From Hillary Rettig’s book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Writer’s Block (Infinite Art, August 2011). (c)2011 Hillary Rettig. All rights reserved. Permission granted to copy and distribute so long as this paragraph is included, and a link is provided back to www.HillaryRettig.com
Perfectionists tend to see their projects as long strings of words – and there’s a natural tendency, when you have that viewpoint, to want to start at the beginning of a piece and write straight through till, “The End.”
It’s much more productive to view your work as a landscape that you’re viewing from above, and whose topographic features include: hard parts, easy parts, exposition parts, dialog parts, visual description parts, parts involving Character A, parts involving Theme B, etc. Viewed like this, your project resembles an illustrated map, or maybe one of those miniature landscapes you see in museums, and it’s now accessible to you in its totality. You are now, in other words, no longer looking at it from the meager and terrifying prospect of a point at the end of an endless string of words.
And now you can use a visualization tool I call the “writercopter,” a mental helicopter that can transport you to any place in your piece. The moment you feel you feel you’ve taken a particular piece of writing as far as you can, hop onto your copter and take it to another section that looks enticing. Work there until you run dry, and then reboard and hop to another part.
What if no part looks appealing? Try writing about the piece (see below). And in the unlikely event that that doesn’t help, set the entire piece aside and let it marinate while you work on something else.
Writing might sometimes be difficult, but it should never be unpleasant; and if it is unpleasant – if you’re feeling frustrated, bored or stuck – that’s not an indication of any deficiency on your part, but simply the signal to move to another part of the project, or another project. While it’s okay to practice “writing past the wall,” i.e., sticking with a difficult section a bit longer than comfortable, don’t perfectionistically dig in your heels and become an antagonist to yourself and your process.
The writercopter technique is similar to that used by the famously prolific Isaac Asimov, author or editor of more than 500 books:
“What if you get a writer’s block?” (That’s a favorite question.) I say, “I don’t ever get one precisely because I switch from one task to another at will. If I’m tired of one project, I just switch to something else which, at the moment, interests me more.” (from his memoir, In Joy Still Felt.)
Note Asimov’s absolute sense of freedom and dominion (author-ity!) over his work – expressed not in grandiose terms, but the simple ability to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. And, of course, the total lack of blame, shame, compulsion and other perfectionist traits.
Nonlinear writing obviously goes hand-in-hand with free writing; and using the techniques together should powerfully speed your writing. What’s more, the process is accelerative, since the more easy parts of your project that you finish, the easier the hard parts will get. (By writing “around” the hard parts, you’re illuminating them and solving problems related to them.)
You can combine nonlinear writing with Anne Lamott’s famous “one-inch picture frame” technique from Bird by Bird to get through even the toughest piece of writing. To combat overwhelm, Lamott reminds herself that:
All I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame…All I’m going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties when the trains were still running.
I myself have gotten through very tough sections of writing (meaning, sections where I felt a lot of resistance to the writing – because the sections themselves are neither easy nor hard, but just writing) by switching back and forth between the difficult work and an easier one, doing “one-inch picture frame”-sized pieces of the tough section, and longer stretches of the easy one. The long stretches actually become a reward, in this context, which is itself a lovely development: writing not as chore, but reward.
Take these techniques to their limit, as I assume Asimov did, and you develop a very light touch around your work. You’re hopping everywhere in the writercopter, not in a distracted way, but in a focused, effective way – and the writing is almost never a struggle, and the words just pile up.
The alternative is: you struggle with grim determination to write the piece linearly. And so you write a page or two and…wham! You’re at a hard part and you stop dead. And because you don’t know what else to do, you just keep throwing yourself against that wall – until procrastination steps in to “save” you from your predicament.
Use Speed to Overcome Writer’s Block
Greed may not be good, but speed sure is.
It was only when I got into this line of work that I understood the meaning of the axiom “he who hesitates is lost.” Procrastination – the fear-based inner force that wants you not to complete your projects – will latch onto any feelings of uncertainty or hesitation and amplify them until you can no longer do your work.
One method for beating procrastination, therefore, is to practice a Zenlike detachment from your work. You want to, at the appointed time, glide emotionlessly over to your desk and sit down and commence work. Just commence, without drama or hesitation.
Emotionless? You ask. What about having good feelings, like excitement? Isn’t it good to be excited over one’s work? Well, yes, but the problem with excitement is that it often linked to the expectation that you’re going to have a fantastic (<- perfectionist!) writing session – and then, if you don’t, the excitement is quickly replaced by despair. That’s an addictive cycle that ignores Flaubert’s dictum that “success must be a consequence and never a goal,” and feeds your perfectionism.
Instead of riding up and down the emotional roller coaster, therefore, practice Zen detachment. Your work should simply be your work: something you do. It’s okay to feel pride, satisfaction, and even joy, in your writing achievements – and once you relate to your work in the proper way you should start to rack up a lot of achievements. But that kind of authentic self-appreciation shouldn’t be confused with the high of an addictive emotional cycle.
Zen practitioners would probably say that the more precise aim is to be attached to your work but not to any particular outcome from it.
Let’s talk more about speed. Productive people write quickly in three senses:
(1) They write without much distraction. They don’t, for instance, stop to check their emails or text messages every few words or paragraphs. They don’t even stop to look something up – although they might make a quick note of it so that they don’t forget to look it up later. But rather than interrupt their flow, they will leave a hole in the manuscript and just keep writing.
In contrast, people who are underproductive write in fits and starts, which is not only problematic in terms of time use but constantly interrupts the creative flow.
(2) Fast writers also work relentlessly to simplify their writing (and other) tasks, so they can get them done fast and move onto something else. They don’t sacrifice quality, but – and this is important – they make a judgment as to what level of quality is required for each task. (As opposed to perfectionists, who often assume they need to achieve the maximum level of quality in all aspects of every job.) When they sit down to a project, they reflexively ask questions such as these:
* What parts can I eliminate?
* How can I simplify the remaining parts?
* What resources do I have that can help me finish?
* Whom can I enlist to help me?
This is yet another case where mentors are crucial, because they can help you answer those questions.
Simplifying projects is very important not just because simplifying in itself saves time, but also because you’re less likely to be afraid of, and therefore procrastinate on, simple projects compared with complex ones.
It’s easy for even adept non-procrastinators to fall into the perfectionist trap of overcomplicating their work. Recently, I was working on a query letter for a book I’m writing with a coauthor. (A query letter is what authors send to agents asking for representation.) My coauthor is kind of glamorous, so I initially thought I would include photos and his biography with the query, to strengthen the pitch. But those were holding the project up, and eventually I realized that the letter would be fine without them – plus, if the agent does indicate interest we will be more motivated to provide the rest.
For a more trivial example, it took me years to break the habit of writing formal salutations and closings on a lot of my emails. It’s not so much about saving time – although as someone who places a high value on time, and who sends a lot of emails, the accrued time savings is meaningful – it’s the head space. By eliminating the unnecessary, I am better able to focus on the important.
(3) Finally, fast writers share their drafts. Perfectionists hold onto their drafts forever, while non-perfectionists send them out quickly for feedback. “I think the middle section is weak,” they might write in their cover note, “what do you think? Can you see a way to improve it?” Whereas the perfectionist would rather die than send something out with a weak middle section, and so they hold onto the piece, compulsively revising it – or, not touching it – for weeks, months, or maybe years.
Practice writing fast; practice pruning (or eliminating) tasks; practice relaxing your quality standards; and practice showing your work early and often. Those are habits that will pay off hugely in terms of saved time and increased productivity.
Use Authenticity to Catalyze Productivity
The response to last month’s “confessional” newsletter was amazing – a real outpouring of support. Thank you all so much. Here’s one thought-provoking comment I received:
What is it to be professional? When we spend so much of our time working, is it fair to be asked to hide/divorce/suppress big pieces of ourselves that are considered acceptable or even assets in other settings? Why aren’t these qualities perceived as professional? Should these qualities be valued and incorporated? How do we change business to be a gentler and broader place? Is that even desirable?
I can’t help thinking, as I read that, of Mad Men, many of whose characters lead lives that, though superficially glamorous, are inauthentic on pretty much every level. One of the show’s glories is to render the consequences of that inauthenticity plain.
So, let’s talk about productivity. When you increase your productivity it can feel weird. Particularly if you’ve been used to dramatic creation cycles – incredible ups when you produce and incredible downs when you don’t, which, by the way, is an addict’s cycle – productivity itself can feel flat, and kind of a let-down. (Same as sobriety.) Don’t let that flat feeling fool you, though: it’s the absence of drama, and not its presence, that signals productivity. Take the flatness as a sign you’re closer to your goal of being able to frequently – and pleasurably, but not in a frenetic or otherwise addictive way – lose yourself in your work and just produce. (Another word for that state is: inspired.)
So, can we tie authenticity to productivity? Yes – and this newsletter offers proof. I finished the bulk of it within two days of submitting last month’s. Last month’s was so much more interesting to write than previous newsletters, and the experience of receiving so much love and support in response was so liberating, that I went, all at once, from hating to write newsletters to loving to write them. (I’ve actually drafted next month’s, too – and bits and pieces of future ones. I’m actually worried about having too much material for a monthly newsletter!)
Basically, by moving past fear and into authenticity, I was able to discover a well of untapped ideas and creativity within me that I didn’t even know existed. And I discovered it literally overnight. That’s not unusual: people always think they’re blocked because they’re missing something – discipline, willpower, commitment, etc. – but a block is really just what its name implies, something separating you from your power, ideas and energy. Remove the block and there it all is, ready and waiting.
The block is composed mainly of perfectionism, i.e., a terror of failure. I use the word “terror” deliberately and not at all exaggeratedly: perfectionists don’t just fear failure, they are terrified of it for many reasons, including that they overidentify with their work and so believe that “failing” at their work means that they themselves are “failures.” (Check out The Lifelong Activist or my FREE ebook The Little Guide To Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Blocks for more on perfectionism: it’s a big topic.) And so, in a desperate attempt at self-protection, their psyche throws up a block, which, although painful, is more tolerable than the prospect of failure.
We’re not born perfectionist: it’s a habit we acquire from parents, teachers, the media and other sources. Once you identify your patterns of perfectionist thinking and start practicing healthier responses to your fears, you’re well on your way to overcoming the problem. You’ll feel inspired and write prolifically because you’ll be able to easily tap into your fascinating authentic core.
Even once you achieve this realization, however, you are unlikely to travel in a straight line to maximum productivity. In most personal growth arcs, there are usually plateaus and backsliding – and, who knows, I might backslide with these newsletters. That’s okay, because even if I do I won’t have lost what I’ve learned – and I’ll still be much stronger than I was before starting this experiment.
So my advice to you, if you’re stuck on a writing or other project, is to try working without dictating the outcome. Just sit down and journal (free write) without any expectation of success or failure, and see what comes out. Chances are, you’ll be happily surprised.
If there’s a specific problem stopping you, journal about it, taking care not to get stuck at the “I’m panicking” stage, but to move on to the “okay, what’s really going on here?” stage. Writing out a problem’s details is often all it takes to calm down, characterize it and solve it.
So, authenticity catalyzes productivity. Another compelling question for me – and for you, if you’re an entrepreneur – is whether it also catalyzes revenues. This is tricky stuff, because I’m not a devotee of works like The Secret, which seem to me to promote a kind of hyped-up wishful thinking. The other problem is that revenue is based on sales, an activity not always congruent with authenticity.
I’ll be thinking a lot about that issue, and would welcome your ideas and input.