5 Steps to Overcoming Writer Regression

Editor’s note: this post was originally featured on this blog in 2011. New posts on the C2C will return on January 6th, 2014.

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.

Why?

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,

Ollin

Today’s Courage Exercise

Bounce back from regression.

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