Writers' block can be overcome by putting into practice a "click-whirrr routine" which, like Pavlov's bell, tells your mind it's time to write, and pulls out all the mental stops and blocks to let you do so.
First, eliminate any immediate interruptions, both internal (check your messages, empty your brain of nagging things to remember by writing them down) and external (silence the phone, shut the door). Quit or Hide all other apps and documents except the one you're going to be working on.
Now choose the triggers you want to associate with intensely focused and productive writing. Too often this is a setting, like a particular room in your home: if this becomes an intentional part of your click-whirrr routine, it will be difficult to enter that writing fugue when you're anywhere else. Instead, focus on other specific triggers that you can take with you almost anywhere:
- Particular writing tools: a certain pen and kind of notebook; a certain writing app (and background photo?) on a laptop; a writing app on a tablet (and a favorite external keyboard?).
- Particular ambiance: background music, a lit candle, a scent, a certain level of lighting (although making ambiance elements part of your intentional routine poses the same risk as attaching your productivity to a single place! Music, at least, is as portable as your headphones).
- Particular posture: usually sitting a certain way, but for various reasons you might want to commit yourself to standing, or even to lying down somehow. I straighten up
- Particular "centering/triggering ritual": putting your hands over your face and taking a couple of deep slow breaths, or stretching your fingers, cracking your knuckles, shaking out your hands, a moment of silent prayer or meditation, anything that signals "I'm serious about this, I'm getting down to business now."
- Particular "trigger words" that you read silently or recite aloud. I suggest the words of Judith Krantz:
"To be successful, you must have talent joined with the willingness, the eagerness, to work like a dog. Thousands of people plan to be writers, but they never get around to it. The only way to find out if you can write is to set aside a certain period every day and try."
- If the words of Judith Krantz leave you flat, or seem aimed at someone else besides you, replace it with a different quote, lyric, proverb, poem or passage that DOES hit you right in the motivator.
Note: keep using the same passage long enough to memorize it, long enough for it to become familiar and comfortable, but not so long that it loses its power to stir you. Familiarity is relaxing and releasing; over-familiarity saps the power out of the words. I use a longer quote, myself, an extended metaphor that has worked well for me for a couple of years now because I find it so rich with meaning.
- You may even choose an image or photograph as a click-whirrr trigger, although it must be an image that focuses your mind on the task of writing, not one that can distract you further from the task of writing. A photo of the yacht you want to buy when your novel finally hits the bestseller list will not focus you on writing so much as it pulls you into dreaming about owning the yacht.
Then immediately get to work! Just start freewriting: begin by trying to write exactly what you mean to write during this time, but if that isn't flowing, write about what you're trying to say. If that doesn't flow either, write about the fact that it isn't flowing, about how it feels to be stuck, about how you look forward to the time when this myelination of your neural networks of creative, productive writing is finally well underway... you can even copy out these instructions, verbatim or mingled with your own thoughts, anything to get your fingers working and your mind connecting its thinking with the keyboard, warming up the language centers in your brain.
In the beginning, it will help to write down the elements of your click-whirrr routine, once you've decided on them. Write them in the order you want to do them, and post that routine somewhere that you'll see it every time you settle down to write.
Follow your click-whirr routine every day, every time you sit down to write in a focused way. If you can't write every day, try to schedule time three or four days a week. Keep in mind that if you schedule your click-whirrr routine at the same time of day every time, the time of day will become one of your triggers whether you intend it to or not!
For the first ten or fifteen minutes at least, immediately following your click-whirrr routine, maintain an intense focus on writing. Strive. Strain. Push yourself. Exert your will. Make your mind your slave and force yourself to write continuously and in an increasingly relevant and productive way, not simply free-associating the entire time. This intensity activates something called "deep learning," which we'll explore later in more detail.
Right now, focus on putting together your own personalized click-whirrr routine, then focus on putting it into practice —regularly, intensely, habitually. Your mind and body will slowly become accustomed to it, as Pavlov's dog became accustomed to hearing the sound of the bell when food arrived. In time, your mind and body will respond on their own to the click-whirrr routine, and you'll find yourself writing more, and more productively, than ever before... and able to do so "on cue."
This isn't a simple hack or a quick fix. It takes time to train your subconscious mind and your limbic system to respond quickly and consistently to this set of stimuli you're creating. But once you have done this, it will serve you well all your life.