I think it was Christmas, and we were talking about writing. I struggled with it – writing, that is – and my brother-in-law, Rob, a professor of ethics, offered a little insight into his own practice.
He too found it difficult to write. The only way he could produce anything approaching a consistent academic output was by shutting down half an hour each day. In that half hour he had two options: he could write, or he could do nothing. Doing nothing was good – doing nothing was allowed – but the only other option was writing. Sometimes he sat there for quite a long time before he wrote but he always came away from the session with new words on the page.
There is as much writing advice as there are writers, and I’ve heard a lot of it. Maybe it was the Christmas champagne, or maybe it was desperation, but soon after I gave his technique a go – and it stuck. Sometimes I’ve had to stick my phone in a drawer with a timer running to avoid doomscrolling on Twitter instead (social media doesn’t count as “doing nothing”), but in the years since, I’ve returned to this technique when I even when finding myself in a creative impasse on a project, or actually struggling with anything from folding laundry to putting down 300 words about the best advice anyone has ever given me. It helped me finish a book a few years ago, and it helped me get the first 15,000 words of something new just a few months ago.
One of the main reasons it works, I think, is because it overcomes the first, and biggest, hurdle: showing up.
Procrastination can hinder anyone’s path, but I’ve also noticed that creative people in particular can all get caught up in their messy feelings about their work and whether or not the circumstances are right for them to channel their muse. If working in journalism has taught me anything, it is that there is no “right” time and there are no “right” conditions; there is the time you have. You use the materials you have. And the first condition for getting anything done at all is to try to do it.
So if you’re struggling with something creative, just give yourself 30 minutes. You will either do the work or you will do nothing. But at least you’ll be able to say you’ve arrived.