One of the biggest hurdles for novice and experienced writers alike is getting started in front of a blank page.
It’s easy to find a million other things to do than writing that article or conducting that interview. I don’t know about you, but when I procrastinate, I find myself with a very clean desk and all my filing done. This is nice – but the problem is I’m still left with a blank page at the end of that. Plus a whole lot more stress with less time to work in.
I’ve found that one of the most effective strategies to help beat procrastination is the use of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).
Although you may have heard of CBT in the context of its use in treating depression, anxiety and a host of other mental health conditions, the principles of CBT can be very helpful in beating procrastination.
Australian researchers have tested CBT for beating procrastination in writers – and it works. Here’s a brief summary of the key points that can help you power-up your writing almost immediately (Gardiner & Kearns, 2012).
CBT and your beliefs
CBT is based on the assumption that it’s not events that cause us to feel bad – but our thoughts about those events. If we can change our thoughts – then we can change our feelings and our related behaviour. So in the example of getting started with writing, it’s not the blank page itself that causes us to feel bad – but it’s the story we tell ourselves that gets in the way of getting started.
So, for example, you may have a bunch of beliefs about your writing that sound like this:
- “I’m not ready to write yet – I’m not feeling creative”
- “I need to get it all straight in my head first – I can’t start until I have worked out the flow and angle”
- “I don’t have enough time to finish so I can’t start”
- “I’m not good enough – who wants to read what I have to say anyway”
If you are a typical writer, then it’s highly likely you have thoughts similar to these. (I certainly have these types of thoughts just about every time I sit down to write.) And the problem is they trigger a feelings of hopelessness and make it all seem so much harder. So the net result is all the wrong things get done – not what we really need to do.
So we can see that it’s not so much the blank page itself that is the problem but it’s how we think about the blank page that triggers thoughts that trigger feelings that change our behaviour. So how do we counteract all this?
Well, according to the researchers, the secret is to get ‘real’ about our thoughts and stop them in our tracks.
This opens us up to different ways of seeing, changes our emotions about the situation and energises us into taking action and getting writing.
Here’s some more realistic, accurate and helpful thoughts we can use to dispute our automatic thoughts that will have us typing away faster and more productively:
- Ideas will come once I start writing – I don’t need to wait until I feel creative. Just getting started and typing something – anything will get my creative juices flowing.
- Who says I always need to be in the mood before I start writing. Just getting started can help put me in the mood.
- Sometimes writing is hard and doesn’t always come naturally. All I need to do is put one word after the other.
- I don’t need to wait until I have composed everything in my head – I can compose on the page as I go. And I usually get clearer about what I want to say once I start writing anyway.
- Getting started will help me work out what I want to say
- Even if I don’t have time to write the whole piece – I can write the introduction, or the plan, or even a single sentence and I’m still ahead.
- It doesn’t matter if my first draft isn’t any good, few people can write a great piece the first time – that’s what editing is for.
So, I invite you to experiment with the following challenge to test if this works: Next time you are faced with a blank page and are not in the mood, don’t know what to say or are worried it won’t be any good – try this:
- Notice any negative thoughts and come up with something more realistic to counteract that
- Even if you can’t come up with something that convinces you then just get started anyway. Commit yourself to writing for 5 minutes. Then another five minutes. Try and stretch yourself to at least 30-45 minutes and you’ll be surprised at how much you get done. Once you have got something (anything) on the page – then the task becomes editing and having something to work with and refine is much easier than starting from scratch.
- Give yourself permission to stop and have a break after 30-45 minutes. It doesn’t need to be endless
Notice that this isn’t so bad to write even when you don’t want to, have nothing to say or are not in the mood. And perfection isn’t all it’s cracked up to be anyway.
Give it a try
I’m willing to bet that before long you will be absorbed in your piece and write far more than you anticipated. And you’ll be on your way to higher productivity and less stress. Sounds good doesn’t it? I wrote this blog in an airport lounge following all the principles above – it works and helps make writing more fun too.