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Do you think you need to be happy or inspired 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.
When people work with me — whether to build a writing habit or to complete a long-form project (such as a book or dissertation) — the counter-intuitive advice I give often surprises them.
Counterintuitive advice, part 1:
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 5 and 15 minutes.
And when they tell me they need to produce 1,500 words per day (or even “just” 750), I give them a similar message: that’s way too much.
They should cut back their goal and make it smaller.
Did you know that if you write just 250 words a day (the length of a relatively quick email), five days a week, you will have 65,000 words at the end of the year? The number surprises many people, but the arithmetic is straightforward.
You don’t need to write for a long time in order to produce a significant number of words. You just need to do the writing over a long time.
Counterintuitive advice, part 2:
Some people I work with become rhapsodic about the idea of ‘flow’ — when the words pour out of them and they have the delightful feeling that writing is effortless. Yes, I tell them, flow is wonderful.
The person who first identified this experience was the late Hungarian psychology professor with an unpronounceable name — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (phoenetically it’s: Mee-hy Cheek-sent-ma-hy-ee).
An expert in what’s called “positive psychology,” Professor C wrote: “Outside forces do not determine whether adversity will be able to be turned into enjoyment. A person who is healthy, rich, strong, and powerful has no greater odds of being in control of his consciousness than one who is sickly, poor, weak and oppressed.”
According to his book Flow, an “autotelic self” is a person who turns potential threats into enjoyable challenges, is never bored, is seldom anxious and has self-contained goals.
In my experience, many professional writers enjoy flow only once or twice a month. And while it’s possible for them to increase their odds of flow (read here to learn how), I’m not convinced it makes sense to build a system based on a fleeting mood.
But I’m far from a Debbie Downer about writing. As a person who used to detest writing (while loving editing), I know it is possible to make peace with writing. And even come to enjoy it.
Look for experience rather than inspiration
But enjoying writing 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 enjoy writing, you need to write first. Even if you think you hate it!
Three ways in which mood follows action
Here are three steps you can take to persuade yourself to write:
- Don’t ever wait for inspiration. Develop the habit of acting (writing) first.
- Build momentum gradually. Start with small daily goals and allow yourself to feel accomplished for achieving them.
- Schedule a specific time for writing, and do it every day.
For most people, mornings are the best time for writing. Why?
- You’ll have some good, clear, uninterrupted time before meetings and phone calls begin.
- You’re less likely to procrastinate if you write before engaging in harmful self-negotiation (e.g.: “I need to write at 10 am,” followed by “I need to write at 11 am,” followed by “I need to write at noon” etc.).
- You’re going to feel accomplished by writing first, and that will help you do well in everything else you need to do that day.
- You’re going to be in a better mood if you write before things go wrong in your day — as they inevitably will.
- You’ll have preserved your energy for your more important task — writing — if you write before doing anything else (especially email).
Learn to embrace practice
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 feelings hold our practise hostage — 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.
But if you can make yourself take a so-small-you-can’t-fail approach, then you are bound to make progress. It’s always better to do something rather than nothing and, over time, you can increase your commitment.
I know conventional wisdom suggests that motivation 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, a lack of motivation will push you into a cycle of procrastination and you’ll likely want to postpone your writing until you feel better, more interested or more inspired. But the faster, more effective solution is to write. That’s it!
Mood follows action. Motivation won’t show up until you have written.
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, do your income taxes, or go get exercise.
But once you’ve done those activities, you’ll immediately feel better. Why?
Mood follows action.
Always start small, very small
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 theory’ suggests 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.
Feelings don’t matter
How you feel is really irrelevant to the job of writing. I proved this to myself by tracking my writing for more than a year when I was working on one of my books.
My Excel spreadsheet contained four columns: the date, the amount of time I spent writing, the number of words I wrote, and how I felt about my writing that day. While I did feel great on a few days and wrote a large number of words, on most days I could see my mood was irrelevant.
More typically, I felt terrific and wrote a small number of words. Or I felt terrible and produced a bonanza crop of words.
That record-keeping taught me an indelible fact: 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!
An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on March 30/21.
My video podcast last week described how mindmapping can help book authors. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.
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.
Have you ever noticed how mood always follows action? What did you take from that discovery? 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 31/23 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!