Mood follows action: you don’t need to be inspired to write

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Do you think you need to be happy or inspired in order to write? You have it exactly backwards! Instead, mood follows action….

Have you ever tried to write and found yourself unable to do it?

My hunch is that you were waiting to feel more inspired. Or, at the very least, waiting to feel that you were going to enjoy the act of writing.

And when neither of those feelings occurred, you shut down your computer and walked away.

Your mistake wasn’t the walking away. Your mistake was expecting those positive feelings in the first place.

When people work with me — whether in an effort to build a writing habit or to complete a long-form project (like a book or dissertation) — they are often surprised by the counter-intuitive advice I give.

Instead of telling them to work harder or to write more, I usually encourage them to cut back. ‘No, you shouldn’t write for an hour a day,’ I tell them. ‘That’s way too much.’ Usually, I suggest somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes (depending on their previous experience.).

And when they tell me they need to produce 1,500 words per day (or even “just” 950), I give them a similar message: that’s too much. They should cut back their goal and make it smaller.

And when people become rhapsodic about ‘flow’ — when the words pour out of them and they have the delightful feeling that writing is effortless — I tell them that yes, flow is wonderful. And professional writers enjoy that no more than a couple of times a year, if that often, so they shouldn’t try to build a system based on such a fleeting mood.

But I’m far from a Debbie Downer about writing. From my own experience as someone who used to detest writing (while loving editing), I can say that it is possible to make peace with writing. And even come to enjoy it. 

But it doesn’t happen by magic. It happens only after writing. Let me repeat that key fact: It happens only after writing.

As the psychologists like to put it, mood follows action. If you want to like writing, you need to write first. Even if you think you hate it!

Here are three steps you can take to persuade yourself to write:

  1. Don’t ever wait for inspiration. Develop the habit of always acting (writing) first.  
  2. Build momentum gradually. Start with small daily goals and allow yourself to feel accomplished for achieving them. 
  3. Schedule time for writing, preferably in the morning (unless you are a night owl).

I’m frequently struck by the similarities between exercise, learning a musical instrument and writing. All of these activities depend upon practice. And if our practise is held hostage by our feelings — that is, if we feel it necessary to feel good, or worse, inspired, about doing the work — odds are high that we’ll never do it.

I know conventional wisdom suggests that motivation is what leads to action. And it’s a bit of a mind-bender to think the formula works in the opposite way. But ask yourself this: what do you do when motivation dwindles or when you simply aren’t feeling motivated at all? 

If you’re like most people, you’ll fall into the cycle of procrastination and likely postpone your writing until you feel better. But the faster, more effective solution, is to simply start writing, understanding that the motivation will inevitably follow.

Be aware this means that sometimes, you will have to force yourself to write. In the same way you sometimes have to force yourself to do the dishes, clean the garage or go get exercise. But once you’ve done those activities, you’ll immediately feel better. Why? Mood follows action. 

This strategy — of forcing yourself to write for a small amount of time — is also far more effective than trying to suppress your negative thoughts. Research known as the ‘white bear theorysuggests that the more you try to suppress thoughts, the stronger they become. And the same theory holds true for emotions as well. The more you try to change the way you feel, the more likely you are to become stuck in your current mood. 

How you feel is really irrelevant to the job of writing. Moods are just moods — fluid, short-term and fleeting. If you want to become a writer, keep reminding yourself that mood follows action. Then act. Write!

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Need some help developing a sustainable writing routine? Learn more about my Get It Done program. The group is now full but there is turn-over each month, and priority will go to those who have applied first. You can go directly to the application form and you’ll hear back from me within 24 hours. 

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My video podcast last week described how people who speak English as a second language can become better writers. Or, see the transcriptand consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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Have you ever noticed how mood always follows action? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below.  Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by March 31/21 will be put in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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