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The Snap Back Guide: how to hit play after a writing pause

productivity writing

So you hit pause on your writing life and now you’d like to get back to it!

Perhaps you went on vacation or it was the holidays or you took a long time off due to an illness or new baby. Now you’re rearing to get back to it. Only problem is you don’t know where to start... And perhaps you’re not only trying to get back to your writing but are also heading back to your day job or are trying to get your family back into a routine as well.

You miss writing, you feel time ticking by, and you desperately want to get back into the swing of things but somehow your house is a mess, your brain feels like it’s been mainlining caffeine all night, and you’re genuinely terrified to open your inbox. So how, you may ask, are you supposed to get all the necessary (but perhaps boring) things you have to do (like answering the one thousand messages you’ve accrued across five different apps, or dealing with a laundry pile that is threatening to overtake your home) let alone do the things you desperately want to do (like work on your novel, query agents, connect with writers online, and daydream about winning a Pulitzer)?

We hear you!

The truth is, everyone feels like this sometimes. (Yes, even that author you follow online who posts on social media five times a day and always looks fab and—from what you can see behind her—has a big, beautiful, always tidy home. Even she feels like this sometimes, we promise).

But getting back to your writing life doesn’t have to be painful. You can hit pause (and please note: every writer has to hit pause at times, sometimes for months or even years at a time) and return to the page without feeling lost or overwhelmed or uninspired or overstretched.

We created this short guide so that whenever you’re heading back to your writing after a pause you’ll have a straightforward, step-by-step plan to minimize overwhelm and get back into the swing of things faster.

You don’t need to do every step of the process and you certainly don’t need to do them in order. Some things will make more sense for you and your situation than others.

But if you want to get back to your writing and the thought of it makes you feel overwhelmed or scattered or stressed or exhausted or even just a little bit sluggish, then give this a whirl.

We think you’ll be back at your desk writing up a storm in no time!

1. But first... chill!

Before you do anything else, take a moment to just chill with yourself. You don’t need to crack a cold one and hop in a hammock. (You probably don’t have time to do that anyway). But do take a few minutes to sit down in a quiet place. (A locked bathroom can be helpful for those with small children!). Close your eyes, breathe in deeply through your nose for four seconds. Fill your lungs. Hold it for seven seconds. Seven proper seconds: seven Mississippis! Now breathe out for eight seconds. Do it two more times. Don’t worry, it’ll only take a minute (literally). Take a minute to mentally scan your body. Working from head to toes, pay attention to how each part of your body feels. If you feel any discomfort, there’s no need to try and rectify it. There’s no judgement here. You’re just checking it. However you’re feeling right now (physically, emotionally) is exactly as it should be. We’re not trying to problem solve, we’re just checking in. Take a moment to set an intention. You might think to yourself: I intend to start writing regularly. I intend to be brave and put myself out there. I intend to start showing up for myself. I intend to see this manuscript through. There’s no wrong answer! (Except "42" which Douglas Adams claimed was the answer to the universe. That’s probably a wrong answer).

2. Make a Distraction List

Get a pen and paper or start a new note on your phone. This is going to be your Distraction List. Spend a few minutes dumping all of the things you need to do onto the list. All of them! There’s no need to be tidy or organized, just write anything at all that comes to mind in any order. By writing something on this list, you are plucking it out of your brain and taking the first step towards putting it where it belongs. But don’t worry about that yet. Just write down all of the things that need doing—large and small—from all areas of your life. Once you write them on this list, they don’t need to take up any space in your brain. If you think of them again, remind yourself, a plan to take care of it is already in place. You don’t need to think about it right now. All is in hand. Keep writing until you can’t think of anything else. When you’re done, keep this list close to hand. As other things inevitably crop up, immediately put them on the list. But don’t start doing any of the things on the list just yet. That comes later! For now, rest assured that if it goes on the Distraction List it will be taken care of and you don’t need to spend any more time thinking about it.

3. Have a wash!

By now you’re probably ready to start doing. Your Distraction List is nothing if not proof that there is much to do! But hold your horses. It’s understandable that as soon as you’ve (at least temporarily) unencumbered yourself of obligations (i.e., your child has gone back to school, your dog has been walked, the house is not on fire), you want to seize the moment and try get stuck back into your writing. But unless you’re on a roll (and if you are then you probably don’t need this guide), hang tight. If, when doing Step 1 above, you found you were feeling tired or overwhelmed, a little frazzled, or sluggish then you need a bit of self love. You need someone to take care of you, and, guess what, that person is going to be you! Now, Right now we want you to forget self-care (at least in its current highly commodified, strangely competitive iteration). What you could probably do with is some self-parenting. Channel your inner caregiver. Perhaps recall the last time you cared for a small animal or child. You probably started with the basics: eating, sleeping, playing, and a surprising amount of baths. So, yes, have a snack, take a nap if you can swing it. And then remember that old parenting adage: “if they’re crabby, put them in water.” Fill the tub and hop in. If you can, silence your devices and tell whoever you live with not to bother you. Wash your hair, exfoliate your skin, pluck your eyebrows: do whatever you can to create a sense of sloughing off the past. Try the 4-7-8 breathing exercise from above. If you think of something that needs to be done, just pop it on your distraction list and put it out of your mind. Now, even if the only thing you achieve today is a deep cleanse in the tub and a bit of mindful breathing, then you’re doing great!

4. Walkies

Now, you may be wondering, is it time to start writing (or dealing with that ever-growing Distraction List)? Not yet! Number four on the list is: Go for a walk. Yes, the humble walk! Studies [show that even a measly twelve minute walk has many, many benefits for your mind and body. Again, keep your distraction list at hand. If anything pops into your mind while you walk, put it on the list. Your brain is an incredible tool that is best suited to strategizing and problem solving and daydreaming. It’s a waste of a phenomenal tool to clog it up with trying to remember things that you can outsource to something as simple as a list. Much like storing your shoes and hats and books and cutlery in a fancy sports car. Put your books on a bookshelf, your To Do items on a To Do list and enjoy the myriad benefits of a simple walk.

5. Tidy the Saluting Areas

Okay, you’re probably feeling a bit better now but are getting a bit antsy about the overflowing laundry and the gnarly looking inbox and the million annoying things that need to be dealt with before you can sit down at your desk and start writing again. Our advice: continue to ignore your Distraction List a little while longer. First let’s get a little bit of order in your immediate surrounds. We’re almost certain you have, at one point or another, put off writing to tidy up. And while this might have been a way to procrastinate, right now we are strongly advising you do not write and do tidy! There is clear evidence that physical work environments (whether you have an office or even just a corner of a family room) influence your performance and well being. Research also shows that disorganization and clutter have a cumulative effect on our brains. Our brains like order, and constant visual reminders of disorganization drains our cognitive resources and reduces our ability to focus. So do Future You a favour and have a tidy up! You don’t need to get the mop out and you won’t lose points for stuffing clutter into a cupboard. The aim is to do a surface level tidy, the kind of tidy you’d do if you had unexpected company coming over in half an hour. You want to give an air of order to the parts of your home you use most, (what your grandmother might used to have called the “saluting areas”). Today is not the day for a spring clean and don’t let yourself fall down an organizing vortex. You just want to spend a bit of time focusing on bringing some order to your home so that when you’re done, you can move about without being constantly distracted and aggravated by a pile of dishes or laundry or toys or outstanding bills or a half-finished project. And once again, if this is the only thing you do today, you’re doing great! Tomorrow is another day.

6. Digital Tidy

Next up: a digital tidy. You’re going to bring the same spirit of the quick saluting-areas-tidy-up to your digital life. With your Distraction List close at hand, tackle one app at a time. We recommend starting with your email inbox(es). Working from the bottom upwards, go through your emails. If an email or a task related to it will take less than two minutes, do it immediately. If it’ll take longer than that, put it on your Distraction List. Delete or archive all of the promotional emails you’ll never read. Once your done, give yourself a screen-free break! Go for a walk, have a stretch, eat a snack, call a friend. And remember: if this is the only thing you do today, you’re doing great! Tomorrow is… you guessed it... another day. If you’ve still got some fuel in tank, tackle the next platform. We recommend working your way through one at a time: reply to all of your WhatsApp messages, for example, then all your Instagram notifications. Don’t move onto the next app until you’ve cleared the first one.

7. The Eisenhower Method

Now things are starting to take on some order. And, dun dun dunnnn, it’s time to get serious about your Distraction List! Take your Distraction List and use The Eisenhower Method to start prioritizing tasks. The Eisenhower Method might, at first, seem low-key complicated but once you do it once you’ll see how straightforward it is. We’re going to assume you’ve put your writing—whether that’s drafting or plotting or querying or anything else related to your writing life—in one of Eisenhower's "Important" spots. And by now, if you've followed the steps above, you’re probably feeling relaxed and focused and have a plan for what to do next.

8. Don't Multitask

As you work through your tasks, try to avoid multitasking. This is a redundant directive because as it turns out, humans are not actually able to multitask! Like, at all. You might think this can’t be true, surely you’re multitasking when you’re driving and listening to a podcast or cooking and speaking to your partner. But researchers have found that what we think of as multitasking is actually just switching—sometimes very quickly—between two tasks. The human brain lacks the architecture to perform two or more tasks simultaneously. In other words, the human brain has evolved to focus on a single task at a time. And you should know that there are real cost attached to (trying to!) multitask. We read the studies so you don’t have to and the findings are clear: when someone multitasks, if you can even call it that, they take longer to do something and make more mistakes while doing it. So do yourself a favour and stick to one thing at a time.

9. Break tasks into smaller pieces

If you have an item in your Distraction List that reads something like “finish writing novel” or “get an agent” or even “do research” then we’re gonna take a stab in the dark here and guess that item feels a little overwhelming. Even smaller tasks can seem overwhelming. “Finish first chapter” or “set up author website” can seem daunting. Our brains did not evolve to handle those kinds of big, amorphous goals. Help your brain out and break your tasks into smaller parts. Your brain loves a specific and attainable goal. So instead of “set up author website”, you could write down (and we insist you put this in writing, your working memory will not hold everything our busy world wants it to in one place): register domain name, decide on a colour scheme, find a picture of myself that i like for author headshot, write a one hundred word bio. And so on… Then, just focus on one thing at a time.

10. Write!

And now, wow! Look how far you’ve come! Not so long ago you were feeling frazzled, overwhelmed, sluggish, unsure of how to start, and perhaps even a little bit unshowered. But look at you now! You’ve had a wash. Your writing space is at a passable level of tidiness. You’re aware of all of the things you need to get done and have a good idea of the order in which you’re going to do them. Now that we’re close to the end of this, we’re going to let you in on a little secret. Take it from us, people who spend an inordinate of time thinking and reading and writing about productivity: no one ever feels like they’re on top of everything. There is no one on earth who could honestly tell you at any given second during the day that everything in their life is in order, all the items on their to do list are checked off, and there’s nothing outstanding. You’re never going to be able to clear the decks so completely that you can sit down and write without any distractions. And the other thing is: our time here is limited. So make it count. Try to spend as much of it on things that bring you joy or that align with your values. The things you’ll be glad you did when you’re on your death bed one day. All this to say, if you now find yourself with a list (or Eisenhower-style chart!) of a thousand things to do, allow yourself, at least for awhile, to be a writer and do the things that writers do.

Enjoy :)

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