Even after writing so many words over so many years, I occasionally freeze up when I look at a blank screen (or page).
Sometimes, frankly, I just don't feel like writing.
It's a problem most writers face at one time or another.
Having interviewed more than 45 writers over the past 18 months on my podcast, I've learned a lot about how they overcome distractions and mental blocks and get down to work each day.
One question I like to ask all my guests is about their writing process: How they get started and enter a state of "flow"; how much writing they get done in a given session or day; and what strategies, tips, and "productivity hacks" they've learned along the way.
Here are 9 tips these writers have shared with me about how they start writing--even when they aren't in the mood to write, and even when they've got a dozen other things that are vying for their attention (like spending an hour to talk with me on a podcast):
1. The power of "morning pages."
Most of the writers I spoke with do the bulk of their writing in the morning when they're at their peak of energy. Nothing terribly surprising about this, right?
But what if, instead of jumping in and starting to crank out words to meet your daily quota, you instead start writing stream of consciously, just to get your mental gears going?
Oliver Burkeman, a popular columnist for The Guardian and author of "The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking", told me he does just that. Every day, before launching into his workday, he spends time writing up to a page and a half without stopping. It's a technique he picked up from the author and creativity coach Julia Cameron, which she calls "morning pages" (which she covers in extensive detail in her excellent book by the same name).
While morning pages may sound like just another form of personal journaling, there's a very important difference: the words you write are not meant to be incorporated into the project you're currently working on, and they aren't applied toward your daily word count.
2. Schedule writing time on your calendar.
Joanna Penn is a former (unhappy) management consultant who ditched the nine-to-five to pursue her dream of becoming a full-time novelist. Today, she's a New York Times bestselling author who publishes several novels and non-fiction books each year.
Joanna is a "relentless scheduler" and marks the days on her calendar that she'll be writing fiction under her pen name, JF Penn; days she plans to write non-fiction material like blog posts and book chapters under her real name; and days on which she'll be doing all of the myriad marketing tasks that she needs to handle as an "authorpreneur".
3. Create a detailed outline.
All of the non-fiction and most of the fiction writers I spoke with create detailed outlines before they start writing. Shane Snow, co-founder of Contently, and author of "Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success", breaks down his writing into smaller, digestible pieces. He says that the psychological reward that a writer can get from tackling smaller pieces of a much larger project provides the incentive needed to keep moving forward.
4. Write in short timed sprints.
In her recent book, "The 8-Minute Writing Habit", novelist Monica Leonelle shows how you can substantially improve your motivation to start writing each day and get more writing done by focusing on 8-minute timed writing sprints. She has found from her conversations with other writers that they can produce up to several hundred words in just one 8-minute writing session.
5. Take your writing with you.
Sarah Wendell, author and editor of a widely read romance fiction blog, ensures that she's ready to get the words down on the page (or screen) wherever she might be. She often experiences what she calls "word labor", which she compares to the experience of giving birth.
When words suddenly well up inside her mind and are ready to burst forth, she stops whatever she's doing, takes out her phone or notepad, and starts writing. She'll even pull over to the side of the road if she's driving at the time, just so she captures the words before she forgets them.
6. End your writing day by beginning the next day's session.
Danny Oppenheimer, a professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Business and author of a widely cited study on the benefits of taking notes by hand, admits that he has a hard time getting started with his writing projects.
He offered a useful nugget of advice to keep the cursor moving each day: at the end of each day's writing session, start writing the first few sentences or paragraphs of the next day's session. It's an approach that ensures he doesn't have to face a blank page the next day.
7. Shut off social media.
Many of the authors I spoke to are avid users of social media to build their audiences and interact with them (and market their books). But they also make a point of steering clear of social media when they need to get their writing done. Sarah Stodola, author of "Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors", shuts down internet access with an application called--appropriately--Freedom.
8. Find the right place.
One thing that many authors cited as being critical to their productivity is where they write. Shane Snow wrote the bulk of his book, Smartcuts, at a Starbucks down the street from his office in Manhattan.
Joanna Penn also finds that she can concentrate better by writing at coffee shops or the library. Danny Oppenheimer, on the other hand, can't get any writing done if people are around, and avoids public places like coffee shops and prefers to lock himself away in his office or at home when he needs to write.
9. Tune into background music (or white noise).
Several of the writers I spoke with listen to background music or white noise as they write. Mark Vanhoenacker, a 747 pilot for British Airways and author of "Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot", listens to the music of Italian pianist Ludavico Einaudi.
Joanna Penn listens to rain and thunderstorm sounds when she writes. And Shane Snow finds that listening to the same song several times on a loop helps him to enter a state of "flow". One day, while he was writing Smartcuts, his friend sent him a screenshot from Spotify showing he had just listened to the same song 180 times!
What hacks do you use to get more writing done (and in less time)?