I almost gave up in the middle of my morning run today.
Listen, I know this isn’t a blog about running. Stick with me for a minute.
Anyway, I was a mile and a half into my run and my body said “nope.” More frustrating was the fact that I had zero mental motivation to keep going. I was done. I couldn’t do it anymore. I really felt like I couldn’t take another step (which would have been a problem since I was on a treadmill, but that’s beside the point).
So obviously I just shook off the pain and lack of desire to move forward and kept running anyway because THAT’S HOW WILLPOWER WORKS! Right?
Of course I didn’t keep going, I stopped running. Who do you think I am?
But here’s the important part of my story: I stopped running. But I didn’t quit my run.
Remember how I said to stick with me? Keep doing that, and I’ll explain. Trust me, this has everything to do with writing. It might even change your life.
Yes, I stopped running. Just stopped right in the middle of my very carefully timed session. I was convinced I wasn’t going to be able to finish what I’d started. I was not “into” it. I was tired. And I wanted to rest.
So I did something I often do in moments I’m not sure I can continue moving forward: I closed my eyes, put my head down, and forced myself to breathe.
I did this for exactly 30 seconds. I counted out each one, out loud.
Then I opened my eyes, lifted my head, and assessed my current physical and mental state. I was still mentally itching to be done and move on to the next task. Physically, I was still tired.
But I also noticed that I no longer felt as though I was pushing myself too hard. I could breathe again. My legs didn’t hurt anymore (no more than they sometimes do in the middle of a run, anyway). I felt … oddly determined not to let myself give up so easily.
So I took a deep breath, started running again, and finished what I had originally set out to accomplish.
Was it easy? No — but it was easier. And I was able to finish that last mile and a half, even though I’d thought not long before that I couldn’t, with just a 30 second break.
I tried this method because it had proven to work for me before in other areas of my life. And it proved its worth to me again on that treadmill.
A similar thing happened to me earlier this week. I started late on my evening work because #puppiesareunpredictable and ended up not starting on a three hour project until after 7 p.m. That was not a fun realization. I started wondering if I could get away with not doing it and putting it off — I started to panic, because I knew it had to be done, but wasn’t sure if I could deliver.
But I did. I got my work done (in less than three hours, it turned out), and I went to sleep with no regrets. Why? Because of my 30 second rule.
Stop what you’re doing. Put your head down. Close your eyes. Breathe. 30 seconds. No less, no more.
Now if your initial reaction to this is, “Being still and present doesn’t help me refocus and re-energize,” that’s fair. This kind of “stop and freeze” method isn’t necessarily for everyone. But I do think many writers get overwhelmed and frustrated and they get so worked up about it that they just say, “No, I can’t, I’m done, forget it.”
I get this. I get being tired and unmotivated and, occasionally, completely disinterested in what you were previously working on. We are all human and we cannot operate at one hundred percent capacity one hundred percent of the time. Life wears us out. Sometimes we would love to have the energy and motivation to write but don’t.
But I also think many aspiring writers struggle because they assume they “can’t” write when they lose focus or feel tired or get distracted. While there are certainly moments it’s absolutely acceptable not to force yourself to write, you can’t stop writing every time you yawn or start thinking about something else. You’ll never get anything done if you do that.
You have more strength in you than you think. I can guarantee it.
Some people argue that you shouldn’t write if you’re so exhausted you can’t go on. That’s not really what I’m talking about here. I’m referring to those moments when you “think” you’ve reached your limit when you actually have plenty of “umph” left in you.
How do you know if you still have more energy to burn? You stop. Close your eyes. Breathe. 30 seconds.
If you do that and it doesn’t help and you still can’t put your hands back on that keyboard and Make Words Happen, then that’s how you know it’s time to call it quits for the time being. Sometimes, for whatever reason, your brain and body just decide writing is not going to happen right now and it’s better not to force it.
This doesn’t mean that you should stop writing at the first sign of fatigue, though. That’s the point. We’re so good at convincing yourselves we “can’t” or “shouldn’t” do something that we give up before we even try. A lot of the time, you actually can. You just wouldn’t know that unless you gave yourself time to really pay attention to your feelings (physically and mentally) and decide if you wanted to quit because you had done all you could do, or you wanted to quit simply because it was getting harder.
Never quit when something starts to become challenging. That is how people grow.
Everyone has a breaking point, of course. I could not have run even a step further than three miles or done any more than three hours of work the other night.
But I reached my full potential in those moments. Just by stopping and breathing and starting again.
If you try this method and it doesn’t work for you, that’s okay. This is a suggestion meant to help you confront your struggles and get your writing done. Maybe your internal or external issues extend beyond something that 30 seconds with your eyes closed can’t fix. Maybe you have an insane husky puppy who can’t stand to be ignored even for five seconds at a time. Maybe you are chronically sleep deprived for a legitimate reason and you can’t do your work (hey, Life Happens). This advice probably won’t cater to your specific needs. I am not offended.
But if you are frequently stopping in the middle of a writing session when you know you could keep going — but don’t continue writing despite that knowledge — I would encourage you to try this. Thirty seconds. You don’t always know how much you have left in you until you give your brain and body a second (or 30) to regroup.
This is what often works for me — not every time, but more times than not. Maybe it will work for you too. Let me know. And if you do something else to refocus and clear those final writing hurdles late at night, feel free to share them in the comments.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.