How can I achieve a state of creative flow as a writer?
February 27, 2013 7:24 PM   Subscribe

When I'm racing to meet a writing deadline, I feel a sense of exhilaration, momentum, and flow. How can achieve that state on a regular basis so I can make steady progress on my writing?

The night before a big deadline, it's always the same thing. Under the gun to file in time, the urgency and pressure fuel me and gets me going. It's not panic, it's energy. Things start clicking. I feel inspired. The writing just flows. I wind up doing 90 percent of the writing in 10 percent of the time.

When the hour and minute of the deadline roll around, I always find myself wishing I had another 24 or 48 hours to work on the thing, now that I finally know clearly what I want to say. But by then it's too late (especially if the deadline is a live presentation of my story).

Imagine if I could get to that point a week before the deadline how much better I could make everything!

I don't know why I'm so lazy.

1. I never actually write anything unless I have to, by which I mean i.e. I have an externally-imposed deadline and someone else is sitting there WAITING for me to file
2. Even then I never seem to be able to get going until the last possible minute

It used to be that I didn't take my work seriously and I could get away with it. In college I did an all-nighter every time I had to write a paper and I always got an A.

Now it's different. I realize that this is my life and I need to stop playing around. So I write every day. However:

1. I have trouble getting started with my writing for the day. It's always "let me check my email one last time" or "oh I just remembered I need to make a doctor's appointment" or even just "let me browse headlines for a while longer before I start." Why do I feel the need to put it off so long before I start?
2. I constantly feel the need to flee my writing task and do something else, anything else. Check my email. Make coffee. Empty the trash on my desktop. Usually the distractions that pull me away from my writing aren't pure time-wasters—I'm not sitting there playing videogames when I'm supposed to be writing. Instead, it's "oh man, my friend is coming into town this weekend and I just remembered I still haven't emailed him back, I should do that right away." Or "oh if I'm going to go running this weekend, I need to order earbuds." They're important things, things I do need to do anyway. But, you know, I don't need to do them at that moment. So when I think about it after the fact, I can see: that was just me trying to escape the task of writing. Sure it's fine to take breaks. But sometimes I realize find I've only done a few minutes of writing at a time between all those other tasks.

(For context, I'm in the process of writing a narrative nonfiction book, which involves a lot of research and synthesizing information.)

Why do I indulge in this procrastination, this "experiential avoidance"? I don't know, because writing is hard and I'm lazy and my brain wants to avoid work? Fine, but writing is what I'm CHOOSING to do. I've had other jobs and they were awful and I don't want to have to go back. Which means I have to find a way to get my writing done.

I realize these are classic writers' problems, but what's the solution for God's sake?
posted by incandescentman to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
Have you checked out this similar query from January?
posted by zadcat at 7:39 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Stephen King, in On Writing, says you put your ass in the chair and sit there until it's done. Set yourself a target word count every day and you don't get to get out of the chair until you hit it (2000 words is what he suggests), though obviously there's an exception for bathroom breaks and actual emergencies. It's habit building, essentially, eventually your brain will go "now am writing time" and spin up like it usually does.

If you want smaller tricks to manage your habits, there's things like Freedom that'll block your internet completely or StayFocusd, which will block time waster sites. Or you could keep a small text file on your desktop for those SUDDENLY SURPRISINGLY URGENT THINGS that inevitably pop up: write them down and go back to them later, then do them once you hit your word count. Or even make that your "reward" and a deadline of sorts, you can't do the SUDDENLY SURPRISINGLY URGENT THING because you have to hit your wordcount.

But honestly, I think it's butt in chair, jot those things down and come back to them, and let yourself get to work.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:45 PM on February 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Some potentially useful tools: ColdTurkey or Freedom. The Pomodoro Method.

Some potentially useful reading (however, beware of procrastination-by-reading): Steven Pressfield. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
posted by gnomeloaf at 7:46 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I like the urgency and terror, too. So I use Write or Die on kamikaze mode. It's amazing how motivated you can be when the program starts deleting your words.
posted by headspace at 7:54 PM on February 27, 2013 [5 favorites]

Your situation resonates with me: I'm a writer, I had a lot of trouble with procrastination, I didn't feel like I was really hitting that flow state until I was under the gun. I was also diagnosed with ADHD a while back. I tried a lot of organizational and productivity techniques and they didn't do a lot of good.

Medication helped. I later read that procrastination and the self-imposed pressure of deadline brinksmanship along with the accompanying adrenaline are their own kind of self-medication, providing stimulation to the parts of the brain related to executive function that ADHD people have problems with.

I eventually went off the medication, mostly because I working a terrible job where I was badly underutilized and it just didn't seem to matter because I was working way under capacity.

Six months ago I got a new job that is much more challenging and where I work much more independently, and that is causing me to reappraise how I work. I've been trying a few productivity techniques to help me keep on track. The Pomodoro technique is showing some promise, but honestly I'm reconsidering going back on medication because I was happier when I had to take a pill that helped me feel self-motivated and forward thinking than I do when I am not medicated and feel like a lot of my motivation is coming from fear of getting in trouble for not getting stuff done in a timely manner.

Here's a lengthy answer I provided a while back about how I dealt with ADHD. It might include some things that will help you, even if you don't seek a diagnosis and medication.
posted by mph at 8:03 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: What you have described is basically my experience with all kinds of creative endeavors, but especially writing. I haven't found any magic solutions but I was recently diagnosed with ADHD and that information alone has helped me to put a lot of things in perspective. I am in no way suggesting that you have ADHD. That's for medical professionals to decide.

The first thing I want to say is don't be so hard on yourself. At least a couple of times in your question you ran yourself down, said you were lazy, etc. Stop doing that. Seriously. Thinking that way about yourself is going to hold you back and it isn't going to help you get more work done because that voice in your head will be there calling you lazy and then you'll BE lazy and it'll be a vicious circle of self-sabotage.

One thing about writing at the last minute is that you're under enough pressure that your internal critic knows to get the hell out of the way because it knows the writing doesn't have to be perfect it just has to get finished. Maybe one of the things that's blocking you is that you don't want to commit unless you know it's going to be good. So you just let it percolate in your head instead of putting it down on the page. Maybe you need to work on just spewing forth whatever pops into your head onto the page regardless of quality or even content. Just get used to sitting down and getting stuff on the page even if it is total crap.

The other thing I wonder is if your computer is too shiny and pretty and distracting. (I'm assuming you're writing on a computer). Maybe it would help to go back to pen and paper. It would be a total change to your writing routine. Maybe it would help to just get the words flowing if they're going through a pen instead of a keyboard.

Anyway if you ever do figure it out come back to the thread and follow up because there's a ton of people out there just like you and me and right now they're probably on meta filter instead of getting their work done.
posted by wabbittwax at 8:03 PM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Sadly, it's basically just a case of sitting down and doing it but what I used to do when I was a huge procrastinater was set a timer for 10 minutes and tell myself, I just have to write for 10 minutes then I can go. Easypeasy. The thing is, once you start writing, you tend to get into it and before you know it, 3 hours have passed. So, maybe try tricking yourself into it like that.
posted by Jubey at 8:19 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Why do I indulge in this procrastination, this "experiential avoidance"?

Because you are waiting for a state of flow to overtake you before starting to write. Put in grunt work.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:05 PM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've mentioned this before, but my writing approach is pretty simple and works for me:

1) I leave the house and go to a coffeeshop or similar. This gets me away from distractions and creates a clear "work/home" separation. When I'm at work place, I work. When I'm home, I don't waste time beating myself up for not working.

2) When needed, I use a timer. Start timer, write until 10 minutes, take 10 minute break, repeat.*

3) Don't be a hero. I don't know of many professional writers who write more than 3 or 4 hours in a day. Because it's exhausting. Don't worry about doing a ton in a single day, just do it every day.

4) I don't beat myself up for being "lazy." Everyone in the world is like this. Writing is hard work and you use techniques that will help you succeed. That's all it is. There is no such thing as "flow" or "inspiration" or "writer's block." It's work, in the same way bricklaying is work.

*I understand this *may* be something like the Pomodoro technique, but I may never know because their website is not comprehensible. My way doesn't require buying a book or "mastering" anything besides how to start a timer.

posted by drjimmy11 at 11:01 PM on February 27, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: It's a tricky thing. For everything you try a new form of procrastination will appear.

I find that the only thing that defeats procrastination is doing good work. Good work delivers a buzz that nothing else can match. Not even the internet. But you're not experiencing it. You're just experiencing stress and regret. That's a hard place to climb out of, as you know.

You are writing, so be a writer. Immerse yourself in writing. Procrastinate with books instead of the internet. Difficult, mind expanding books.

On Sunday don't use the internet at all. Don't use any screens. Read. Go for walks. Think about what you read. Think about your work. Enjoy the way your brain feels. Go home and read more. On Monday, stay away from the internet until you've done a couple of hours work. When you do go on the internet and you can feel it hurting your brain, stop and read until it feels better and then do more work.

It seems that most people can't do more than four hours of intense intellectual work a day. Some do it in one lump first thing in the morning, others split it into two, morning and early evening. Try both. Use those four hours to write. If you don't know exactly what to write, write the worst thing possible.

If you need more structure during those four hours, set a daily word count such that you get several days to revise once you hit the desired total length. Allow yourself to write badly to ensure you hit that daily word count. You already gave yourself time to fix it.

Getting into the groove is hard, but it is a really nice place to be, so you end up doing your best to stay there. And then the good work comes out of that, creating a positive feedback loop.
posted by hifimofo at 2:49 AM on February 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

An hour a day. You could do anything an hour a day. Well, maybe not hold your breath, but, you know.
When I am switching from say, working on my novel to working on a short story, I give myself a day to use the hour to just sort of bitch and moan at how crappy a writer I am, how hard it is to write, let myself be distracted.

Then the next day, I think, 'in this hour, I will accomplish X,' X being drafting a scene, putting in revisions, whatever the fuck. And then I go in, brow furrowed, teeth bared, MUSIC BLASTING.

So, that's what I do.
posted by angrycat at 3:37 AM on February 28, 2013

what's the solution for God's sake?

Structured Procrastination.
posted by flabdablet at 7:52 AM on February 28, 2013

Best answer: Create deadlines that others will hold you to. Set up meetings with others (writers, friends, both) in which you have to show your work in progress.
posted by pracowity at 9:40 AM on February 28, 2013

Best answer: Mindfulness meditation has helped me with this. Somehow when I've been meditating regularly my mental chatter sounds less like "Oh, I'll just read one more MeFi thread and then I'll start writing" and more like "Wait a minute, why not start right now? I like writing and I'm good at it, right? This is going to be fun."

Also nthing internet-chastity-belt programs like Freedom and SelfControl, if that makes sense for you research-wise. (I use the latter because it's strictest: there's no way of undoing it once you've started the timer.) And as Ironmouth said, waiting for a flow state before you start writing insures you'll never get there. You're not always going to be in flow. It's nice when it comes, but much of the time writing is going to be hard, though highly rewarding, work.
posted by zeri at 9:43 AM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

If I have to do something and have desire but no inspiration to do it, I'll will create a list of tiny steps, and before I get to the end of working through my tasks, I'm inspired, most of the time.

For example, if I wanted to work on my book, but couldn't think of anything particularly to write, right now, I might list future chapter titles, and plot points within that I want to cover. I make a task list involving improving character development. Then I will start on the list, and even if not inspired, I will tell myself, it's a draft, and it doesn't have to be perfect. Mostly, working through the series of steps will allow me to regain focus, and I will find myself totally immersed within an hour or so.

So, in short, do less than perfect work so that you can get into it.
posted by b33j at 1:48 AM on March 5, 2013

PS a latelife diagnosis of ADHD and medication has changed my world. I avoid things much much less.
posted by b33j at 1:49 AM on March 5, 2013

You've got to warm up before you start writing for real.

Ever gone to a baseball game early, and watched the players warm up their arms and really just their whole body, stretching, running, playing catch (watching major league outfielders playing catch is alone worth showing up to the park early, those guys can throw the ball for a long, long way and make it look effortless, very cool), batting practice, etc and etc. They warm their body, ready their body and mind for the activities which are coming their way.

When I was a carpenter contractor, installing interior doors and trim and cabinetry, I spent pretty close to an hour getting tools set up, drinking coffee, walking the house, maybe moving doors to the rooms I was going to hang them in, making measurements of the trim to be cut for around the windows, etc and etc. Easy-peasy stuff, moving slow, planning the day. And then get the hell out of my way and I meant it, too, we'll talk later, just now I'm working -- those were by far my prime hours, And then, later, a good days work behind me, I'd prep for tomorrow, maybe the house next door, nosing around, moving stuff around.

Point I'm trying (in my long-winded way -- sorry) is to warm up. You've got to prime the pump, you can do it writing a letter to someone, grocery list, draft of a letter to the woman you intend to date if the sun shines in your life, etc. Just write anything, really, whatever comes to mind, you've just got to get the words moving is all, here's an excerpt of a comment of mine from a different writing thread: Write about any fucking thing that comes into your head, and if nothing comes into your head write about that, write about it in a rage, write about it in white-hot heat, or maybe write about it as your sniveling landlord would write about it, and now that that little prick has crossed your mind write about him, how that sweaty little fuck wears those shirts with greazy dirt inside the collars, how you keep looking at that when he talks to you -- It's so distracting! -- and how his rent increase is keeping you from getting that new computer you're sure you need to write the words you've just written about him.

It doesn't have to be a grim time as you prepare, you need not be all frowny and gaseous looking and serious, you can just bop through whatever needs or wants bopped through. Relax, drink your coffee, shove a doughnut into your face, lay out your days work in your mind as you warm up, as you prepare your mind and body for the task. And then step into it, step into the work, and don't step out until you notice that you're a little bit fried, tired, eyes kindof squicked out maybe. Shake your head some, rub your eyes, notice that three and a half hours have just slid out like toothpaste out of the tube. Your fingers are tired, you're tired but it's a real sweet tired, a happy tired. So ease out of the work, set up tomorrows work maybe, loose ends of todays work, look again at the love letter to the woman you hope will bring sunshine into your world, move a few sentences around, finish that last cup of coffee, rub your eyes again and stretch and hey, another day in the tank. Fun.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:21 AM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

« Older What To Do In Seattle This Weekend?   |   Help my wife choose a Patisserie School Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.