We all make mistakes. Sometimes we make mistakes repeatedly in a cycle with no overall progress. We know we have to sit down to write that article or that book. So we write for a day or two, stop writing for a few weeks, then write a day or two again, and stop writing again for a few weeks.
If you are stuck in a non-productive cycle you might also be stuck in a cycle of hope and depair. You are hopeful when you restart your writing but fall into despair as you realize you are not making any progress on your writing for weeks. The cycle of hope and despair will continue if you don’t do one thing that will certainly bring you some measure of success, and that is learning the correct lesson.
Not learning the correct lesson from your mistakes will cause you to repeatedly self-sabotage. When you are aware of what is preventing you from taking action on your writing project, you will be able to adjust.
Learning the correct lesson from your mistakes takes some effort because you have to first understand what is productive writing and the component skills to get there, how to become aware of what you are doing, experimenting with your behaviors, and appreciating the lessons you have learnt.
Productive writing and its components
A simple way to think of productive writing is to think of the typical products of writing – outlines, paragraphs and edited pages.
Let’s go back to the cycle of non-writing. Usually, not writing comes about from not having a plan to write, believing you need large chunks of time to write and not being still enough to write a few words. These are three things you need to have a productive writing session.
However, when you are in the cycling of writing and not writing for long stretches of time, your negative emotions may lead you to think that writing is beyond you. When you believe this, you believe you have failed and you end up self-sabotaging yourself.
But when you break down what writing is – string of words into sentences and a number of sentences on one idea is a paragraph – you can then analyze what is keeping you from taking the proper actions and make adjustments to your life to help your to get there.
You don’t need to write a book or even a page. You need to write a paragraph or a sentence. Let us break down the actions behind writing a sentence.
For example, my paragraphs are typically 35 words and typically two to three sentences. To write one paragraph, I need to have three thoughts on one topic and find three minutes to write the three sentences.
Let’s do some math … 30 sessions x 35 words/ session will result in a 1050 word article. If I wanted to write an article of 1050 words by the end of the week I will have to find 30, three minute sessions in one week to write one paragraph in each session. That is just 90 minutes on writing. Three minutes per session or even 90 minutes a week is doable. In that time you make progress on a blog post or article.
The wrong lesson to learn is that writing is beyond you and that you do not have the talent to write. If you think this of any skill you would not attempt to learn the skill. You would wait for miracles to happen or be stuck in an endless cycle of very little progress.
The right lessons are about how do you make sentences out of your ideas, learning how to write in small blocks of time, and believing you can write.
For the rest of this post, I will focus on the act of writing.
The first thing you need to do is to become aware of your actions and their results. One of the laws in physics in it’s simplest form (Newton’s third law of motion) says that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Every action you take will have some outcome. In real life though, the result you get may not be equivalent to the action out in. So, tracking the outcomes for your writing actions will help you to decide on the changes you need to make.
To fully benefit from awareness, you will need to track the results of your action. Find an easily accessible place where you could record the outcomes of your actions. Keep this record for at least a few weeks. You can go over the record once a week and observe your cycles of behavior and whether these are beneficial to you.
One of the things you need to track is the actual action taken, which might not be your planned writing. Sometimes you may do impulsive things when you know you should be making progress on our goals. You may decide to clean the house or make calls to family instead of writing for three minutes.
In addition to tracking your actions, track your plan for the action and how you feel when you show up at the appointed time to take action. To a large extent, our emotions dictate our actions. One of the things you will later adjust is how you respond to those emotions. But, you can’t adjust if you are not paying attention to how you feel.
For example, you may decide to clean your bedroom instead of engaging with a three minute writing session because you are afraid. Record this emotion.
The upside of tracking your behavior and outcomes is that you can catch yourself in the act of deciding not to take action when you should. If you can do this then your next decision to continue as before or changing becomes a conscious decision.
After you have noted the cycles of behavior that do not serve you, dig deep and try to understand why you keep repeating those behaviors. What inner desire do those behaviors satisfy? What keeps you hooked into that cycle? what other actions do you take instead of the one that will help you to progress on your goal.
Again, record your actual actions and emotions because your motivations change over time and multiple actions may have the same result. For example, watching television reduces the time you may spend on writing. So too does wanting to clean everything in sight when you should be writing. Different actions but the same non-progressing result.
Once a week, sit with your log and consider why you did not write during your scheduled time. Was it at a time when your family was having dinner? We’re you tired? Was the table cluttered? Were you upset from an argument with a work colleague?
Also look at your impulsive reactions. Impulsiveness is often a reaction to some underlying issue. You might be bored of the same routine every day, or afraid to start on your writing goal. Recognize what causes you to be impulsive.
Then, for each cause for you not writing, brainstorm possible adjustments you can make to your life to get you to write.
As an example, let us consider feeling afraid that your writing is no good so you decide to clean instead of writing for three minutes.
First, if your objective is to write, meaning the action of writing, then frankly you don’t need to worry about the quality of your writing. Writing quantity and writing quality are two different things.
New writers have to focus on writing quantity first because it is only when you have the words in paper that you can then give that to an editor to help you improve your writing quality.
So the second point here is that new writers often are not the best judge of their own writing and may benefit from getting an editor or learning how to edit their own work. If you think your writing is no good, then tell yourself that it may not be good but you are learning how to write and the main thing to do right now is to get your thoughts into a document.
Experiment with your own behaviors
Identifying your recurrent self-sabotaging behaviors is one step to getting out. Now you can experiment on your adjustments and possibly new behaviors or thoughts to see which one will help you get out of the cycle. If you want to get out of the cycle of self-defeating behaviors you will have to think and act differently.
This might be writing in short sprints on the hour as a way to build your writing muscle. It might be acknowledging and dealing with the fears that build up in you when you want to write and then writing anyway. It might be experimenting with writing brief outlines even if you have always been a pantser.
Regardless of the experiment, the best way to learn is to note the change and the action you intend to take, take the action, and then note the outcome. Repeat each experiment several times to see if the outcomes are consistent. Keep tweaking until you get the outcome you want.
Sometimes a tweak in your behavior may not get you the results you want. Sometimes you need to take radical action to get radical outcomes. Sometimes when you realize you have done the same thing 10 times in a row with no change in your outcomes that you decide you need a radical change in your actions. You realize how many times will you make the same mistake? Then you decide to take a leap of faith and a leap in your actions. You might be afraid to do it. If that action is not going to hurt your health or finances, then do it. You will learn what you need to do to get the desired outcomes in the time frame you want.
Experimenting is hard because you will need to think and act differently. You do the experiments because learning to think and act.differently is part of learning the correct lesson.
Experimenting with your behaviors and outcomes are likely to raise all kinds of emotions. Relief and joy when the experiment is successful, frustration with inconsistent results for the same actions, and desperation when none of the experiments seem to be working.
At each stage of experimenting, pause and feel grateful for being able to conduct the experiments. Be grateful to yourself for trying and to everyone who has supported you in the experiments. When the experiment does not give you the results you have desired, be grateful for the lesson you learned.
All successes and mishaps have a lesson to learn. No experiment is wrong as all experiments leave you with trails to success. It is often reported that Benjamin Franklin took 10,000 attempts at finding the right material to use for the incandescent bulb to convert electricity into light. He did not fail 10,000 times. Instead, a failure made him progress one step further on his path to success.
Learning the correct lesson takes some thought. It is often not easy for most people, myself included. It is hard because you have to understand the component actions and thoughts needed for writing success, become aware of how you are thinking and acting, and thinking and acting differently. At the end, learning means doing something different from what you are accustomed to doing.
But learning from your mistakes and showing that you have learnt are necessary for you to move forward on your writing goals. Learning the correct lessons is necessary for your writing success.