Break the Block: The Ticking ClockWe’ve all been there. You’re working on a paper, but you’re struggling to put words on the page. Perhaps you have a looming deadline; perhaps, instead of writing, you’ve spent 45 minutes catching up on Twitter and watching cat videos; perhaps you know exactly what you want to have written—if you close your eyes, you can see the finished paper, full of unassailable logic and scintillating insight—but cannot seem to actually write it. You are not alone.
Many people, including many very successful writers, struggle to write despite their best intentions. They’ve taken the right steps: they’ve set aside time for writing, they’ve collected their ideas in a notebook, and they’ve developed a plan for their text. When they attempt to write, though, something interrupts them. We usually call this Writer’s Block as if it were a diagnosis with a clear, single cause, but it’s really more like a syndrome, a set of behaviors with murky, and possibly multiple, origins.
For some people, it’s pure distraction. For others the cause is anxiety: negative experiences have conditioned them to mentally and physically react to the work of writing as if it were a hungry tiger, its glowing eyes assessing the meat potential of their bodies. Others lack confidence, which makes them discount the value of their writing. After all, because writing rarely leads to tangible short-term benefits, it can seem to produce no benefit at all (even though we all know this isn’t true), so you might find yourself focusing instead on tasks that yield immediate results, like clearing out your inbox or running errands. Whatever the cause of your block, though, the result is the same: you’re not getting your writing done. Thankfully, there’s a simple technique that can help you get past your block.
The ticking clock is a well-worn device used in fiction, and you’re already familiar with it if you’ve seen a few action movies. The hero races to crack the code, defuse the bomb, rescue the hostage, find the bad guy, or otherwise save the world before time runs out—that’s the ticking clock. It heightens the drama because it places a time limit on the task at hand. It must be accomplished now, not in some hazy future, or else catastrophe will ensue. Nothing else is more important when the clock is ticking down. In a less dramatic (and, admittedly, less clichéd) way, you can use a ticking clock to similarly focus your writing practice, reminding you that your time is limited and that this portion of it, right now, is dedicated to a vital task.
You can use the ticking clock in several ways (see our website for a good introductory approach), but they all share these steps:
1.) Start by setting an intention for your writing. It could be a specific task (“revise my problem statement”), it could be more general (“begin a rough draft of the paper I need to turn in this weekend”), or it could be to diminish your fear of the blank page (“write something, anything, for five minutes without stopping”).
2.) Next, set an achievable time goal. When you’re developing a good habit, it’s better to set a goal that you can usually achieve (and, on a good day, exceed) than one you’re unlikely to meet most of the time. For example, rather than committing to writing for 90 minutes every day, which is probably unrealistic if you also need to work full-time and see your loved ones, you might instead choose 15 minutes five days per week. The key is that this is a minimum: if you reach your 15-minute goal, you’ll likely want to—and should—keep writing for as long as you can.
3.)Then, you’ll set a timer for your time goal. I use the timer on my phone, but anything with an alarm will work—an egg timer, an alarm clock, the timer built into your microwave, etc.
4.) Finally, start the timer and write. Don’t stop until the timer is done. You don’t have to write quickly, but avoid interrupting your train of thought. Remind yourself, if you feel your attention being pulled away, that this time is for writing and nothing else. (It might help to close your Internet browser or set your phone to Do Not Disturb to minimize potential distractions.)
When the time runs out, you’ll have some new text to work with, and, more importantly, you’ll have made progress despite your block.
Matt Sharkey-Smith is a writing instructor and the coordinator of research and pedagogy in the Walden Writing Center. He also serves as contributing faculty in the Walden Academic Skills Center. Matt joined the Writing Center in 2010 with a BA in English from Saint John's University in Minnesota. He earned an MFA in Writing from Hamline University in St. Paul in 2011 and has worked outside of Walden as a technical writer, fact-checker, copy editor, tutor, and writing instructor.
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