What’s keeping you from writing? Use this exercise to find out.
I started Designed to Write because I believe that everyone can and should have a fulfilling creative practice that makes them happy. And because I think a creative problem solving method called design thinking can help more people get there. Design thinking has been used by individuals and organizations in business, nonprofits, and government to solve wicked problems, and it can help you design a writing practice that lasts!
The first step in the design thinking process is defining the problem you’re trying to solve. For the task of designing a satisfying and productive writing practice, defining the problem requires you to answer a basic question: What’s currently blocking you from establishing a fulfilling writing practice?
This turns out to be a difficult question to answer. When you’re struggling with your creativity, it can be hard to know exactly why. Just think of the things you might tell yourself when you try and fail to start a writing practice.
Gravity problems and negative mindsets
Here’s one thing you might tell yourself when you’re getting stuck:
Ugh, writing is hard.
Well, that’s true. Writing is hard. But there’s no design solution in the world that is going to make writing less hard. Writing is hard is what some design thinking experts call a gravity problem: in other words, a problem that can’t be solved, like gravity. Gravity, at least on planet Earth, is a constraint that must be accepted. Designers and engineers creating the next generation of spaceships can’t erase gravity; they can only work with it. Similarly, the fact that writing can be hard sometimes is a constraint that you’ll have to accept. The task of designing your writing life is not to make writing less hard. Instead, it’s to establish habits, tools, processes, and mindsets that help you deal with that constraint.
Here’s another thing you might tell yourself when you’re struggling to establish a writing practice:
Nope. You don’t suck. You’re finding your voice, practicing your craft, working toward mastery—but you don’t suck. I suck isn’t the problem that’s keeping you from designing a fulfilling writing life. Rather, it’s a negative mindset that will prevent you from accurately defining your real design problem. Same deal with I’m no good, I’m lazy, I have nothing to say, or any form of negative self-talk that creeps into your head when you’re writing (or not writing). These false narratives will blind you to what’s really going on, and prevent you from designing a writing practice that works for you.
What’s the real problem?
So how do you blast past false narratives and gravity problems to get to the real root of the problem? How do you figure out what’s really keeping you from the creative practice you’ve always dreamed of?
Think about the last time you sat down to write. Was there any point where you felt engaged and energized? Moments when you felt disengaged and exhausted?
Try writing about it. Keep a design thinking journal, and write down notes after every writing session. How did it go? If it went well—write about why it went well. If it went poorly—then write about why it went poorly. Keep track of the times you felt disengaged and exhausted. And especially note all the times that you felt engaged and energized—the times when you got caught up in the task and looked up to find that a whole hour had passed. What caused you to feel that way? What was it that made this particular writing session good or bad?
It’s important to really dig deep with this exercise. You need to get curious about what’s going on under the surface. If you don’t, then your insights won’t be actionable. You won’t be able to do anything with them. Insights like I really felt inspired or the words just wouldn’t come might be true, but it’s hard to do anything with them. How can you design a process to feel inspired more often? To help the words come more quickly? That’s the goal of this exercise, and to get there you’re really going to have to go deep with your insights into your writing process.
Still stuck? Try framing your insights in relation to the following 4 categories:
1. Setting: When and where were you writing?
2. Mindset: What assumptions or beliefs about the task of writing informed your efforts?
3. Tools: What tools did you use?
4. Process: What process did you follow?
These 4 categories can help you get more specific with your insights, and help you get to the heart of what’s causing you to feel disengaged and exhausted when you’re writing, and what’s preventing you from becoming more regularly engaged and energized as you practice your creativity.
Here are some examples of some insights you might have when practicing this design thinking exercise:
- The coffeeshop I was writing in was too loud and busy. I couldn’t focus.
- At the end of the day, my brain is too tired for writing. I ended up watching TV instead.
- Playing some relaxing music on noise-cancelling headphones blocked out the world and helped me get lost in what I was writing.
- My perfectionism isn’t helping me. It’s hard for me to put down a single sentence without judging myself.
- I’ve always assumed that the best writing came from making things up on the spot—but some advance preparation could have been really helpful.
- Giving myself permission to write a shitty first draft helped me get some words on paper!
- I sometimes have trouble finding the right word. I need a thesaurus next time.
- I thought I’d like writing by hand, but it turns out I can’t stand looking at my awful handwriting!
- Scrivener (or Microsoft Word, or Google Docs) has functions that help me be more creative.
- Freewriting at the beginning of my writing session really helped loosen me up.
- I spent way too much energy trying to figure out what to write next. Tomorrow I’ll try a loose outline instead.
- Trying to fix writing errors as I go is preventing me from making any progress. Next time I’ll ignore mistakes and catch them in revision.
By the way, it’s not just beginning writers who have to go through this exercise. Even experienced writers get stuck sometimes and have to figure out why it’s happening. Even after designing a writing system that works for me, I still spend a lot of time and effort redesigning!
Defining the problem is half the battle
Okay, so now you’ve got a list of insights. Hopefully somewhere in that list is the problem that’s keeping you from the writing life you’ve always dreamed of—or several problems! That’s great.
Of course, you’ve still got the rest of the design thinking process ahead of you—coming up with ideas to solve the problem, and testing those ideas to see if they work. There’s a lot of work still ahead.
But defining the problem to be solved is half the battle. Far too many people waste time solving the wrong problem—or struggling against gravity problems that simply can’t be solved.
Starting next week on the blog, I’ll be digging into each of the categories—Setting, Mindset, Tools, and Process—to talk about different problems and design solutions you might discover in each category.
In the meantime, I want to hear from people who did the problem-identifying exercise I laid out above. How did it work for you? What did you discover? Did you happen upon any insights that surprised you?
Also published on Medium.