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