Tuesday, October 7

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, October 07, 2014 15 comments
I've read far more books and blog posts about how to be productive than I can accurately count. So much of the advice sounds exactly the same: have a routine, commit to it, don't stop until you meet your goal, treat it like a job. These little tidbits sound great for just about anything other than creative work. Some people can approach writing like it's laundry or at worst, doing your taxes. It might be a bit tough at times, but any momentary qualms can be powered through.

Well, that's not how I'm wired. I set aside time to write, commit to it and...freeze at the keyboard. Or think of twenty other things I'd rather be doing. Or simply beat myself up for not being Shakespeare yesterday. And trying to dedicate more time? Well, it often only makes me more anxious.

Steven Pressfield came along and gave my affliction a label. He called it "resistance," and made it seem pretty normal. Anything you care about, he argues, will bring with it a certain level of fear. His book The War of Art goes into great detail about what resistance feels like and what causes it. His solutions to it, however, haven't borne much fruit for me. Yes, routine can help; silly rituals can help; taking yourself seriously as an artist can help.

But none of these things remove the anxiety factor for me. So when I stumbled across Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Solve Writer's Resistance, I had to take a look. The author Rosanne Bane goes into a lot of detail about the brain science behind how anxiety derails creative control. To summarize, what writers need most is to develop habits that create a state of mental relaxation so that the fight-or-flight instinct doesn't make you want to leave your desk before you even type one word. And because of neuroplasticity (the brain's inherent capacity for change), new habits can actually cause lasting brain changes.

Photo credit: Maena from morguefile.com
The most powerfully different habit she advocates to be a productive writer?


You're probably thinking, "Whoa, what? If I want to be more productive, I need to play more? What is this, Opposite Day?"

Bane says writers need to build in a habit of doing something fun and nonproductive 3-5 days a week for any period you can easily commit to. Ten, fifteen or twenty minutes is fine. The point of this play commitment (what she calls "process time") is to retrain your brain toward a relaxed state. The neural pathways you are building will become stronger than the ones that link creative work with fear.

Frankly, I'm tired enough of tangling with my inner resistance to give it a try. Bane recommended coming up with a list for yourself of things you find relaxing and writing down what you are committing to.

My brain balked at this at first. It was surprisingly hard to actually remember what activities I once did for fun, years ago before I started focusing on novel-length writing. Digging through some boxes in storage refreshed my memory about the many hobbies and enthusiasms I once regularly enjoyed.

Here's my list:
play with my cats
play tin whistle
improvise on the piano
do calligraphy
do scherenschnitte, quilling, and other paper crafts
take photos
make collages
play with magnetic poetry
play Wii

I've committed to fifteen minutes three times a week. Today I unearthed my Irish tin whistle and played a handful of tunes by ear, then worked in the garden. I can attest that my mood improved.

As I think back to the days when I wrote most prolifically (middle and high school), I also made space in my life for hobbies. Maybe hobbies are what enabled me to be on honor roll, work part time and be in band, choir, art club, and school newspaper while writing lots.

It's a theory worth experimenting with. Hey, at least I'll be having fun regularly.

Do you include play in your routine? What favorite activities might you give 45 minutes a week?


  1. Love this! It makes a lot of sense to me too. Although I do consider my writing playing (in this sense) I also love to do many of the things you've listed - although gardening is about the opposite of play for me! :) I think I'd like to add some cartooning to my week :)

    1. For some, play might involve journaling or freewriting. The important thing is that it be with no goal. Not making a product.

      My garden is pretty small, and sunshine is good for one's mood. Apparently dirt has microbes that help mood also. Who knew? Cartooning sounds perfect. Have fun!

  2. I bet this is why so many writers are suddenly full of ideas and itchy fingers when the're in the shower -- because they're relaxing and their brain is finally opening up to the creative side of things. VERY interesting!!

    1. Bane would categorize that under "self-care"--yet more practices that help your brain relax. I definitely find ideas flow when I take a walk, do dishes or shower. The brain is more creative when relaxed.

  3. This was great! I know exactly what you mean. I would like to be able to routinely sit down and write something amazing and heartfelt. Yet, it seems every time I plan it, I'm dry with nothing to say. Then, when I move on and go about my day, living life with all its twists and turns, creativity grabs me. Right in the middle of something else that is happening. So I have started to jot down whatever is happening in my brain as quickly as I can whereever I can. Usually it's in my phone because I always have it but occasionally I also have a notebook handy. I find that I can then take those notes and write up something I feel proud of later. That's just my routine. I loved reading this today! I'm going to focus more on the play concept.

    1. It's one part of a three-prong strategy--process (play), self care, and product time. I may do a few more posts on the book, but don't want to scoop her entire concept. I think Anne Lamott would call your technique "capturing fireflies"--get your ideas down when they are fresh.

  4. This is a great post - thank you! I'm in the middle of reading Pressfield's book now and it's really speaking to me. Made a note of the other one you mentioned, too. I love the idea of more "play" in our lives. :)

    Madeline @ The Shellshank Redemption

    1. This fills in some places that Pressfield's book misses. I think maybe because it is a woman writer? Bane directly confronts our need to develop new mental habits that are positive and relaxed; not guilt-based or berating ourselves (mentally calling yourself lazy will only make resistance worse). I think her play concept is one Pressfield might find odd--he's all about habit building. But without reward, habits are drudgery and we do not do our best work in drugeland.

  5. Wow, that's a really interesting idea! I can definitely see how that would be helpful:) Some of my "play" activities would probably be painting, playing the guitar, taking pictures, and probably read (if that one counts).

    Thanks so much for sharing!

    1. It is pretty interesting. The brain science behind it, especially so. Your activity choices sound fun! Reading she categorizes as "self care" (with sleep, exercise and other things like that), which is another set of habits she recommends developing for optimal creative health.

  6. I like The War of Art, really found some interesting and helpful concepts there. Especially the one about resistance. Thinking of it as play should really help!

  7. Now if doctors would only prescribe play instead of steroids or antibiotics, I'd go see them more often!

  8. Very interesting! I think it goes along with all the research that says we focus better and are more productive if we get more sleep and if we work out. Now, if only there were enough hours to do all those things that make us more productive! :)
    (Right now, my fun thing is writing. Which, I suppose, is pretty sad.)

  9. Love this idea!!! Thank you for sharing! I would: pet my dog and cat, walk, collage, hug my husband, dance, and . . . hmm, I'll have to think of more!