To Overcome Writer’s Block, Stop Writing
And try these 5 research-backed ideas instead.s
I have a love-hate relationship with writing.
In 2017, I wrote for 125 (almost) consecutive days. But after that, I stopped writing altogether. I went through a tough time in life, and I published nothing for the next two-and-a-half years! Recently, I’ve started writing again, and rediscovered writer’s block.
I’ve written things I’m really proud of. But I’ve also wasted a lot of time banging my head against the computer screen. I know writer’s block well — to me, writing down the words is easy, it’s finding them that can be frustrating.
A study from the 1950s showed that writer’s block is correlated with psychological problems, such as anxiety and depression. The reasons for this are highly individualized, but it’s clear that writer's block is often a symptom of a different mental struggle — a struggle that we all have to one degree or another.
And this is why simply trying harder or requiring yourself to write every day might not help you overcome writer’s block. For me, it often hasn’t. In fact, my writer’s block has often dissolved once I’ve stopped writing and trying so hard. Instead, I’ve wandered away from the keyboard, and I’ve done the following things.
1. Stop Writing and Start Meditating and Visualizing
A 2014 analysis of previously published research showed that 30 minutes of daily meditation had the potential of relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Finding a place of mental calm will help you become less judgemental toward yourself and your writing. For many people, these tendencies are the kinds of things that cement their writer’s block in place.
Another analysis of previously published research found that meditation resulted in greater creativity. Open-monitoring meditation, or mindfulness meditation, was shown to increase divergent-thinking.
Visualization can also be a powerful technique for lifting writer’s block. In How to Stay Motivated to Meditate Daily by Adding This to Your Session, Trish S. writes:
“In visualization, you deliberately focus your energy to create a specific, prolonged thought in your mind in order to achieve a positive real-life outcome.”
She goes on to explain that, according to Dr. Joe Dispenza, “[The] mind does not know the difference between an imagined thought, and what you are actually observing in reality.”
Trisha begins with 15 minutes of meditation, followed by 15 minutes of visualization. To overcome writer’s block, you could try visualizing the experience of writing an insightful article that you’re intensely proud of and publishing it with your favourite publication.
I’ve really enjoyed using the following apps to help with meditation (not affiliate links): Headspace, Ten percent Happier, Insight Timer, and Waking Up.
2. Stop Writing and Start Walking
Getting outside and taking a walk has often proved incredibly helpful in dissolving my writer’s block. And, for good reason, I guess. A 2014 study entitled, “Give your ideas some legs”, found that walking (especially outside) boosted “creative ideation in real-time and shortly after.”
In fact, during my 125 (almost) consecutive days of writing in 2017, I often found that my writing idea would only come after I took my dog for a walk in the morning.
Ecotherapy is a growing scientific field that studies how spending time in nature improves mental health. A 2015 study had participants take a 90-minute walk through an urban environment, while others walked through a natural environment. The results were clear:
“Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment.”
Stepping away from your computer and taking a walk in nature can lower the negative mental habits that contribute to writer’s block.
3. Stop Writing and Start Reading
Reading more can help you write more.
First off, there’s the connection to mental health: Dr. David Lewis and researches from Mindlab International at the University of Sussex found that reading just 6 minutes each day could lower stress levels by up to 68%! They found that it was even more helpful than listening to music, making a cup of tea, or, it turns out, taking a walk.
On the creative side: researchers at the University of Toronto found that reading fictional short stories “could lead to better procedures of processing information generally, including those of creativity.”
I’ve even found that reading non-fiction has helped dissolve my writer’s block. Often, just one word or phrase will jump out at me and spark a totally new idea that I can’t wait to write about. And sometimes it’s not even remotely related to the top topic of the book!
4. Stop Writing and Start Cleaning
Decluttering, minimizing your possessions, and keeping a clean workspace can have positive effects on your mental health and creative output.
While conducting research on the KonMari Decluttering method (yes, the one from that Netflix show), Hsin-Hsuan Meg Lee found that the process increased happiness and reduced stress levels of participants.
Researches at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute found that “clutter caused people to lose focus and brain processing power — even when they were accustomed to working in a messier area.” Losing focus is frustrating and can make it hard to overcome writer’s block.
However, many people feel that keeping a messy desk actually increases their creative output. And some studies are even beginning to provide evidence for this.
But we often only think of clutter in terms of our physical space. For example, although I keep my desk relatively clean, my computer screen is anything but. I’ve found that writing with multiple tabs open severely decreases my creativity and worsens my writer’s block. The notifications from these open tabs are a type of ‘digital clutter’ that makes it that much harder for me to feel free and at peace to write.
So even if you’re proud of your messy desk, consider cleaning up your digital workspace.
5. Stop Writing and Start Living (and Keep a Spark File)
I’ve found that overcoming writer’s block is much easier when I have lots of stories, insights, and ideas to play with. And all the time I’ve spent battling writer’s block by staring at the cursor in frustration hasn’t helped cultivate these insights. Blank pages don’t provide brilliant ideas, but living does.
This point is only supported by anecdotal evidence from my own life, but I have found that spending less time writing has actually helped me to produce more, and better quality, content.
This might seem simple, but if you’re anything like me, it can be difficult to do. During times where I’ve challenged myself to write a quality article every day, my anxiety has often pushed me to wake up and get right to the computer. I feel the pressure to keep trying to write something even when I feel like I’ve got nothing to write about.
The real challenge for me is to trust that by living life and paying attention, I’ll have better ideas and spend less time trying to come up with them. Even though I’ve found this to be true again and again, I’m still tempted to stay in front of the computer long after I should have walked away.
The key here is to live your daily life while paying attention. In addition to mindfulness meditation, keeping a Spark File can also help with this. Steven Johnson explains how he uses his Spark File:
This is why for the past eight years or so I’ve been maintaining a single document where I keep all my hunches: ideas for articles, speeches, software features, startups, ways of framing a chapter I know I’m going to write, even whole books. I now keep it as a Google document so I can update it from wherever I happen to be. There’s no organizing principle to it, no taxonomy — just a chronological list of semi-random ideas that I’ve managed to capture before I forgot them.
Although keeping this in a Google Doc on your phone is convenient, I’d recommend you start with a small, physical notebook to cut down on getting distracted by other apps and online content. Carry the notebook around with you and jot down ideas that spark your interest. It could be something that jumps out at you during a conversation with a friend, an interesting line from a scene in a show you’re watching, or a thought that just comes to you while you’re taking that walk in nature.
Here’s the Takeaway
Writer’s block is often a symptom of deeper feelings of anxiety and depression. So trying to overcome writer’s block by trying harder and staying in front of a blank page longer won’t help any of us. To dissolve writer’s block, stop focusing on writing and try these five research-backed ideas for improving mental health and cultivating creativity:
- Start meditating. Research shows that individuals who meditate experience improved mental wellness and increased creativity and divergent thinking skills. So stop writing and start meditating. You might even consider adding in visualization.
- Start walking. Studies have found that walking outdoors can reduce “neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness” and boost “creative ideation in real-time and shortly after.” So stop writing and go for a walk in nature.
- Start reading. It turns out that reading for just 6 minutes a day can significantly lower stress. And reading (especially fiction) leads to having a more open mind. So stop writing and pick up a new collection of short stories.
- Start cleaning. Research shows that decluttering can lead to more happiness. So stop writing and clean up your workspace. Or at least declutter your digital life.
- Start living (and keep a Spark File). Staring at a blank screen probably won’t give you more ideas. Instead, stop writing and just pay attention while you live your daily life. Don’t forget to carry your Spark File so you can jot down all the ideas that come to you.
To say hello to more ideas, try saying goodbye to writing.