Updated: Apr 22
You CAN work without writing
Brain blocks and brain breaks
Ever had a day when the words are stuck like Gorilla Glue to the inside of your head? When NOTHING you write sounds good? When all your free-writing and creative-thinking tricks result in absolute drivel?
Yep. Me, too.
It’s okay. Maybe you just need to take time away from writing. Research shows that when you concentrate too long on one project, you block yourself from the creative thinking processes that actually require less focus and more relaxation. In brain terms, your prefrontal cortex concentrates all your energy on achieving your goal. The problem is that all that focus blocks out the impulses to veer off the path into non-structured, creative thought.
Thinking too hard constricts creativity.
Taking a break from your writing will make you more productive, not less. An article in Psychology Today states,
“Taking breaks refreshes the mind, replenishes your mental resources, and helps you become more creative. “Aha moments” came more often to those who took breaks, according to research. Other evidence suggests also that taking regular breaks raises workers’ level of engagement which, in turn, is highly correlated with productivity.”
Taking a break is hard
“Hi. My name is Missi and I’m a workaholic.”
What happens when your work gives you a buzz, a jolt of energy and excitement that makes you as high as any drug?
You get addicted. I admit it. Working makes me happy. I LOVE writing. I don’t make much money at it yet, but I’m convinced that in the next twenty years if I work hard enough, I’ll earn a respectable income. That thought keeps me pushing every day, working hard, unwilling to take breaks because every minute is one I need to get ahead.
Even workaholics can’t work all the time. But if you’re like me and find it difficult to slow down, here’s a great compromise:
On those days when your writing is at a standstill but you don’t want to be idle, do any of these seven activities. Each task can be done without much concentration and will give your brain the break it needs to be creative again. You’ll be moving your career ahead without straining your brain. The good news is that each task can be done even while binging.
1. Searching for images
If you’re writing blog posts, or even if you’re pitching an article, you’re going to need images — or at least suggestions of pictures or photos that work with your concept. Use your downtime to peruse picture bank and photo sites. Download what you might use, or create collections of your favorites so they’ll be ready when you need them and you won’t spend precious writing time looking for pics.
2. Headline hunting
Maybe you’re a wizard at producing great headlines. I’m not. I have to generate dozens of them to find one that works. For me, creating good headlines means not judging or censoring my ideas, but manufacturing dozens of them and then running them through a headline analyzer. (I like Co-Schedule.) Brainstorming headlines is something I can piddle with while I’m watching tv and not get stressed over. The more possibilities I come up with, and the longer I tinker with potential headlines, the more likely I am to find one that works.
3. Searching for contests, publications, and places to pitch
Many writers have multiple streams of revenue, and one of those streams is writing for magazines and online publications. The publishing world has changed. It used to be that all you needed was a copy of Writer’s Market, but now you can research potential places for your work online, an easy-to-do but time-intensive activity. When your brain is blocked and your writing is stalled, browse online searches, check Submittable, and scan writing blogs for ideas on where to sell your pieces.
4. Catch up on record-keeping
Do you keep spreadsheets on your submissions? Do you do daily bookwork or save record-keeping “for later?” Keep up with bookwork while you’re binging. Sort receipts. Check invoices. Review your business bank account. If you have an online software service like QuickBooks Self-Employed, you may have transactions to review and tag. Creatives sometimes avoid the business side of work, but it doesn’t have to be a burden, just a necessary task that we can do in our non-writing time.
5. Make a list of ideas for future articles
You don’t have to concentrate too hard to create a list of ideas for future articles. If you already have a notebook, file folder, or computer cache of ideas, browse through them and pick several to develop. As you’re looking over your inventory of ideas, you may be able to check some of them off your list because you discover you’ve already done them. You may be re-energized looking at some of those ideas you’d put on the back burner and forgotten about.
6. Index your notebooks and submission guidelines
If you’ve got notebooks stacked everywhere, put a lined sticky note on the front and index the major ideas in the book so you can quickly find them. If you’ve got a bunch of printed submission guidelines, spend time putting them into a 3-ring binder so you can quickly flip through them and find possible places to publish.
7. Spend time deleting and sorting through emails
Emails pile up like cars in a traffic jam. If you don’t attend to them daily, you have hundreds of them lined up waiting to be read, responded to, or deleted. When you need a brain-break, go through your emails. Set up folders to keep them organized, mark the ones you need to respond to, and delete the ones you don’t. You’ll feel better without the digital detritus of an overflowing email box.
We all have times when our writing stalls. Sometimes we just need to take a break and do something different. Chances are that when you go back to the place you were stuck, your brain will start spilling words over the page, free of the roadblocks that stopped you before.
Even when our writing is at a standstill, our momentum doesn’t have to stop. We can keep moving toward our goals even when the words aren’t flowing and we’re stuck in mental molasses. The important thing is not to let an occasional slowdown derail us. In the words of Richard Bach,
“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.
Strange as it may sound, when the words won’t come, writers can keep working.
Read more about the trials of triumphs of "A Writer's Life"