Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

storm moving across a field
September 18, 2023

A Big Picture Solution to "The Writing Bottleneck"

by Jenny Hansen

Break thru your writing bottleneck! Shows bullet breaking bottle

Every writer gets stalled, frustrated, and just plain stuck sometimes. Sometimes it's life, sometimes it's illness, and sometimes it's the story. I’ve been dealing with cancer since last November. Talk about a writing bottleneck! Nothing kills the writing mojo like chemo, amiright?

But last January, before chemo, I watched a talk by Collin Jewett, CEO of Superhuman Academy, called "How to identify and fix your bottleneck (in your business and your mindset)." He gave us a formula that absolutely blew my mind, and I’ve been wanting to blog about it ever since.

What was the formula, you ask?

Results = You + (Clarity x Attention/Energy x Action x Time)

The formula made no sense to me when I first saw it. In fact, I was scratching my head until I saw the word “Time” at the end. Time has been my nemesis since forever. My relationship with time only became worse as my responsibilities increased with motherhood and entrepreneurship.

When someone asks what is preventing me from reaching any goal, my #1 answer is always Time.

A-ha, I thought. It’s got to be a right-to-left equation, since time is always the culprit, right?

Um, no.

Mr. Superhuman Academy blew my mind with his explanation of this formula, stressing that you always start fixing from the left. But as I listened to him, and thought about both my writing business and my day job business, I realized that “time” actually isn’t the biggest culprit to my productivity.

The biggest culprit is lack of attention over there on the left side.

By not digging deep enough into the left side of the equation, I sabotage my time and prevent myself from streamlining the work.

Let's break this equation down...

You = Self-care

Prioritizing self-care is the first step in escaping your bottlenecks. If you're not hydrated, caught up on sleep, exercised, or starting in a good mental place, EVERYTHING will take longer. Starting from the left, you and your well-being bring the power of your creativity into the equation.

Clarity is often shortchanged.

Clarity is sometimes assumed to be easy. The simple truth is that clarity is rarely easy. Clarity is the most important part of results, but it is the part of the equation that people skip the most often. They want to get doing, so they skip on ahead to "action."

Action is Seductive

Action, even when it is scattered rather than focused, makes people feel accomplished. In writing terms: if I write a scene I am moving forward. But what if your scene doesn't move the plot forward, or develop your character? What if the scene accomplishes nothing, except making you feel that you did something by writing that day?

It's easy to get stuck in Action. To try to do too many things at once, and fail to do anything all that well. When action isn’t focused, you waste a ton of time. By focusing your energy on completing only one thing (that moves the story forward), you're more likely to move smoothly on to the Attention/Energy category.

You shortchange yourself by focusing only on time

When I solve right to left by thinking everything is a time problem, I end up wasting my most precious commodity — time. Considering time is the most finite resource in the whole equation, digging into this formula made me feel a bit dumb.

Then I ran a search and realized that most people with even the slightest bit of attention deficit have extraordinary trouble with time management, procrastination, perfectionism, and organization. I felt a teensy bit better when I realized that even though my attention deficit is low on the overall scale, I am constantly moving a boulder uphill when it comes to those "executive functions."

The best articles I found on time and ADD:

looking through the bottleneck

Other Roadblocks in the Equation

Sometimes the enormity of novel writing leads to "analysis paralysis." Writing is hard on the best of days. But when I look at the formula above, I think perhaps analysis paralysis can come from a different source. Mine often does.


  • You don’t have clarity about your character’s motivation.
  • You haven’t nailed down the big turning points in your story.
  • You haven’t made the protagonist’s goal tangible enough.
  • You don’t have a strong antagonist.

Note: For all the pantsers, the above is probably a second draft bottleneck, but it is still a writing bottleneck.

To recap the formula for writing:

  • Clarity is the stage where you define your values, characters, themes, etc and narrow your focus to a single problem that you can solve.
  • If this is done well, you know where to put your Attention and Energy.
  • Those clear goals make your passion bubble up so you are driven to take Action (and write in a more focused manner).
  • Actions taken with clear focus take less Time.

This formula unlocked the secret to Flow...

After digging into this formula, I began to understand that nirvana-like state called “flow.” Previously, I thought "flow" was some sprightly unicorn who only visited other people.

Steven Kotler is an expert on Creative Flow, describing it as “..an optimal state of mind where you are at peak performance, you feel your best, and your creativity and problem-solving abilities can be up to four times as powerful. Everything around you seems to disappear. Time flies and the creativity pours in when you’re in the Flow.”

While I listened to Mr. Superhuman Academy speak, I finally understood why “flow” has so often eluded me.

I was solving the formula from the wrong direction.

Solving the formula above from left-to-right feels utterly foreign to my slightly disorganized, slightly ADD brain. Probably you don’t have my kind of brain, but I feel pretty secure betting that you’ve got my love/hate relationship with time. Almost every writer does.

We all have lives overflowing with responsibilities and “must do’s.” Often, we spend our energy and attention on action rather than clarity because there is just so much to get done.

Cancer both filled and cleared my plate.

Cancer sucks up most of your time with medical stuff, and doesn't leave time for much else. But all my diagnostic and chemo time taught me a few things about “clarity” that I might never have stumbled upon otherwise.

First of all, when you have cancer "getting well" is your most important job. Everything comes second to that, including how you use all that hurry-up-and-wait downtime.

Using downtime for "writing good"

I learned to use that downtime for the non-writing part of writing. While I was motionless in MRIs and scans, or horizontal from chemo side effects, thinking was about the extent of my writing capabilities. I had to spend my time over on the left side of that equation because I had no energy for action. Cancer treatment crowds your schedule with crappy choices and endless delays, but it sure does give you lots of clarity.

Spending all that time pondering story questions (like those bullet points above) meant that when I sat down to write, I experienced much less frustration and got a lot more done. It was an interesting lesson for me and my busy brain.

Contemplation time had far more importance than I was giving it!

When does Teamwork help?

Sometimes a story challenge or roadblock is more than you can solve on your own. This is where critique groups, writing groups, writing forums, and writing friends come in.

If you don’t have clarity in characters, storylines, or motivation, you will feel very very stuck (and possibly very frustrated). This is when a lot of writers stop believing in the viability of their stories, especially if they’re newer to the writing game.

Note: These murky story moments are when those new story ideas start looking like shiny attractive alternatives.

Your story matters, and I hope you don’t give up on it!

Final Thoughts

If you can't do this on your own, find a writing friend or hire a story coach you trust and talk it over until you have clarity. You’ll work better if you know where to put your attention and energy. Remember, if you’re stressed out about focus, then you can’t take action. Or you take ALL the actions, just to do something to move your story, published novel, career, [insert other roadblock here] forward.

Unless you are retired (with lots of help) or independently wealthy, your writing time is limited. Use it wisely!

So, what is your bottleneck? It isn’t the same for all writers. Do you get stuck in terms of clarity, energy/attention, action, or time? Which section of the equation frustrates you more than the others? Please share your story with us down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Jenny

By day, Jenny Hansen provides storytelling skills, LinkedIn coaching and copywriting for accountants and financial services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

Article images from Depositphotos.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

35 comments on “A Big Picture Solution to "The Writing Bottleneck"”

  1. What an excellent article Jenny. Fortuitously timely. Thank you. Clarity is clearly my problem, and 20 000 words in it becomes most evident!

    "Note: These murky story moments are when those new story ideas start looking like shiny attractive alternatives." This statement for me hits the nail on the head.

    Stay strong as you persevere on your path to wellness.

    Thank you again.


    1. Yes! 20K is that magic story moment when it is all I can do to not leap over to something less difficult. It is why I started writing out of order. It allowed me to keep going when I got to the "murky sections."

      Stay strong, Tracy!

  2. A great and helpful post.

    I would like to take you up on your final point, though.

    You say: Unless you are retired or independently wealthy, your writing time is limited.

    This isn't true. I'm retired, but my writing time is limited. Just because I no longer go out to work, doesn't mean my time is all my own. I, and other retired people of my acquaintance, have lots of things to do. There's the day to day living--shopping, cleaning etc. Many of us look after grandchildren. Spouses also make demands and have to be considered. Meals need cooking, exercise is important, other people, because you are retired, think they can ask you to do things, or join something, or do voluntary work. Some people have church work. Most of my retired friends say they don't know how they had the time to go to work.

    1. So true! All the personal projects I had no time for when I worked (a busy 24/7 on call, on the run troubleshooting type job), we’re waiting for me when I retired.

      Aside from (not enough) us time with my wife, found myself dividing my time between completely refurbishing our boat, (too many) doctor visits, and writing. And have now (long overdue) added regular trips to the gym to make boat and doctor trips more comfortable.

    1. Thanks, Tiffany! It was a sobering lesson to realize my time issues come more from clarity and organization than they do from lack of hours. My processes have changed a lot since I watched that talk!

  3. I've been aware that it's not about having time, it's about using time, but I've never seen it analyzed like this. Thanks, and thanks for sharing your chemo process with your videos. You're braver than I'd be in a similar situation. Good health!

    1. Thanks, Terry! I am thankfully done with chemo. My impression of chemo: it feels like it will never end, but then it goes by in a wink. *sigh* I survived it, with the added bonus of losing 30 pounds. For a menopausal female, that was a solid bonus!

  4. Super helpful post, Jenny. Thank you!

    Attention is an issue for me. I can hyper-focus, but that is rare. Too many squirrels to chase.

    When I finally figured out that I have undiagnosed ADD I was able to have more patience with myself. I have learned to "chunk" time to keep from being overwhelmed.

    Thanks for the articles! I'll pass them along.

    You are a trooper, dealing with cancer with such calm.

    1. Ellen, I was 38 years old before I realized I had some mild undiagnosed ADD. "Just enough to be dangerous" is how I like to put it. It means I struggle with the time and organization part, but it is such a comfort to know it.

      My kitchen timer and I have become the very best of friends. And I schedule EVERYTHING or I forget it. It's horribly embarrassing to remember something important like 2-3 weeks later because it "left the building" (aka my noggin) before I got it on the calendar.

  5. In watching and marveling at you in your chemo videos...and in reading your thoughts here...it makes me see with "clarity" that cancer has given you a new voice to speak and write with. A shitty gift, sure. But have you thought about kicking cancer's ass in more ways than with grabbing your health back? You have a whole new POV to speak to readers with...to see the world...to tell stories...to bring tenderness and wellness into focus.

    With your attitude and attention and ability, you can be such a blessing to your readers and fans. Unlike the way anyone else can.

    Just thought you should know that if you didn't already. (And I know how bright you are, so I know you know this already!)

    Can't wait until we can meet again...you better brace yourself for the most breath-taking bear hug ever!

    1. Hi friend! I have thought about writing a book with this perspective. That's what we do, right?

      I have a friend who went through chemo before I did and she made me laugh my guts out with this comment: "So just to give you some perspective for the crap chemo. Hardly anyone actually croaks from chemo. It's just an opportunity to observe what feeling like you want to die is like. As an author it's another skill to add to your writing ✍️ 😉

      You 💘 gather the love around you and get through it. Oxo"

      She nailed it in a short little paragraph! And now I get to laugh and say, "Well I didn't croak!"

      Once I've healed from the upcoming surgery, I will be taking you up on that big ol' hug. 🙂 XOXO

      1. I went through chemo four times, six months each, three days every other week. At 63, I no longer thought I’d make it to 66 and questioned whether I’d undergo it again. I’ll turn a (relatively) active 73 next January, thanks mostly to switching oncologists.

        Aside from the growing fatigue and discomfort experienced during chemo, I found that no matter how helpful, comfortable, and welcoming the cancer centers tried to make you, it was very difficult not to become depressed when you could see so many others like yourself that you knew were unlikely to make it.

        I always tried to read and to sleep when I could. The first round of treatments were in a larger room without curtains, so I could speak with others. There was a young, upbeat mother I met, who was on her second round of treatments. When I could, I’d sit next to her just for the positive vibes. All later rounds were in rooms with curtain dividers, so I’d only see those across the aisle from me. Plus, so many seemed so worse off than I was. That’s why reading and sleeping were such a needed distraction.

        If you’re up to it, I think someone should write a book to help others really understand the process cancer victims go through.

        I’m extremely fortunate to have switched oncologists and found a doctor who listens and is responsive (and isn’t too busy to actually read the lab reports). He handled my last two bouts and had recommended (because of the recurrences) just an ongoing infusion schedule (for life), but still offered a (new then) pill option, which I consider a lifesaver for me. I don’t think I could have handled never ending infusions every two weeks. And on the pills (Capecetabine aka Zeloda) I’ve been cancer free for over five years now.

    1. I hear you on that struggle, Denise! Those two are my biggest challenges right now too. Clarity (always) and energy since chemo. I am done and, thankfully, my energy is on the rise.

  6. So sorry to hear about the cancer - it forces its way to the top of the list because time is of the essence. And you're on other people's time - waiting - far more than you can understand or control.

    My bottleneck is your second item - clarity. I know it, and I'm not going anywhere until that timeline and the set of complete plot points assigned to each scene is complete. It's a royal pain, and my brain actually hurts when I do it, but I tried pantsing the first scene, a scene I've been writing in my head for years, and it came out flat and uninteresting! Why? Because my process feeds so much information into a scene that is connected to other parts of the book and the rest of the trilogy that I can tell when it's not there.

    So I plug away at it as the brain fog obscures it, breaking steps into smaller and smaller substeps, and eventually all the little chicks come home to roost, the structure will be complete, and I can move on to the other part, finding out HOW all this is achieved by the characters, and it all will work. The more fun part. The art part. Knowing I won't be leaving plot holes behind. Well, knowing as well as you can before you write the thing.

    I have all the time in the world - retirement is behind me - but the ME/CFS makes so much of it unusable that I have to be precise and careful with the usable part when I sense it's there.

    It is what it is. I can write complex fiction. I just have to do it my way. And it's as slow as continental drift (wish I could remember who to credit for that image).

    Thanks for this post. I sometimes resent what I have to do, but it's the only way, and I like the results.

    Best wishes for your health - they have some marvelous track records in treatment. The patient may be a limp dishrag through some of it, but the successes are undeniable.

    1. I am always so in awe of your tenacity, Alicia. It feels insurmountable sometimes to be creative when you're so dang tired. But you are determined and you persevere. It's AWESOME.

  7. Brilliant equation! I shall work on Clarity.

    Thank you, Jenny, for taking your valuable right-hand-of-the-equation and sharing this unique concept while dealing with such a serious health crisis. I'm in awe of your generosity and determination.

  8. I love this, Jenny. Not that you have been battling cancer, but your focus on clarity. It has been a major step forward for me this year (totally different reasons, but still lots of time to think.) With more clarity and a little better self-care (still working on this), I have already made big strides forward on my to-do list. Thank you for the reinforcement that my downtime (that I used to fill with busy work) is a valuable part of my writing journey.

    1. I am so happy for you, Lynette! I love hearing about to-do lists shrinking. 🙂

      It is very easy to get busy being busy and not have it move the needle forward on a story (or a to-do list), and the result is soooooo much frustration.

  9. My bottleneck is time. No surprise. The reason is because so many other things demand attention. The key to mastering this situation is for the day, prioritize what is the most important thing that must be done? What is the second? Sometimes on a particular day writing doesn't make the top of the list, but the next day it is bumped up. Today 2 important emails caused a change in my priorities. I received the new trailer for my book and republished content for my last 4 books. That meant sending it to the webmaster for posting. In the process I discovered the website wasn't functioning as intended. Another email. My hoped for editing is now moved to top position for tomorrow.

  10. I'm sorry you had to go through treatment, and so grateful that you brought your insights to us! I've always worked backward, setting a timer for an action step that may or may not be useful without clarity. This formula--working forward for a change--is well worth noting. Thank you

  11. Oh, Jenny, what an essay! Wow. You got me where I live with "strong enough antagonist" but the whole thing is inspiring and brave.

    I have to go now now and think about my WIP. Boris -- not named Badenov but he could be -- is kind of wimpy.

    Anyway, thank you very much and take care.

    1. Thanks, James! I really struggle with antagonists - making them three dimensional and strong. Particularly as a new writer, I sometimes wouldn't even have the right antagonist until the second draft. The tool that helps me figure out the right antagonist is Bob Mayer's conflict lock. It makes me examine who wins and loses - like if the protagonist achieves his or her goal, they directly block the antagonist from achieving THEIR goal (and vice-versa).

      Here's an example from my early years:

      In one story, I had the villain as the antagonist for the heroine. And it wasn't working. Those scenes were contrived. I realize now it was because I saw villain and antagonist as synonymous and they're not. The villain was the hero's antagonist, but NOT HER'S. Her antagonist was actually her mother...Mom wanted to be close and entwined more than anything, and my heroine absolutely LOATHED her mother and wanted uber-independence. When I made the mother a more active character and threw her together with the protag more, everything took off and aligned seamlessly. It felt glorious.

  12. First and foremost, I wish that you come through your cancer treatments whole and healthy. I also strongly recommend that once in remission, keep the bloodwork no more than three months apart, even if your oncologist suggest reducing them to six months.-and especially insist they’ve actually reviewed your latest bloodwork before your office visits. Trust me, that’s very important. Not all do.

    Your article makes excellent points, and certainly resonates with what I’ve experienced. I find I sometimes hit roadblocks when I get to scenes which include pivotal elements. Sometimes it’s about where they fit in the story’s timeline. Sometimes it’s a question of how to approach the reveal or even which characters or POV should be used for the most dramatic effect.

    The bottom line is I can retreat a couple of day, doing other (non-writing) things and shoving brainstorming into quiet in-between moments, before “sudden clarity” springs me back to action. I don’t entirely recommend my particular habit to anyone, because it really is too much downtime.

    So, what I personally plan implementing is to begin other writing projects on my list, so I can at least segue to other productive work. I’ve seen many others recommend it, and think it goes hand-in-hand with your advice.

    1. I am a huge fan of multiple writing projects for exactly this reason, JH. I don't like to come to a standstill. Writing and pondering are both important parts of every project, but there is nothing at all wrong with doing them simultaneously...on two separate projects. 🙂

Subscribe to WITS

Recent Posts





Copyright © 2024 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved