Sunday, May 10, 2009

Box Your Can't-Get-Started Blues

The most difficult problem you face in writing your book can be summarized in just two words.

Getting started.

You have a brilliant idea, of course, and an outline or some notes. Maybe even a chapter draft, or two. But now what?

If you are like most will-be authors, you begin casting about for other things that demand your attention -- first.

The birdfeeder needs cleaning. The gardening stuff at the back of the garage needs weeding. Heck, the entire garage needs to be emptied and put back in pristine order. It's good feng shui, you tell yourself.

In other words, after the brilliant idea, the outline, the notes, and the drafts, you've earned the right to your resistance.

Why? Because you don't know -- that is, know specifically -- what to do next with your book. Writing it feels so frustratingly vague, so frighteningly VAST.

So, you tackle the things that you do know how to do: birdfeeder, gardening stuff, garage. And then you feel guilty and pained. Uncomfortable.

But wait. You needn't be stuck in discomfort. There is a solution to resistance. A simple solution. It is a . . . Box.

Yes, a box. Not a literal box, but the imagined form of a box, which you can use as a magical tool to get to work on your book -- without suffering from let's-just-do-other-things-first-itis.

Here is what it takes to create a Box:

::: First, you set a "start" time for your writing period. This is the top of your imagined box. (10:00 AM, say)

::: Second, you set a "stop" time. This is the bottom of your imagined box. (11:00 AM, say)

::: Third, you write a list of small and very specific tasks that you will complete during your allotted sixty minutes of writing time. This is one side of your imagined box. (For example: Write notes for Intro, list contents for Chapter Three, check Amazon for books about _____)

::: Fourth, you check off each task as you complete it (surprisingly reinforcing), during your pre-set writing time. This is the other side of your imagined box. (Notes: check; Contents: check; Amazon: check)

Why does this oh-so-simple Box strategy work?

Because, when you know precisely what you need to do, your mind will help you walk down precisely that road . . . writing the notes, listing the contents, doing the research.

But when you don't know, how is your mind going to help you do that? It isn't possible.

And so, your mind presents you with all sorts of other tasks, tasks it does know how to do -- a brilliant solution for an unsolvable problem!

But the take-away is: it really is up to you to tell your mind what to do. And you can do that best by creating a Box: Start Time, Stop Time, List of Tasks, Checklist (aka: Top, Bottom, One Side, Other Side).

One word of caution: Begin using the Box by assigning yourself a short, thirty-minute work period with a few quickly accomplished tasks. Practice a little, before you Box a full-out session of, say, two hours or more.

While you're planning your starter session, I'll tell you how I happened to invent this resistance-dissolving tool.

Several years ago, after my parents passed away, I was faced with the overwhelming job of organizing and selling the accumulated (and I do mean accumulated) contents of their home. I spent days wandering from room to room and floor to floor, wondering where to begin.

Finally, I started writing down what needed to be done in each room. And what needed to be done overall. And what might come first, second, third, fourth . . . By writing lists, I made sense of the seeming chaos that had no discernible starting point for establishing order.

After that, I made a task list for my first day of real work, drawing courage from the preliminary order that my Big Picture lists had given me.

But in reading my task list, I felt myself slipping into avoidance. Should get light bulbs before stores close. Only seven hours left.

Thirty-five things shouted up at me from my task list on that first day. Important Task! Very Essential Task! Get This Done, or Else!

But, I reasoned, I had all day, so. Why not take a break, for right now? Go buy those light bulbs.

Ironically, a light bulb went off in my mind, just then. The avoidance-busting Box solution had arrived.

I made a new list, one with just three things on it. Then I looked at my watch, gave myself an hour, told myself that if I got all three things done in under sixty minutes, I could have a small reward. Thus primed and motivated, I set to work. And it worked.

After my reward (not buying light bulbs), I Boxed another hour's worth of tasks and churned through my second set.

On good days, I was able to get through seven or eight work periods this way, leaving my parents' house after nine or ten in the evening, driving an hour and a half to get home and feed my cat, before falling into bed, exhausted. In the end, I got it all done by using the Box. There were estate sales, the house sold, and the rest is a strategy that can be used for anything.

But it is especially helpful for authors struggling to leap over their resistance to writing . . .The Book.

So, whenever you feel stuck, just remember this little resistance-dissolving mantra:

Start Time, Stop Time,
Task List, Checklist.

Box Your Book Time,
You . . . Won't . . . Resist, BigTime.


  1. You have certainly hit the nail on the head this time, Laurel! I know that my REAL problem is GETTING STARTED. Now you've given me a solution, and an excellent one, I know. Thanks . . . I'm getting started on my BOX right now!!

  2. Such wisdom. The avoidance thing is right on. Been there done that for the reason you state. And while list making works, I too ran into the issue of a list that was too long, and nearly as bad as no list at all. I've seen the value of a shorter list and a time frame . . . now I have to make that a habit rather than an occasional good day's work. thanks for clarifying the problem.

  3. Thank you Sandy & Ruth for your wonderful response to this post. I truly appreciate it!

    One thing I'd meant to include, but somehow didn't, was that inertia and momentum play a big part in getting started and continuing to work, once you've begun a task.

    Inertis makes us want to continue doing what we are doing, rather than switching to something new -- like facing up to a do list.

    So that's why a BOX is helpful -- it gets us over the inertia barrier.

    Then, once we're really into the new task, momentum keeps us going and, oddly enough, enertia returns once again, making us want to continue with the new work, rather than switch back to what we were doing (or weren't doing) before.

    I'll put all this in a future post, I think.
    Thanks so much again for your responses. Laurel

  4. I'm a list person and find it is a way of getting things done: start small and keep moving. Before I know it I have done so much. I will do laundry and in my 30 minute increments decide what I will get done. I toss in a load and on my way to the timer I ask myself, "what will I do with this 30 minutes?" It is a great way to get a lot done a feel a sense of progress. I may mix up the tasks between my dream project tasks and household tasks. Getting up to move the laundry helps to clear my mind. Sometimes however, I get creating and I ignore the timer. This isn't a bad thing -- I go with it since it is after all my priority to create.

    Thanks for this great process. I may adapt it!

    Kathryn Antyr, Collage Diva

  5. Hi Kathryn -- Feeling that all-important "sense of progress," as you said, is really key. When bogged down, progress is precisely what is missing. Thanks so much for commenting.

    Best to you, Laurel

  6. Absolutely amazing. Sometimes I use that method, but I keep getting inturupted by the telephone, or visitors, and I baby sit with a six year old. When she is in school, I can get most of my work finished. When I sit down to write, I spend hours of catching up.

    What you say, is so simple and easy. Thank you. I especailly enjoyed your wit