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Time for creative projects

Time for creative projects

As promised last month, this month I thought I’d write a bit about finding time to do creative projects. People often ask me how I do it—especially when they find out I’m a parent of young children. “Where do you find the time?” they say.

168 hours a week

The thing is, I don’t have to find it; I already have it. You do too. We all do. We all have the same amount of time in our lives—24 hours a day, 168 hours a week, 8,760 hours a year (and 8,784 in a leap year). We may feel like we have less (or more, though people generally don’t feel like they have more time). But in reality, we all have the same amount of time. It’s just that we all have different demands on our time.

See, we all have time, but we don’t always have control of how we can spend that time. A certain amount of time must be spent on certain things—housework (as I discussed at length in this post), eating, sleeping, commuting, working in your paid job, raising children, maintaining your relationship with your partner (if you have one) and so on. Some of that time is non-negotiable: if you want to earn your salary, you need to put in the hours and have something to show for it, or you’ll get fired. If you want your kids to grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults, you need to spend time feeding them, clothing them, talking to them, nurturing them, shuttling them to and from school and other activities, being there for them, and so on. And if you want to prevent your marriage from disintegrating, you have to spend time working on the relationship—checking in with one another, having fun with one another, being intimate, working through problems together, maybe even going to marriage counselling together. (Please note there is no shame in going to marriage counselling. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed; it means you’re willing to work on stuff. More couples should go—and long before they find themselves on the brink of divorce.)

That said, there is always some portion of time—no matter how small—that is negotiable: there are no particular demands on it and you can choose how you want to spend it. Most of us tend to spend that time on rest and recreation, which is a perfectly wonderfully way to spend it, because rest and recreation are important and restorative, and act as valuable fuel for the rest of your life. But some of us choose to spend at least some of that negotiable time on making art. And because that time is so small, often we yearn for more.

The thing is, for all for us, time is a finite resource: once it’s gone, you can’t get more of it. There’s no way to increase your 168 hours per week to 170. You can’t buy more. You can’t steal more. You can’t get time from someone else to extend your life the way that people do in that 2011 Andrew Niccol film In Time, where time literally is money. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27). He’s right: you can’t. (Believe me, I’ve tried!)

Instead, our task is to spend our time wisely—to make the most of what we have—what we have been given. As Moses sang in the Book of Psalms, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). We all have 168 hours per week; how are you going to use yours?

Daily patterns

That said, not all time is the same: it changes throughout the day. Or rather, our experience of it changes throughout the day. At the risk of repeating myself in this post, I’ve found the chapter on the daily pattern we all traverse in terms of our energy levels and output in Daniel Pink’s When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing quite helpful: after waking, we rise to a peak at around lunchtime, which is then followed by an afternoon trough (or “slump time”, as I like to call it), a smaller peak in the late afternoon/early evening and then a gradual decline towards bedtime. Contrary to what many in society might actual think, we are humans, not machines; we can’t be “on” all the time.

Our days follow roughly the same shape (peak, trough, smaller peak, decline), but as Pink also points out, we start that shape at different times, according to our chronotype. Some of us are larks and rise early. (I’m definitely not one of them.) Some of us are night owls and rise late. But most of us are what Pink calls “third birds”: we fall somewhere in the middle and wake—not as early as larks, but not as late as owls. (I know it sounds ridiculous, but I was rather disappointed to discover that I was a third bird and not a natural night owl, which is what I’d been calling myself). If you’re interested in finding out your own chronotype, do the Automated Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (AutoMEQ). If the results of that aren’t satisfactory, another way to figure it out is to fill out Pink’s daily tracker worksheet, which directs you to write down what you’re doing, how alert you feel mentally and how energised you are physically every 90 minutes. Depending on your chronotype, you’ll start the daily pattern at a different time of day to the rest of the population, so the shape of your day—the rise of your energy levels—may look slightly different.

Sleeping woman

Even accounting for the daily pattern, our energy tends to fluctuate in 90-minute cycles: Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project says these cycles are derived from our ultradian rhythm: we rise to a peak part-way through the cycle (which is roughly 90 minutes long—so the peak occurs at about 45 minutes in) and then decline towards a trough. He recommends taking a 15-minute break every 90-minutes before getting stuck into things again. He also recommends doing things (like resting) to boost your energy, as energy, unlike time, is not a finite resource, it’s a renewable one. (For more about that, check out his talk, “The myths of the overworked creative” or this summary.) Your energy levels are obviously affected by all sorts of things—how much rest you’ve had (or not had!), how much exercise you’ve done, what’s currently stressing you out, and so on. But according to Schwartz’s thinking, if you can manage and control those things, you can boost your energy and thus your productivity in the time you have.

That said (and as I said earlier), not all of us have total control over our time: our time is often shaped by external factors—even for those who lean more towards the unstructured/spontaneous end of the spectrum. The patterns of the day can end up falling into blocks that fit around, say, the 9 to 5 workday, the school run or the baby’s feeding schedule. I don’t see this as a negative: if anything, it’s a positive, because endless time actually isn’t actually that helpful for productivity. In fact, having endless time can be absolutely terrifying because it contains so much potential and it can be wasted in so many possible ways. Having pre-existing fences around your time is actually quite helpful in the same way that having good interpersonal boundaries helps you to thrive.

Making the most of the time

So to bring all this together, where can you find the time to fit in creative work? Here are a few suggestions that might be helpful, depending on your circumstances:

  • Schedule it in: Figure out your chronotype and the periods each day when you are more likely to be productive. It might be in the early morning before the break of dawn. It might be late at night after the household has gone to bed. It probably won’t be after lunch during the afternoon slump. Once you’ve worked that out, look at your daily and weekly timetable, and the natural rhythms/externally imposed boundaries they place on your time. See where you might be able to fit in some creative work—but make sure that these blocks of time are as close as possible to your most productive periods. It may not be possible, but perhaps there’s a morning or two—or an evening or two—that you can reserve for yourself. An hour and a half is ideal (bearing in mind your ultradian cycle—90 minutes). If you can’t manage that, see if you can squeeze in even 30 minutes. Anything is better than nothing. Once you’ve scheduled it, stick to it. (For me, I currently have Tuesdays child-free, so after I’ve finished drop-offs, I go to a café and write for a bit, and then move to the library and write for a bit longer. I usually stop around lunch time and try to spend the rest of the time on R&R.) You may not get much done in that 30 minutes. But remember that a little is better than nothing. And maybe once you get into the routine of things, you may be able to block out more time.
  • Use your incidental time: Incidental time happens in the corners: it’s the time you spend standing in queues, commuting to and from work, sitting around in doctor’s waiting rooms, or even watching your kids play in the playground. If you can, try to make the most of that time: get out your phone and scribble down some story ideas; let your mind chew over that plot problem you’re having trouble untangling; daydream and let those unrelated connections come together to fuel your creativity. It’s surprising how much creative work you can actually do in the corners of your time—often when you’re supposed to be doing something else. (Remember the Zeigarnik effect, which I talked about in this post.) I once outlined the plot for a children’s picture book on my phone while following my then two-year-old around the IKEA showroom floor. Normally parenting and writing don’t mix, but it did that time.
Subway passengers
  • Boost your energy: If you have no choice but to schedule creative work during slump time, one way to make the time work better for you is to make sure you take decent rest before you go into slump time. Daniel Pink has a list of helpful ways to reinvigorate yourself in When that don’t actually take up much time. But, as Tony Schwartz says, energy is a renewable resource, so boost your energy by trying to make sure that you’ve slept well and rested well before you embark on creative work during slump time. If that doesn’t work and your mind and body are still choosing to rebel, don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, roll with it: make the most of it by using the time to feed yourself with creator medicine. Watch a movie. Read a book. Passively consume things that will enrich you creatively. And don’t feel guilty about doing any of that: it’s still creative work.
  • Be realistic with yourself: That said, often creative work is hard going—particularly when other things in your life are going poorly. It’s helpful to acknowledge all of that and be compassionate towards yourself, instead of beating yourself up for not meeting some arbitrary high standard that you’ve set for yourself. As David M Barnett tweeted, “Time to write is an under-acknowledged privilege that a lot of us take for granted.” Not everyone can write 2,000 words a day (particularly not those who have to get dinner on the table every night, says Ann Patchett!) Not everyone can clear some time to do creative work—particularly if you’re a single mother of three who works full-time. Some people have chronic health problems that mean they’re barely functioning for most of the day. Talitha Kalago, author of Half a Million Words in Nine Months: The time management guide for finishing your manuscript, struggles with a range of chronic health problems, but still manages to be productive in the time she has. If this is something you struggle with too, the following posts may be helpful:
  • Deal with time sucks: With limited time—specifically limited quality time—for creative work, we don’t want to be wasting it by video hopping on YouTube, getting sucked into games or scrolling endlessly through social media. Part of the problem is that a lot of our entertainment options these days are designed to be addictive: they’re designed to activate the dopamine/reward centres of our brain so that we experience an almost Pavlovian response when we achieve that “win” or receive certain notifications. Some of these things are also designed to be intrusive—to interrupt whatever we’re currently doing and grab our attention so that we’ll be drawn to our phones, instead of concentrating on the task at hand. If you suspect this might be a problem for you, there are apps you can install on both computers and phones that monitor and report your activity so you can see first-hand what is sucking up your time. But there are other ways to deal with time sucks. Try the following:
    • Acknowledge to yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Are you depressed? Do you have a psychological need for attention? Are you just bored? If so, maybe it’s better to treat your feelings in other ways that don’t eat as much time and that are more effective than scrolling endlessly through Facebook.
    • Limit your distractions during creative work time. Turn off notifications. Put your phone on airplane mode. Use Freedom to block certain apps. Create two logins on your computer: one for personal stuff and one for creative stuff. (This might end up being annoying, though; let me know if it works for you!) “DO NOT DISTURB” is your friend. If anyone tries to contact you, get back to them later; most of the time, it’s not urgent, and it’s ridiculous to make yourself available to everyone every hour of the day.
    • Be sensible: if you’re trying to work and you’re having trouble focusing or concentrating, or you’re finding yourself nodding off, maybe the problem is you haven’t had enough rest (and by “rest”, I mean both the sleep variety and the leisure variety; everyone needs to waste time sometimes because wasting time is an important curative for good mental health). Rest, as I said earlier, is valuable fuel for energy, so don’t neglect it.
Journal and earbuds
  • Do what you can with the time you have: It may not be much, but it’s all still useful and helpful in the long-run. Sometimes, as a way to warm up, I start with morning pages (from Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way), or I have a dedicated journal that I use for scribbling 100-word exercises—little scenes or flash fiction that aren’t for anything except my amusement only. Sometimes I just write about the thing I’m working on instead of writing the actual thing. (I feel like it’s the writing equivalent of sketching or doing rough layouts in comics, and I used to feel a bit embarrassed about it until I had a conversation with Louie Joyce, who pointed out that often the hard work happens at that stage, because you’re making key decisions about how things should look and work—decisions that pay off later when you’re building on that foundational work during the pencilling/inking/colouring stage.) As I said, it’s not much, but it’s still all valuable.
  • Supercharge your creative practice: For some people, showing up is all they need to do to get the creative juices flowing. For others, something more is needed. As I said in this post, sometimes setting timers helps as it puts a fence around the time and only locks you in for a short period, forcing you to be productive. Sometimes leaving things half-finished is an easy way in the next time you have a chance to work on something. Sometimes a bit of preparation is all you need: recently I’ve been struck by this blog post, “How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day” by Rachel Aaron/Bach and what she wrote about the triangle of knowledge, time and enthusiasm: once she worked out what she was writing before she wrote it (knowledge) and she figured out worked best for her in terms of time of day and length of time (time) and she identified the hooks that made her excited to write particular scenes (enthusiasm), her output went up in a phenomenal way. And this was while she was looking after a newborn!

It’s difficult to find time to do creative work—difficult, but not impossible. Life can be very busy and very crowded. But even in the chaos of the day-to-day and your never-ending To Do list, you can still find the time. You just need to want to do it.

(P.S. For more on this subject, I also recommend checking out René Pfitzner’s post, “How do I find time to make comics?” and Mark McGuinness on “How to Find Time for Creative Work”.)

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Creator medicine

It’s the same old story: you want to create, you want to produce, you sit down at your desk and then nothing comes. The hours tick by. The page remains blank. You feel like you’re wasting your time. You feel stuck. You feel like this sucks. You feel like you suck. You get angry with yourself. You start beating yourself up—well, metaphorically. Of course that doesn’t work; the page is still blank. Why did you even think that would help?

Your mind wanders and you start thinking about the state of your life. There’s always so much to do—your paid job, of course, but also the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry; all the admin and logistical stuff that has to be done related to your kids and their activities (soooooo many school notes!); and while you think longingly of your couch and spacing out in front of Netflix and your current favourite show, you know that you won’t be able to get there until all the other stuff is done.

“Why aren’t there more hours in the day?” you think. Your rational mind knows that everyone gets the same amount—24 hours a day, 168 hours a week—but the petulant part of your brain longs for more—more time to sleep (you are so tired; why did Miss 4 wake up at 2am this morning???), more time to read, more time to think, more time to create. You stare at the clock, willing the second hand to stop moving forward, Shakespeare echoing in the back of your head—

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with what which goes before,
In sequent toil all forward do contend.

(Sonnet 60)

—but it’s no use: you can’t even construct a proper sentence; what makes you think you can stop time?

Your mind drifts again and you find yourself thinking of your friends—the people you consider your creative peers—all busy creators with amazing outputs whose work ends up getting shortlisted for or winning awards. “Patrick’s been invited to be Guest of Honour at PopCultchaCon,” you think to yourself. “Why can’t I be like him?” Well, the answer’s obvious: you don’t produce, so you don’t have anything to show for your labour. That’s why you don’t win any awards. That’s why you don’t get any recognition.

“Well, I would,” you think resentfully. “I would—if I had a writing studio like he does—if I had a job that afforded me more spare time—if I had a partner who supported me, did the lion’s share of the housework and was happy to look after the kids while I went off and wrote.” And before you can stop it, the bitterness sets in—the anger, the envy, the despair … the depression.

“I try so hard,” you think. “I’m exhausted all the time. What’s the point? I’m over this.” So you get up and walk away.

Let me suggest an alternative: rather than walking away and giving up, when you feel these things—when you feel frustrated, angry, envious, despairing, depressed, exhausted, uninspired, even burnt out—perhaps consider these feeling as sign posts pointing to the fact that the creator in you is in need of nurturing. Maybe you just need to step away and replenish yourself creatively before you can dive back into it. Maybe you need to take some time to combat the unhelpful thoughts that circle your head, causing you to doubt yourself, hovering anxiously over your every move. Maybe you need to find more helpful ways of working that fit better with your lifestyle or life stage. Or maybe you just need to rest for a bit.

Below are some remedies that may help your specific malady. Obviously not everything listed here will be helpful, and some stuff may be completely unsuitable. Cherry pick as you please, and use this as a launchpad for producing your own list of creator medicines.

Nurture yourself

It’s important to nurture yourself as a creator: every time you create, the energy goes out of you and into the work, which means you need replenishing. Obviously this includes replenishing your body with food, drink, exercise and sleep, because if you’re feeling drained, hungry, thirsty or tired, being creative is harder. But it also includes replenishing yourself creatively—replenishing yourself with things like ideas, concepts, stories, social time, other people’s creations, and even play. Try doing the following:

  • Consume other people’s creations (comics, novels, TV shows, movies, music, artworks, etc.)
  • Listen to podcasts on interesting topics. One of my favourites is Song Exploder, a podcast in which songwriters take apart their songs and talk about how they were made. I’m not a songwriter, but each episode leaves me wanting to write music.
  • Watch or read inspiring talks or articles about creativity. Here are a few I love and revisit regularly:

    My friend Guan has more listed on his website.

  • Go for a walk somewhere beautiful in nature.
  • Rub shoulders with likeminded creators. I do this by attending conventions, festivals or other events, where a lot of the more established creators can be found; following creators I like on social media; being an active member of groups like the Sydney Comics Guild; and also deliberately keeping up with particular people I consider my creative peers.
  • Talk to other creators about what they’re working on, how they like to work and what inspires/nurtures them.
  • Create in another medium. If you’re a writer, play or write music. If you’re a musician, take up sketching. For me, I’ve always got a knitting project on the go.
  • Work on multiple projects at once. That way, if one stalls, you can always switch to another.
  • “Play” with your medium. Try something new. If you’re an artist, experiment with a new technique or a different set of tools. If you’re a musician, try playing a new instrument. Give yourself permission to do whatever you like without the pressure to create amazing work.
  • Tackle a shorter project—something manageable that won’t take over your life. Finishing it will give you a sense of accomplishment and achievement, and boost your confidence for longer projects.

Look after your mental health

It’s one thing to nurture your creativity; it’s another to deal with the unhelpful thoughts and feelings you may be experiencing around your creative work that hinder that work—things like, “I’m not good enough”, “This is a waste of time”, “I wish I was more like that person”. Try doing the following:

  • Write it out: put actual pen to paper and write out everything you’re feeling at the moment—all the anger, pain, frustration, depression. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling or even sentence structure; just get it out there on the page.
  • Identify unhelpful thought patterns (for example, “I can’t write” => “I suck” => “I am a waste of space”). If necessary, write them down. Then cross them out and combat the unhelpful thought with more helpful ones: “I can’t write” => “I can’t write right now” => “I’m going to do something else to practise self-care/work on another project” => “I’ll try again another time” => “I’m trying. Go me!”
  • Remember that “Comparison is the thief of joy” (as one or both of the Roosevelts said): nothing good comes from comparing yourself with others, so don’t do it. Instead, be happy for this other person and celebrate their success. Creativity is not a zero sum game and this is not a competition.
  • Practise self-compassion. You may be going through a lot at the moment, for there are always things that make life challenging. But you’re surviving. You’re trying. You’re making baby steps, and baby steps are better than nothing. (Incidentally, I was very encouraged recently by something that my friend Louie Joyce said: I was talking about how I was producing all these really rough bits and pieces of prose and how it was like sketching or doing thumbnail layouts in comics, and he commented that that stage often takes the longest and feels the hardest because that’s when you’re actually working things out and making key decisions about how the work should go; the later pencilling/inking/colouring all builds on that, and they’re easier because you’ve already put in the hard yards.)
  • Celebrate your wins. So you only wrote 200 words today. Congratulations! That’s 200 words you didn’t have yesterday. So you didn’t end up writing anything. Congratulations! You showed up; many people don’t. So you didn’t even get to your desk. It’s okay! Try again another day.
  • Create for yourself. No one ever has to see this; this is just for you. Do it because you can. Do it because it’s fun. Do it because it brings you joy. All creativity should start from this point, because if it doesn’t, you’ll not want to do it when things get hard.

Consider the importance of timing

Sometimes the problem isn’t so much what you’re doing, but when you’re doing it. I’ve been thinking about this more and more while reading Daniel Pink’s When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing. Many books are about how to do things; Daniel Pink’s When is about when to do things. I used to think that every hour of the day was equal. Daniel Pink showed me that this is definitely not the case: one section of his book is focuses on the pattern of the day—how, after we wake, we experience a peak in our energy and motivation in the morning followed by a trough in the afternoon and then a smaller peak in the early evening. This, coupled with his section on chronotypes (i.e. early birds, night owls and what he calls “third birds”) has changed the way I do things. On my child-free day off, if I can, I tackle writing in the morning. Then I break for lunch (the most important meal of the day, Pink argues). I then expect that seven hours after my waking time (around about 2pm), I will start to feel the effects of the afternoon trough and trying to work will probably be futile. (Often I find myself nodding off around that time due to sleep deprivation anyway.) I’ve also noticed that my brain tends to be really alert around 9:30/10pm, so occasionally I will make good use of that time. But that period of the day also interferes with sleep, so if I can, I avoid using it.

Here are some articles on timing by other people that you might find helpful:

Rest

Another thing that I’ve gleaned from reading Daniel Pink is making the most of breaks: one of the surprising things he found when talking to pro athletes was the number of breaks they took. It wasn’t because they were lazy; in fact, the opposite was true: the breaks made them better at what they did. Furthermore, it’s been shown that breaks help you work through the afternoon trough, which means that, overall, you are more efficient and productive. Pink challenges his readers to add breaks to their daily To Do lists, and while I haven’t quite done that yet, it’s something I try to bear in mind as I go about my days.

(Pink has a lot of advice about how long your breaks should be and what you should do when you’re taking them, because doing things like walking in nature while chatting to a good friend are actually more restorative than scrolling through Twitter on your phone, which is my preferred form of break activity. But I won’t go into those here; you’ll have to pick up his book.)

But rest, in my opinion, involves more than daily restorative breaks. It involves more than just sleep. It’s also about letting your creativity lie fallow for a bit—giving those muscles a rest before getting back to it so that they work more effectively in the long haul. I often think of Stefan Sagmeister’s TED talk on “The power of time off”—how once every seven years, he would take a year off from his work as a designer, travel to Bali and just create whatever he wanted. To his surprise, the stuff he worked on while on sabbatical became integral to the work he did in the following seven years.

Nurturing yourself. Looking after your mental health. Considering the importance of timing. Taking breaks and resting. These are all forms of creator medicine—ways to feed and care for your creative self so that you can keep going for the long haul. Because continuing to create is a much better alternative to quitting.

So go forth and create!

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You vs. the blank page

I’ve been writing for a long time. I started when I was a child (I have a bunch of very terrible novels that I wrote as a kid and a teenager that should never see the light of day), I went on to study creative writing at Uni, and I’ve gone on to write short stories, comic anthologies, articles, blog posts and even workshops. And yet even after all this work and all these words, I still find facing the blank page scary.

It’s terrifying for even the most seasoned writers—writers who have written and published many books, writers who have multiple awards gracing their bookshelves, and writers who actually turn up and do this every day because they need to make a living.

I’m sure you know this too. When you sit down to write that article/essay/assignment/newsletter or whatever it is, suddenly everything else becomes so much more interesting. Instead of working on the actual writing, you find yourself tidying your desk, doing laundry, clearing out the spare room or doing things you’ve already put off for six months. Or you fall down the social media wormhole and find yourself mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or Twitter. Anything else instantly becomes more attractive than facing that blank page.

Unfortunately that means that the blank page wins, and the blank page winning means that you still have that thing you need to do hanging over you—making you feel bad and making you feel guilty for doing all those other things. You may have put off the task for another day (classic procrastination!), but then the war begins anew. The important thing is not to let the blank page win, and the only way to beat the blank page is to fill it.

So here are nine strategies you can use to beat—and fill—the blank page. Now, you won’t necessarily be filling it with gold; unfortunately it’s a rare occurrence that good writing just flows from the tip of your pen (or
your typing fingers) like milk and honey. But you will fill it with something, and something—no matter how crappy or half-formed—is better than nothing, because something, at least, gives you something to work with.

1. Morning pages

In The Artists Way (which I have not read all the way through), Julia Cameron advocates starting your writing session with “morning pages”: fill three pieces of paper longhand (not digitally) and write anything you like—nonsense, drivel, a stream of consciousness. The idea is to empty your brain of all the things you’re currently thinking about or stressing over so that you can clear them out of the way and focus on the work you have to do. They’re also a way of bypassing your inner critic—that voice that tells you that what you’re doing doesn’t matter and will never amount to anything, that you’re a waste of space, that you’re wasting your time. Fill three pages and then stop. Don’t show them to anyone. They’re just for you. Then move onto the thing you’re supposed to be working on.

2. Brain dump

A brain dump is similar to morning pages because what you’re doing is just downloading everything you think about a topic and vomiting it onto the page. I like using this technique for articles as it’s a good way of getting it all out there, even if you don’t use it all later. It could be a stream of consciousness. It could be loose associations. It could be a mind map. Whatever it is, it’s the raw materials with which you craft and refine your writing later.

3. Set a timer

Often people moan about having no time to write. They long for whole days—weeks—months—they can dedicate and spend on a particular project. The truth is, endless amounts of time can actually be unhelpful to creative work. Instead, if you put fences around your time, you can actually be a lot more productive. One way to create an artificial fence is to set a timer—say 30 minutes. Sit and write until the timer goes off. Once those 30 minutes are up, stop and do something else. Continue if you want to (and especially if you’re on a roll). But don’t feel like you have to. You’ve done your time. You’ve put in the work. If it’s just not happening, try again later.

Timers are a very good way of making the war between you and blank page less painful: do your 30 minutes (or whatever it is) and then stop. You’re only “in prison” for that short amount of time, and then you get “released”.

Timers are also great for productivity because enforcing regular breaks actually makes you produce more. Tony Schwartz, CEO of the Energy Project, often talks about the human body’s ultradian rhythms—those 90-minute cycles where we move from being high and energy in motivation to fatigue and sluggishness. Align your timers to your ultradian cycle and you’re likely to write more and make better use of your time.

4. Use your incidental time

Instead of setting a timer and imposing an artificial fence on your time, make use of your existing fences. Existing fences are determined by external factors—the time you spend waiting at the bus stop, the length of your trip on public transport, even the duration of your lunch break. Even if you only have 10 minutes, you can still get quite a bit done. Use that time to brainstorm or scribble. A little can go a long way.

5. Show up at the same time every day

Showing up at the same time every day is nearly impossible for me because none of my days are the same. But it may work for those of you who thrive on routine. It’s a way of tricking your brain into creative mode because you’re training it in the habit. Show up at the same time every day and make yourself write for the same amount of time. Just as with exercise, the people who do it says that it gets easier the more you do it.

6. Make rules to trick yourself into it

Another technique in the “trick your brain” vein is to make rules for yourself to force yourself into it. Neil Gaiman (one of my favourite writers) has a rule that when he’s sitting at his desk, he can either look out the window or he can write. He can’t read. He can’t check the internet or read social media. He can’t tidy or clean. He can stare out the window or he can write. Soon enough, staring out the window becomes boring, so he turns to writing instead.

7. Use placeholders

This is a trick I learned at GenreCon last year: in order to keep yourself writing, write things like “Insert cool thing here” or “Look up that reference later” or “{Character name}”. For me, it’s easy to get distracted by things that detract from the writing—for example, naming new characters or chasing down that obscure reference or quote I read years ago, but can’t find because Google Brain doesn’t exist yet (though perhaps that should never happen). It’s better to leave those things for later and keep going.

8. Aim to meet a specific word count

This doesn’t work for me, but it might for you. At GenreCon last year, I met a romance writer who had said on this panel I attended that she knows that she can write the first draft of a novel (i.e. 80,000 words) in eight weeks. (She also has a two-year-old and a job in copywriting. I am in awe of her.) This is how she does it: she works out how many writing days she’s likely to have in eight weeks, and realistically, it’s Monday to Friday as writing doesn’t normally happen on the weekends. So five days a week for eight weeks is 40 days, and 40 days into 80,000 words is 2,000 words a day, which seems quite doable when you think about it. So she aims for 2,000 words a day. Sometimes she does more, sometimes she does less. She keeps a spreadsheet to track her progress, and at the end of those eight weeks, she’ll have that first draft. It might be a crappy first draft, but it’s still a first draft.

9. Leave things half-finished at the end of your writing session

Final strategy: at the end of your writing session, leave things half-finished. This goes completely against my nature because I’m a completionist and I can’t stand leaving things half-finished. But it’s actually a helpful trick to get you back into what you’re working on at your next writing session. It’s called the Zeigarnik effect, which is named after Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist who studied memory in the 1920s. She found that incomplete tasks are easier to remember than successful ones, because your brain keeps it active in your working memory in the background until you get back to it.

So there’s nine strategies to use to win the war against the blank page. The important thing is to write something. Produce that crappy first draft, because once you have it, you can do something with it—even if you throw it out and start over. Nothing is ever wasted; you’re always building on what you’ve done before.

That said, expect that first draft to be crappy. Expect it not to work. Expect it to be hard. The crappiness of that first draft is no reflection on you. As organisational psychologist Adam Grant says, “Instead of saying, ‘I’m crap,’ you say, ‘The first few drafts are always crap, and I’m just not there yet.’”

Happy writing!