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Freestyle Writing: The Psychology of Accomplishing Big Projects
by Steve Aedy

Return to The Writing Life · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

As writers, we tend to be more creative, free-thinking individuals. Rarely do we stop to analyze the psychological aspects of why we do what we do. If we were to take a look at how our brains contribute to our success or failure, we would learn some very interesting things.

Going Back to the Beginning

Thousands and thousands of years ago, the earth was populated with three types of creatures: Homo sapiens, Homo erectus, and Neanderthal. As we are well aware, only one of those survived: Homo sapiens.

This has lead many people to question why. Why did Homo sapiens survive when his brothers did not?

The Role of Complex Planning

John Shea, a paleoanthropologist, recently shared his thoughts: "The most obvious answer is that we had bigger brains. But it turns out that what matters is not overall brain size, but the areas where the brain is larger... one of the crucial elements of Homo sapiens' adaptations is... complex planning."

The ability to engage in complex planning is a subtle -- yet crucial -- skill. It requires us to do two things. First, we must visualize future steps. Second, we must evaluate whether these steps are a good idea.

How did the ability to engage in complex planning keep Homo sapiens alive?

Crafting a spear and charging a mammoth is an example of a complex plan. However, crafting a spear and hurling it from a safe distance is also an example of a complex plan. Not only could Homo sapiens conceive both strategies, he could distinguish the better, safer plan.

The Relationship between Complex Planning and Writing Strategies

How can complex planning affect your writing? To put it simply: complex planning can make or break your career.

Many successful authors and blog writers advise beginners to write every day. They endorse practices like writing at the same time every day or writing until you reach a certain word count. However, this strategy only works for full-time writers.

Few of us are full-time writers. Most of us have a million other tasks that demand our attention. Freelancers deal with many different clients at once. Blog owners have to find appropriate visuals to accompany posts, reply to comments, engage in social sharing and much more. Novelists usually have to work at a "real" job to survive until they make it big in the literary world.

Therefore, this "write every day" philosophy is flawed. We are predestined for failure. And the occasional slip up has huge ramifications.

Force yourself to write every day. Then, the inevitable happens. Life gets in the way and you miss a scheduled writing time. This seemingly insignificant event sends an important message to your brain -- this plan won't succeed.

As we've already seen, our brain is driven by a need to assess plans. Our mind has evolved to supply us motivation for good plans and procrastination on bad plans.

Our brain can't distinguish between abstract plans and specific plans. If your specific plan (to write every day) fails, the brain will sabotage the abstract plan (to finish a writing project). The complex planning portion of your brain evaluates the plan and rejects it as not sound. Just like charging the mammoth with the spear, writing every day is not a good plan.

So why do so many of us -- who aren't full-time writers -- follow the advice that is destine to make us fail?

Misunderstanding Motivation and Procrastination

Writers subscribe to the "write every day" strategy for one simple reason: they fear their total output will diminish without a fixed system to force progress.

Unfortunately, you can't force progress. You can't beat your brain into submission -- trying to generate motivation or excitement for a project when your brain isn't on board is pointless.

Success will only come if your brain believes in both your goal and the plan for accomplishing the goal.

Professionals say there are three main reasons why people procrastinate:

  1. Fear of being successful and fear of being a failure
  2. An unrelenting quest for perfection
  3. A belief our work isn't good enough

But based on the previously mentioned information, we should add another reason: your brain doesn't buy into the plan.

Therefore, we should recognize that procrastination is not a character flaw. Instead, it is a finely tuned evolutionary adaptation. Instead of grieving the situation, learn from it. Treat procrastination as a warning sign: your planning skills need more work.

A Better Alternative

If you are a writer with a day job, it is important to avoid a rigid writing schedule. Do not give your brain any inclination that your writing project -- or any plan associated with it -- could fail.

Instead of writing every day, be more flexible with your scheduling. Try a freestyle writing strategy; approach each week (or even day) as its own scheduling challenge.

Maybe you write every morning, Monday through Wednesday, but a big project at work dominates all your free time on Thursday and Friday. That's just fine. Maybe the next week, you write all day Monday but don't get back to the computer again until Saturday. No harm done.

Embrace reality -- don't fight it. You have a job and a life. Writing can't -- and shouldn't -- dominate your existence. Focus on doing as much writing as possible with the most practical schedule.

Creating a Freestyle Writing Schedule with Smarter Goals

Commit to plans you know you can accomplish. Focus on strategies that can succeed and reject anything that might fail. Keep your brain motivated and engaged in your writing project.

To do this, you'll need goals. We've already established a goal of "write every day" is bad. So what is a good goal?

First of all, you'll need smarter goals plans that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-Sensitive, Evaluate, and Rewarding.

When writing your goals, make sure they are clear and unambiguous. A goal that simply says, "Work on my writing every day," is not specific enough. Know exactly what you want to accomplish with your writing project. Do you want to finish the first chapter? Do you want to write a first draft of a blog post?

You need to have a concrete way of measuring progress. If your goal isn't measurable, you won't know if you've accomplished what you set out to do. Does writing 100 words suffice? 1,000 words? Include the answer to "how much" or "how many" in your goal.

Considering how our brains process complex plans, the "attainable" portion of your goal writing strategy might be the most important. Don't set yourself up for failure. Instead, your goal should be realistic. Expecting to finish 5,000 words per day during the last week of December isn't realistic.

Choose a goal that matters. Ask yourself: does this task seem worthwhile? Is this the right time to be working on this particular writing project? Is there a better way to spend my time right now?

Adhering to a freestyle writing schedule requires some flexibility. However, you still need to include a deadline in your goal. Create a sense of urgency to focus your efforts and keep you on track -- without inflicting too much structure.

Identify a half-way point where you can evaluate your progress. Plan a time before your deadline to check the effectiveness of the original goal. Where you specific enough or do you need to narrow your focus even more? Does your goal still seem attainable? Has the relevancy changed? Did you set a realistic time-table? If it looks like your goal isn't going to yield results, make some necessary changes. Set yourself up for success.

While writing might be our passion, it can sometimes lose its appeal. Sometimes we aren't writing just for the love of writing -- sometimes we are writing to earn money or fulfill an obligation. In these instances, we might lack enthusiasm. If simply finishing the project doesn't motivate you to write, plan a different reward. For example, if you meet your goal on time you get to buy that pair of shoes you've had your eye on. Or, you get to go to the basketball game with your friends.

Once you have your list of smarter goals, prioritize them. Which ones need your attention right away? Are any of your goals prerequisites for others?

The term freestyle writing suggests a fair amount of freedom. While that is true to some extent, you still need a bit of structure. Without goals, you'll flounder aimlessly.

Writing plans that are deployed in isolation will lead to procrastination at the first sign of trouble. Instead, choose clear goals that you know you can accomplish. Be flexible -- not rigid -- when it comes to crafting a writing schedule.

Copyright © 2013 Steve Aedy
This article is not available for reprint without the author's written permission.

Steve Aedy is a big fan of freestyle writing. After 3 years of freelancing and ghostwriting for a variety of businesses he finally landed a job at FreshEssays as their content manager and research specialist. Working for an essay writing service is not what he sees himself doing for the rest of his rockstar life, and in his spare time he rocks in a local band. He wrote over 200 articles, and interestingly enough, songs on social media, education, freelancing and writing topics. Find more about Steve on Google+.


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