A simple cure for writing overwhelm
You’re staring at a blank Word doc, watching the cursor flash, when suddenly the thought hits you:
Would anyone notice if you just crawled under your desk, curled into a ball, and nursed a bag of Swedish Fish until tomorrow comes?
And by “bag” I mean “bottle.”
Dear reader and fellow writer, I get it.
I am INTIMATELY familiar with writing overwhelm, and I want you to know: IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT.
You’re not a bad writer. You’re not a fraud. You’re not incapable of creating great missives that make the world sit up and take notice.
Look, I feel like this on a regular basis—and I write for a living.
The difference between someone who routinely creates high-quality content and someone who doesn’t is actually quite simple.
The pro knows that writing can feel like a challenge…and prepares accordingly. The amateur looks for a shortcut and throws up her hands when she cannot find one.
Since I made the leap to writing full-time (four years ago last month!) I’ve developed a lot of strategies to prepare for writing overwhelm.
Two truths that save my sanity time and again are:
- If I want to access my creative side, I need to take a break from intellectual, logical, linear thinking.
- Good writing takes time.
The second concept is really critical. You know what, let me write that again.
Good writing takes time.
I know this is the last thing any busy business owner/future thought leader wants to hear.
Nobody can teach you how to write a thoughtful, fluid, well-constructed piece overnight.
Writing requires practice, and focus, and more than 30 minutes. It requires you to show up, engage your whole brain, and apply–with intelligence–whatever creative tools and systems you have at your disposal.
Sorry about that.
I toooootally understand why everyone wants a hack that allows us to circumvent the creative process.
Because it would be faster. More efficient. More machine-like.
But you know what?
I’m glad that we can’t outsource or systematize the intuitive, generative parts of ourselves–because it is our gateway to magic.
It’s our connection to Source. It’s a powerful, joyful, beautiful gift that each one of us receives the day we are born, and we should celebrate it.
But I digress.
Here’s why writing (or any creative activity where you’re consciously conjuring abstract ideas from nothing) takes time:
Your brain doesn’t have enough energy to do it all at once.
Really, it’s that simple.
Creating, excavating, and organizing ideas—not to mention repressing ideas that aren’t useful—are some of the most cognitively taxing tasks out there.
They drain your brain batteries fast. Which is why you typically cannot power through a writing endeavor in one short, speedy burst. (Not if you want to do a good job conveying a complicated idea, at least.)
So that explains why you’re likely to be so darn tired after a big brain dump.
Overwhelm, on the other hand, springs from a different cognitive limitation.
David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work, outlines it as follows:
Your prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for “thinking things through, instead of being on autopilot as you go about your life,” can only hold 3 or 4 thoughts at a time.
But guess what? According to The Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at the University of Southern California, our brains generate about 48 thoughts per minute.
So whenever you generate dozens of ideas for a potential blog post, you immediately overwhelm your cognitive capacity to “hold” all these ideas at once.
Physically, there is no way you can generate ideas for share-worthy content and process them into a coherent structure at the same time.
By the way, it takes energy to restrict the flow of thoughts, too. So if we try to toggle between brainstorming, winnowing down our options, and repressing those options we reject, we drain our brain batteries faster than ever.
No wonder we get overwhelmed and spend the morning chasing one half-baked idea to the next and inhaling fistfuls of tortilla chips at 10am.
(Fun fact: The brain needs TONS of glucose to function, especially while performing energetically taxing activities like prefrontal functioning. So yes, I DO claim my out-of-whack eating habits as necessary brain food.)
Bottom line: Your cognitive batteries have energy limitations.
Writing requires a lot of energy.
Therefore, you need to give yourself time to replenish your batteries—and systems to slice through the creative chaos.
I’m a big fan of systems, especially those that allow me to utilize my brainpower to its full capacity.
One simple system I’ve been employing for YEARS is to break every writing project into (at least) 2 chunks.
If you think about it from the angle of brain science, you quickly understand why this works.
Not only do you have time for creative connections to assert themselves (which happens when you STOP trying to think your way into a solution, your brain batteries have time to replenish themselves.
You can literally start fresh the next day.
This behind-the-scenes info is fun, of course, but all I really needed to know so far in my life as a writer is this:
If I start a writing project on Tuesday, then come back to it on Wednesday, I’ll enjoy it more, hate my life less, and do a better, more efficient job overall.
So give yourself permission to TAKE TIME with your writing.
Try scheduling time to write your next blog post or web page in 2 places on your calendar. Get started a few days before you actually need to finish the piece, and enjoy the luxury of cutting yourself (and your brain) some slack.
In fact, I encourage you to do more than just give yourself permission to write for longer.
Plug two extra hours into your calendar and dedicate them to writing.
Then recognize those hours and minutes for what they truly are: an immersion into the sparkling, creative waters you came from and the infinite possibility at your core.
Because that is what waits for you beyond the overwhelm.
Even if you’re just writing a blog post. 🙂
If the 2-chunk method isn’t specific enough for your needs, stay tuned.
Next week I’ll share the specific, swipe-able process I use to write my award-winning* newspaper column.
*I always get a little suspicious when online “experts” tout their “award-winning” such-and-such because I never know what awards, specifically, they are talking about. The Lions Club something-or-other prize? The Pulitzer? How big are we talking here?
So in the spirit of full disclosure: My weekly series, which features profiles and interviews with local artists and writers, received second place in the column/commentary category at the 2015 Virginia Press Association Awards.
I only began writing the column 10 months prior, and I have no formal training as a journalist, so I am still very proud about this win. Obviously.
Basically, I’ve written a new 850-word article every single week for the last 1.5 years on top of allllll my other writing projects.
You can bet your buns I’ve got it down to a science–and I plan to break it down into digestible bits. So you can write your own articles and blog posts without mental overwhelm.
Until then, I’d love to know: When does writing overwhelm strike you? What pieces of content drive you under the desk?