5 Steps to Overcoming Writer Regression

We’ve all had those moments when we’ve felt like we’re taking two steps back, instead of one step forward.

For example: you might find that you’ve been loyal to a writing schedule for a whole year and, suddenly, you don’t want to write anymore. You can write, you love to write, but you just don’t want to. So you avoid it. You procrastinate. Or you stop putting in the same amount of effort into your writing that you once did. Nowadays, you’re struggling so much that you can’t help but ask yourself:

“How did this happen? I used to be so great at all of this! Now why does it feel like I’m at ‘square one’ all over again? What’s happening?”

Answer:  You’re regressing.

Regression is probably one of the most frustrating roadblocks in the writing process, because no one wants to feel as if they haven’t made any progress.

Except, of course, for your inner saboteur.

You see, your inner saboteur loves to use your moment of regression as undeniable proof that He was right all along:  you put yourself out there by writing this book or article–something He warned you not to do–and now you’re hurting from it. You’re crawling back to Him on your hands and knees, and all He does is pat your on your head and say:

“I told you so.”

Then your inner saboteur starts to rattle off His old, worn-out ideas that you’ve heard a million times before–ideas that you already know are bad for you, but for some reason they’re starting to sound good again. Bad ideas like:

“Close yourself off. Give up, because it’s just gonna hurt you in the end. You won’t succeed, so take the easy way out. Stop writing because it’ll never get done.”

Now, I know these ideas may sound enticing to you right now, but you gotta stay strong. You can’t let your inner saboteur win.

His ideas may sound nice, but that’s only because these ideas are comfortable to you, they’re familiar. But remember: they are still bad ideas. They haven’t worked for you in the past, and they won’t work for you now.

If you feel like you’re regressing, your first job is to remember who your inner saboteur is and what He is after. Your inner saboteur is that inner voice that says He’s looking after you, but is really only setting you up for failure. How does he set you up to fail? By making sure you don’t even try in the first place. What a jerk, huh?

You need to remember that your inner saboteur is not your friend, and He never was. He’s part of your old self now. The problem is that since He knew how to push your buttons before, He’ll know how to push your buttons again. And again. And again. And again.

In fact, your inner saboteur will become more relentless than ever, now that you’ve made significant progress in your writing. It’ll be almost as if your inner saboteur is fighting for His life–and in fact, He is.

That’s why the first step to beating Writer Regression is to:

1. Realize That What You’ve Been Doing is ACTUALLY Working

Why else would your inner saboteur be so relentless these days? He senses that His number is up. Now that a new you is emerging, the old you is dying, and your inner saboteur does NOT want to die with it. He won’t have that. He’s been stuck to you for so long that He’s not gonna just bow down without a fight.

“Are you kidding me?” He says, “This guy thinks he can get rid of me? We’ll, I’ll show him!”

So, He lurks in the background, waiting for you to screw up. Just one, little screw up. That’s all He needs. Just one day you don’t send that query letter in. Just one day you don’t call up that literary agent. Just one day you set your manuscript aside, ditch writing for the night, and plunge into your newest TV show addiction: Being Human. (A wolf, a vampire, and a ghost live together in an attempt to lead a normal life while their secret monstrosity serves as a metaphor for our society’s insensitivity toward outward displays of internal human suffering? You are so there!)

You see, just one slip from you is all your inner saboteur needs, and BLAM!

Heeeees baaaaaaack.

And He’s more vicious than ever.


Because He knows He’s done for.

You see, your regression is really a sign of desperation–not YOURS but HIS. Your saboteur is so desperate to stay alive, that He’s using up all His reserves, firing all His secret weapons, launching an all-out assault on your personal well-being. If you thought He was a jerk before, you’ll see what a real douche He is now that you’ve forced Him to fight for His life.

So as your inner saboteur starts coming after you with all He’s got, take a moment to smile. Because this is proof that whatever you’ve been doing has been working, and instead of today’s regression foreshadowing your demise, it’s really foreshadowing the demise of your old self.

2. Keep Adding More Tools to Your Toolbox

Your inner saboteur is hitting you with all that its got, and so you can’t back down now. No. You’re going to have to hit back even harder than before. And the only way to do that is to acquire even MORE tools.

First, try asking your friends, family members, and co-writers what they do to prevent themselves from slipping back into their old ways. What tools serve them well?

If you can’t find a new tool by asking your friends or family members, then its time to do what writers do best:  be creative. Try different things out on yourself, and see what works and what doesn’t work. Keep a journal to log your findings.

Maybe what others are recommending doesn’t work for you because you have unique personality or a unique life situation. Maybe your journey is not to find the tool that will change your life for the better, but to invent that tool.

Keep acquiring new tools and never stop.

3. Keep Searching for New Teachers

Another thing I do when I find myself regressing is to go on a search for new teachers.

Let’s face it, ZenHabits is great–but Leo doesn’t know everything. There are so many different challenges we face every day, and for each challenge, we need a different teacher with a specific expertise. There are hundreds of teachers out there: writing teachers, spiritual teachers, financial teachers, emotional teachers–each teacher is a master at their own discipline, and they can help you better understand yourself or your specific life situation. They can offer you guidance and help you overcome the obstacles you might be facing. Many of them are professionals and have helped millions just like you overcome their roadblocks.

Don’t be picky about your teachers, either. Teachers come in any age, and in fact, they don’t even have to be human. Teachers can be animals, trees, stars, even old buildings. The best way to find a new teacher is to be clear about what it is you feel you need to learn. Then start your search, and pay close attention. I promise that your new teacher will pop up more quickly than you think.

If you’re looking for a place to start, here are some great teachers that I’ve found recently:

Dr. Wayne Dryer

Mary Oliver

Mark Nepo

Julia Butterfly Hill

Nikola Tesla

Louise L. Hay

J. J. Abrams

Pema Chodron

Leo Tolstoy

Robert Kyosaki

Dan Savage

My rule with teachers: take what works, leave what doesn’t. You are allowed to respectfully disagree.

4. Beat Regression With Regression

If regression is bringing you down, and you feel like all your tools aren’t working anymore, maybe it’s not because these tools aren’t working–maybe it’s because you stopped using an old tool that worked like a charm. So do some digging, and maybe you’ll uncover an old tool that worked before and can be recycled today.

5. Forgive Yourself

A reader recently shared this article by Elizabeth Gilbert with me. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. But what I wanted to emphasize is that, when it comes to the writing process, Gilbert says that what matters isn’t “self-discipline” but “self-forgiveness.” I couldn’t agree with her more. We really have to practice forgiving ourselves every day for any setbacks we may encounter, and especially for every time we feel we have regressed.

So if you are regressing today, please forgive yourself tomorrow. Forgive yourself for that brief (or long) moment of regression, so that you can move on, and be stronger for it. Otherwise, if you don’t forgive yourself, you’re only feeding your inner saboteur, and remember: you wanna starve that bastard.

much love,


What do you do to bounce back from regression?

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25 comments on “5 Steps to Overcoming Writer Regression

  1. Kathy Golitko White says:

    This came at a perfect time for me. Trying to write a synopsis is driving me crazy. I’ve written fine synopses before. I started questioning myself in the same old ways and putting myself down in the same old ways. But now I know it’s HER not me causing the problem. And starting with self forgiveness is key! Thank you for your wisdom.

    • Ollin says:

      You’re welcome Kathy! The biggest mistake we can make is confusing our inner saboteur with us. You can tell the difference when the saboteur keeps telling you there is no use in trying because you will fail, and that’s when you know he’s–or she’s–full of it. Because if you don’t try at all you already failed.

  2. I found the best way to silence my inner saboteur is to keep writing. When I’m in the moment of it, there’s no time for doubt. The trouble always starts when I don’t have time to write. Life gets in the way, and I used to get all irritated about it. The self-forgiveness is key here. It makes getting back to work so much easier. 🙂

    • Ollin says:

      Yeah, that’s the “don’t think, just do” technique I share in my “secret to staying loyal to your schedule” post {check it out in my side bar}. Good luck to you T.S. And thank you for sharing that Elizabeth Gilbert article!

  3. […] 5 Steps to Overcoming Writer Regression « Courage 2 Create […]

  4. Nancy Sima says:

    When I hit a wall, I go walking. Nature does something to me and I always come back to the page with something more to give.
    In hindsight I think my inner sabateur has been alive and well for a long time. Only recently have I even been able to even say the words, I am a writer and own them. I wrote a couple of posts
    about why I write. Maybe you or others could relate. http://calendargal.blogspot.com/2011/02/you-are-here-part-i.html
    Gilbert is so right. Every writer needs self-forgiveness…so easily forgotten in this go-go-go world we live in. Thank you for your inspiring posts.

    • Ollin says:

      You’re welcome Nancy. Thank you for sharing your story, and for offering my readers that tip! It does work wonders.

  5. Samantha Bangayan says:

    What hit me with this post is that our teachers and role models aren’t the be-all and end-all. You’re so right that we should pick and choose what speaks to us from people we admire, because they’re just humans too. No one person, no matter how charismatic or inspiring, will be completely like our own individuality. They shouldn’t be and we shouldn’t be completely like them. Thanks, Ollin. =)

    • Ollin says:

      Wow, what a perfect summary of that point Samantha. Thank you for driving it home for us. You are absolutely right, couldn’t have said it better myself.

  6. Vikki Bakus says:

    Great Blog, Ollin! You hit the mark with this topic. My saboteur has a volunteering complex. I stopped volunteering, actually made the declaration 1/1/11. My first resolution in 14 years.
    I’ve discovered thinking about one of my stories or watching a new movie to discern plot points rekindles my passion and turns me toward action.

    • Ollin says:

      Interesting. It volunteers to get you distracted from writing? That’s a good strategy, since you’re actually doing something good, so it’s hard to realize that it’s a method of sabotage. What a clever little saboteur you got there. I’m glad you’re on track this year.

  7. MDK says:

    Hi Ollin,

    Good post. My saboteur also comes in the form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, along with the watered down version. Glad you could make Him transparent to the masses.

  8. Ollin,

    I respectfully disagree at one aspect of this post…the capitalization of the saboteur…he has no power.

    The example I have is one that has been used over before yet still relevant – the example of the two dogs. If you have two dogs, the one that you feed the most will be the strongest.

    The one I rather feed is Wisdom and Understanding…they will never fail me.

    I chose to feed them with blood, sweat, and tears. I chose to starve the slothful punk.

    • Ollin says:

      Hehe, you know I had an earlier version where I didn’t capitalize the saboteur. But it was harder to follow. I agree with you: he only has power when we feed him. {Uncaptilized!}

  9. Sonia M. says:

    I think the surest way to defeat the inner critic (I call mine Agent 36) is to keep writing something, anything. And write fast. It helps to write a really strong description of the critic too…the spotlight seems to scare him away.

    • Ollin says:

      Love the name of your inner critic. Lol. I love to call him saboteur, any other name would be too nice. He needs to have a name that reminds me of the threat he poses and what he’s after.

  10. jannatwrites says:

    I often take breaks from writing to read a book (or three.) At first, this sent me into a panic that I wouldn’t get back into it, but I always have. As for the voice that reminds me that I’m wasting my time because I’ll probably never get published, I just say “shut up, I’m having fun!” and I write anyway.

  11. This was such a great piece — really! And the last point — forgiving yourself for not writing — powerful! I beat myself up all the time because I don’t write as much as I want to. I blog, but I fail to write, and all I want to do is write. What do I do? I leave my house, my kids and husband, and I take my laptop to a coffee shop — and all I do is write for two hours straight. I then treat myself to a Chai Latte, and I cannot wait to get back there.

    • Ollin says:

      Two hours! That’s great! I think writers who are mothers need to give themselves more credit than they do. I’m not a parent but I can’t imagine having to deal with what I have to deal with being a single person, and on top of that having to be a great parent AND a great partner. How do you find the time in the day?

  12. Angela Craven says:

    This is fantastic! I too am writing my first novel. It is daunting to say the least. I think I spend more time reading blogs and books about writing than actually writing. It takes time to learn the craft, and in many ways I feel I am learning from scratch. I look forward to reading many more articles.

    • Ollin says:

      Just start by writing, and everything will fall in to place. The hardest part is to start, and I give a lot of tips on my sidebar. Check them out!

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