal brand.
- I was feeling a lot better about the quality of my writing.
I felt like I'd accomplished something. And this made the novelty wear off just enough for apathy to creep in. I suddenly felt like there was no reason to keep going.
Now don't get me wrong, I knew I have to keep writing. My rational mind knew that consistency pays off. I knew I'm still at the very beginning of my journey. That HackerNews wasn't the cherry on top, just a good start. I had to keep going.
I knew all of that. But I didn't feel like doing it.
And my brain kept trying to rationalize not writing:
- "You still don't have a niche. Your writing is all over the place. People don't really care about your personal thoughts, you know. Why bother?"
- "You've been slacking off lately. The last few articles are too shallow. Why keep writing if you can't do it properly? And now that you're traveling you'll have even less time, so your writing will get even worse. It's time to stop!"
- "The HackerNews front page? Success! Your writing has finally paid off. 10k visitors in 2 days? Great job! Why not take a break and relax for a bit?"
- "The HackerNews front page? A fluke. You got your visitors, but so what? You have no newsletter, you don't sell stuff, what a wasted opportunity. Just stop."
See, my brain always does this kind of thing - it's not just about writing. So I'm kind of used to dealing with it. It's not a big deal when I'm focused and disciplined.
Focus and discipline help me keep going when motivation disappears.
Unfortunately, they weren't in great shape either.
The lack of focus
We suck at multitasking. There's no way around it. A million studies prove it.
The only way to keep getting things done consistently is to stay focused. And the more things you have going on at once, the harder it is to focus on any one of them.
I'm not an exception. My brain is like that Golden Retriever puppy. Distractible!
The solution? No more than a few priorities and a minimalist environment. This allows me to focus and push back when my brain tries to rationalize not doing what I know needs to be done, like in the example above.
I may not be motivated to sit down and write, but when writing is my only priority, it's a lot easier to say no repeatedly to the excuses my brain keeps coming up with.
If you've ever tried mindfulness, the process is very similar. As Andy Puddicombe likes to say: Your mind will wander, and that's totally normal. As soon as you realize it has wandered off, gently bring it back to the present.
That's exactly what writing felt like in the early months. I wasn't always motivated to write, but it was my #1 goal, so I built my life around it. I had plenty of time and space to gently bring my mind back to writing whenever I got distracted because few other things were competing for my attention.
Spring brought new activities and priorities, which has led to two challenges:
- It became a lot easier to get distracted.
- It became a lot harder to get back to writing after having gotten distracted.
Here's what my typical day might have felt like:
Swimming practice in the morning would postpone my daily writing session to the afternoon. But in the afternoon, I might decide to spend some time on Twitter to keep growing my following. Then I'd have a friend suggest we go for a walk because the weather is great. And in the meantime, I would keep thinking about my LinkedIn strategy, my PM courses, and the need to start looking for a job.
That's a lot of stuff going on at any given moment! And merely having this all in my mind massively drained my concentration and energy. The more things I had to think about, the more likely I was to end up not doing any of it at all.
Distracted by competing priorities to the point of being incapable of focusing on any of them, and thus accomplishing nothing at all.
Hello procrastination, my old friend! And not the productive kind.
Alright, so this is where discipline usually comes in. Set your priorities straight, pick the #1 priority, and start working on it - no excuses, no distractions.
Sounds great, but discipline isn't the silver bullet.
The lack of discipline
I kinda hate doing things I consider meaningless just for the sake of it.
It's the reason I've quit jobs, changed careers, abandoned hobbies. It's why I never stop looking for opportunities to live a more meaningful life.
"You have to do it because I said so" is the least effective approach you can come up with if you want someone to do something. It's a weak reason for doing things.
But that's exactly what discipline without meaning feels like. It feels like telling my brain to "do it because I said so".
"Sit down and write because you have to write."
Pretty hard to do it even when I'm focused, and literally impossible when I have a dozen other things I could be doing instead that are either more meaningful, or more fun.
So in my case, discipline is tied to meaning and focus: it reinforces them, and is reinforced by them. When meaning and focus disappear, the power of pure discipline wanes.
There's a reason productivity books like Atomic Habits emphasize the importance of things other than discipline, such as identity change and the design of your environment. "Become the person who does the right thing. Make it easy to do it."
You might be different. If you see discipline as being decoupled from motivation, meaning, and focus - awesome! It's your ultimate check on procrastination.
In my case, pure discipline isn't the solution.
The solution to my writer's block
It's pretty simple and also incredibly complex at the same time.
What's the cause of my writer's block? The lack of meaning, focus, and discipline.
What's the solution to my writer's block? Get these things back!
How do you get meaning back?
I'll take existential questions for $500, Alex.
Alright, fortunately we're not talking about the meaning of life here. So the challenge is a little less existential, and a little more practical.
And in my case, it's even easier. I know why I write. I published a whole article exploring it, after all. Writing is part of my life now, just like mindfulness, exercise, healthy food, socializing. I don't quit writing, just like I don't quit exercising. As soon as I stop, I immediately feel worse.
The meaning is still there, I just don't feel like it's there. And since it's there, the solution is to rationalize it back to the forefront of my mind. Take it out of the closet, dust it off, put it back on a pedestal, and be motivated by it again.
If you've actually lost your meaning to write, why not explore it in writing? (Yes, really.) What were your reasons to write in the first place? Has something changed to make that obsolete? Can you find new and improved meaning?
In my case, I just need time, focus, and attention to rationalize it back.
If anything, the lack of focus is the most destructive thing I deal with on a regular basis. And it's not just about writing, it can affect anything:
- No focus means no chance to think about the challenges I'm dealing with.
- Without thinking there's no understanding.
- And without understanding, there's no solution.
If you're struggling with writer's block and don't have enough time and attention to explore the reasons behind it, how do you expect to fix it?
Fortunately, there's a simple solution to the lack of focus: monotasking. Get rid of all distractions, sit yourself down, and keep bringing your wandering mind back to the task at hand no matter how difficult it is. There's really no other way around it.
Then there's discipline. Not much else to add here. When you have your meaning and your focus, being disciplined shouldn't be a major challenge. Just be realistic about what's possible and what isn't. There are only that many hours in a day.
If you're still feeling stuck with anything including writing, check out my My Tactical Getting Unstuck Kit. It contains some of the thoughts that prevent me from accomplishing things, and how I deal with them.
Hope you find it helpful!
And what does your writer's block feel like?