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How To Deal With Quirky Writing Rituals

by Jennifer on July 14, 2010

By Brody Blocker

Do you have weird compulsive writing rituals? I know I do, but I didn’t realize it until just the other day.

Mine looks like this: I will circle a new writing project like a sparring partner before I sit down and start to work. I will create a new document, give it a name, and put a nice heading at the top. Put a color font in the heading. Type “Xxx” where the first line of brilliance will go any second now.

Then, in the pause between preparation and initiation, I feel suddenly compelled to check my email/Facebook/Twitter because something really cool and awesome might have happened without me in the last 15 minutes.

Usually what gets me writing is that I have an epiphany and finally know exactly what to say, so I jump on it before I lose the “Big Idea.” Pull up my fresh document (with the color font in the header), and furiously whip out the first one-to-three sentences.

Bursting with pride that I have finally begun to write, I jump up from my chair and bound to the kitchen for a snack. Then I get sidetracked—I see a dish in the sink and must wash it, or the dogs need to go outside, or I remember I needed to repair something on my bike, or the dogs need to come inside.

Thirty minutes to an hour later I finally get back to the computer and begin writing the rest of the piece.

The same thing happens when I am tapping out the last page and about to finish. I get excited again about almost being done, and that itch hits me to go to the fridge, or the restroom, or change my shirt, or anything to get me out of my chair and away from the computer.

I even do this ritual with email, the result being messages I think I sent two hours ago may still be sitting in my compose box or have auto-saved as drafts and I forget about them completely. Days later I’m wondering why I haven’t gotten a reply to that email.

I finally caught myself walking away from an important time-sensitive email one day and realized I was about to forget it and not get it sent. It was then I realized how pervasive this behavior was to my working routine, and how much time, stress and confusion it was costing me.

I’ll bet you are feeling a twinge of recognition about some of your own behaviors right about now, aren’t you?

Of course, some quirks are innocent enough and not too distracting; we all need a break from the intensity of writing, and we do have to go to that shiny little room down the hall eventually. Other behaviors, however, are downright sneaky and insidious in the ways they steal our time and undermine our efforts.

Rather than try to stop a behavior altogether, though, there are ways to turn it around to your benefit. That’s what I’ve been doing with mine.

Just because we have core behaviors that can be disruptive doesn’t mean they have to stay that way.

Changing Disruptive Behaviors
Before you can do anything about anything, you have to become aware of what you are doing that derails you. This can be the hardest part, because it’s been sneaking under your radar for so long you may not see it even when you look for it. But you can catch those ninja quirks if you consciously set out to do so.

Keep an open mind as you may be in disbelief when you discover your most active idiosyncrasies. And yes, there will probably be several.

Once you discover your compulsions, your next step is to determine which ones are actually working against you.

Not all of them are bad, so not all of them need to be changed (unless you do something really embarrassing; that one you might want to deal with).

You can dispatch many short-term habits relatively easily now that you know you are doing them. Generally those go away as soon as you become aware of them, so that should be cake.

But what if you find yourself face-to-face with a quirk you’ve had since early grade school? It’s been with you all your life, it’s hard-wired, and frankly, it ain’t goin’ nowhere soon.

You’re going to need to outsmart the quirk (ie: use psychology).

The behavior exists and you are unlikely to change it, so learn how to channel it in ways that become productive instead of disruptive. Here are some general notes for accomplishing this:

  • Take control of the way the behavior manifests and travels. You will let it play out, but only when you say so.
  • Set some hard and fast goals to accomplish No Matter What. Write them down. We all know by now that goals are not real until we put pen to paper and write them out. Write your immediate goal on a Post-It every time you sit down to work if you have to, but make it tangible and present in your mind.
  • Reward yourself, but only after you have earned the reward, not on impulse as your quirk prods you to do.

How I Deal With My Quirks
In my case I became aware that I had that spring under me set to launch me off my chair and into orbit every time I accomplished a task, however small. I made a commitment to gain control of it, but not to try to suppress it completely.

I now set goals to finish certain segments of my work before I can get up and go anywhere, but as I finish each segment I can then celebrate with a walk away from the computer to munch some nuts, tend the dogs or wash that dish, and then come directly back to work No Matter What.

For each goal met, I can get up, go do one thing and then come back. I cannot opt to take the bike out and clean the chain because I suddenly realize how dirty it is; it will be there, gunk and all, when my task is completed.

Finally, I control my enthusiasm over nearing completion and consciously hold off celebrating until I am actually, really, completely finished. At that point my ejection seat can launch me into next week, it doesn’t matter.

“Mission Accomplished” is a great feeling worth holding out for. And that feeling of completion makes it progressively easier to maintain control of the quirk without stifling it.

As to the embarrassing personal quirk? I’m still working on that one…

About the Author: Brody Blocker is a Developmental Editor at BB Proof Pros, a proofreading and copy editing services company. Follow Brody on Twitter @BBProofPros.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Monica Rodriguez July 14, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Great post! You sound just like me at the computer. I like the idea of writing my goal on a post-it when I sit down. Writing it down makes it ‘real.’ And it should have the effect of focusing my energy.

More important for me, not only can I not get up, but – my more detrimental habit – no wandering away from my document file to surf the web, check email, or even play with my playlist. When I’m writing, I write!

Thanks for your post.

2 Andrew Toynbee July 15, 2010 at 7:06 am

I’m currently using a Netbook (Acer N270) to write. Although this has built-in WiFi connectivity, most of the time I’m out of range of and can’t be distracted by ‘The Interweb’ If I really, really need to check a fact, though, I’ll type the uncertain sentence in bold – a note to myself to go back and check later – and carry on writing, safe in the knowledge that the fact won’t be overlooked.
No distractions until that 500 or 1000 word count is completed!

3 jennifer blanchard July 15, 2010 at 11:59 am

@Andrew Toynbee What a great idea! I need to start bolding the sections I want to go back to, rather than allowing “research” to derail my writing. Great tip, thanks for sharing!

4 Brody Blocker July 17, 2010 at 1:43 am

Monica, glad you got some good out of the post, thanks for your comment!
Andrew, I have a Netbook, too, aren’t they great? It’s nice for airports, or biking to the coffee shop and tapping out a few paragraphs while getting my caffeine infusion. Sometimes I actually concentrate better when I’m away from home. Anybody else find that to be true?
Jen, thanks again for having me as a guest poster for Procrastinating Writers!

5 Andrew Toynbee July 19, 2010 at 4:26 am

Netbooks rock, although they do run out of power faster than I’d like.
That’s where Jennifer’s Neo (700 hours from 3 ‘AA’ batteries, was it?) scores over the Netbook.
I’m working on a solar panel recharger…will let you know if I get it to work.
What is it about coffee shops that makes them great places to write? Also, coffee shops within book shops. Inspirational places. Yes, writing in strange places allows my ‘observational neuron’ to kick in. At home, nothing’s new or fresh. ‘Out there’ is filled with strange people, sights, smells and sounds. It’s like being in the complete opposite of a sensory deprivation tank!

6 zaelyna July 19, 2010 at 10:16 am

So true! It takes a lot to get control over disruptive behaviours. I’m one of those “Oh, look! Shiny!” people who will go back to a project and week later and realise through hindsight how easily I get distracted from one thing to another to another. >.<

Now that I've commented, I should get back to writing… O:)

7 jennifer blanchard July 19, 2010 at 10:55 am

@Andrew Toynbee My netbook (I have a Gateway) battery actually lasts awhile (about 6 hours or so). But yea, the word processor (My Alphasmart Neo) does a much better job battery-wise, since it can get about 700 hours from 3 “AA” batteries. I wish I could force myself to leave my house and go to the Starbucks down the street or the Barnes and Noble to write… but I get lazy and caught up in TV and house chores and so it makes more sense for me to write in my living room while I’m doing laundry or whatever. But I don’t typically get much writing done in that environment. Esp. now that I have a fun-loving 1-year-old puppy.

@zaelyna Glad to see Brody and I are not alone in our “writing distractions” boat!! 🙂

8 Vincent July 19, 2010 at 1:18 pm

You don’t believe even my recent post was speaking the same. Well I see myself now improving. I had read alot of Jen’s post they were tremendous infact she’s (her posts) were the source of inspiration to me to reach this goal. I run my own blog today, freely I write and completely at peace.

9 Jo July 20, 2010 at 11:19 am

That sounds exactly like me. I’m getting better, but it’s bloody hard to break these little habits. Good post and I’m glad I’m not alone.

10 Top Online Universities July 21, 2010 at 1:36 am

I feel suddenly compelled to check my email/Facebook/Twitter because something really cool and awesome might have happened without me in the last 15 minutes.

11 Andrew Toynbee August 16, 2010 at 6:13 am

Monica Rodriguez
I upgraded my Netbook at the weekend for the princely sum of £37 ($58) by fitting a 12-cell 10,000mAh battery, replacing the standard 2200mAh. Half-charged, it warned me that I only had six hours of usage left!
A highly recommended upgrade!
I am now going to be typing into the wee small hourson battery power! Better get some plasters ready for my fingertips…

12 Andrew Toynbee August 16, 2010 at 6:14 am

Why did I type Monica..?
I mean Brody. Sorry guys…only had two coffees so far this morning (sigh)

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