“Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.” — Henry Ford
When I first saw this quote plastered on the back wall of a group fitness studio in vinyl lettering, I thought it was ridiculous. Why would someone choose a quote advising people to give up when they feel like they can’t keep going for a gym? Didn’t they know it was supposed to be hard (or everyone would do it)?
I read that quote a hundred times or so before the realization finally hit me — Ford wasn’t saying to give up when you think you can’t keep going. He was saying that it doesn’t matter if you can actually do something or not;
Once you tell yourself you can’t, you’ve already given up.
If you step up to a 30-inch box thinking that there is no way you can make it to the top, you can’t — or, more accurately, you won’t — because your brain works hard to match your internal beliefs with your external actions.
Regardless of what your body can actually do, your brain simply won’t put in the effort required to achieve it if you already believe it can’t be done. The body can only do what the mind — the control center of your actions — believes you can do. Essentially, self-doubt creates self-sabotage.
Writer’s block works the same way; if a writing task seems impossible or unmanageable, it probably is.
If you don’t think you can’t sit down and write a 20-page report on technology trends across the world (or a 500-word story for Medium) you won’t. You’ll open a document, type a few lines, erase them, sigh heavily and wonder why your coffee is gone before you’ve written anything at all. You’ll blame your lack of action on a lack of inspiration, creative juices, or both.
But unless you live under a rock with no access to the internet, you don’t have an inspiration problem — you have a confidence problem.
PLEASE NOTE: My advice is not simply to “believe harder” in your abilities. Even the most confident, tech-obsessed entrepreneur in all of the San Fran Bay Area jacked up on Nespresso would have a hard time believing in their ability to write 20 pages of global technology trends in a single work session.
But what if the task wasn’t to ‘write a 20-page report’?
What if the task was simply…
…to write a title for the report?
…to read an article on current business trends, highlighting important concepts and statistics?
…to congregate a list of concepts you’d like to include in the report?
…to rank the list of concepts by importance and organize the top 10 choices into an outline?
…to find one supporting statistic for each of those concepts?
…to choose one concept and write a headline for that section?
The secret to overcoming writer’s block is the ability to break down overwhelming tasks into a series of smaller tasks that you feel confident in your ability to accomplish.
Nobody needs to be in a “flow state” to research business trends, organize topics into an outline, or write a single headline summarizing an already-chosen concept; it’s easy to be confident in each of those tasks individually. The overwhelm starts to creep in when you focus on the entirety of the project instead of each task by itself.
If you don’t think you can achieve something, break it down until you KNOW that you can. Every step of a project can be broken down into infinitely smaller, more achievable tasks. For example:
Writing a title can be broken down into:
- Determining the goal of the article
- Reading work by other authors on the same or similar topics
- Choosing 3 powerful action words that best describe the intent of the article (like “overcome,” “upgrade,” “destroy,” or “reduce”)
Crafting an introduction can be broken down into:
- Determining the audience (Who will read this? What will they learn?)
- Researching current trends and statistics
- Finding a relevant quote from an industry leader or otherwise credible source
- Brainstorming a personal anecdote (true or made-up) relating to the topic
Editing the first draft can be broken down into:
- Copy/pasting the article into Grammarly to fix grammatical mistakes
- Reading the entire article aloud, noting anything that sounds awkward or unclear
- Circling any descriptive words used more than once; using thesaurus.com to upgrade repetitive language
The worst thing a writer can do to themselves is open a blank word document without a plan (i.e. a list of actionable, achievable tasks contributing to the overall project).
The next time you sit down to start a new writing project, take a few minutes to break it down into small, actionable tasks you feel confident taking on. Don’t stop until your list is at least 10 action-items long.
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us get up and go to work.” — Stephen King
Successful writers don’t struggle with writer’s block because they don’t wait for inspiration to strike — they make a plan that doesn’t require inspiration to get started. If you find yourself unable to complete a task, you simply haven’t broken it down enough.
Whether you think you can overcome writer’s block, or think you can’t, you’re right.
Determine the goal, break it down, make a plan you believe you can accomplish, and get started.
YOU ARE A WRITER. Start working like one.