4 Ways Active Introspection Can Transform Your Writing Practice

My “Writing Practice”.  What writing practice?  I often cringe when I think of all the Morning Pages I’ve missed, the articles I didn’t write, my would-be books, or ever-distant doctoral thesis.  A single thought, I don’t have the time to write, can leave me feeling stymied for hours, if not days.  Not having the time to think up good article ideas and send out queries.  Not having the bandwidth to think through my research question and submit journal articles to the right editors.  Not having the 30 minutes carved out daily to blog, heck, not even to tweet, it seems most days.

I stopped freaking out a few weeks ago when I realized that all I do is write.  From emails to proposals to scripts to reports to annotations to professional blog posts.  My work revolves around me being able to think strategically, manage expectations, and, well, write.  While it’s true that I am not writing what I want to write and I may not be as prolific as I want to be, I am still writing.  But in order to actually improve as a writer, I have the choice to make the most of the opportunities that are front of me.  Inspired by the principles of meditation, yoga, and deliberate practice, I developed a a new action-oriented mindset that has allowed me to change my feelings and thoughts, and will hopefully allow me to thrive as a writer.

Introspection is the act of self-reflection.  In my old writing practice, I would write and then write again with wanting to be better, but not really applying self-reflection  I decided to adopt active introspection – a process that allows me to identify where you need to stretch.

Here are some ways that I apply active introspection:

Finding the time the write

I recently was at lunch with a CEO of a successful company who made it clear that working out daily is a priority for him.  This was an a-ha moment for me, causing me to introspect –  I’m always looking for the time to write.  Why couldn’t I seem to write regularly?  Why is it always a struggle?  

When I didn’t work full time, I was able to fritter away an hour or so on Morning Pages, and then another few hours on reading blogs, and then frantically trying to get something coherent on a piece of paper, only to be dissatisfied, being interrupted by other work and chores, and then calling it a day, and then starting all over again the next day.  Then, working full-time, time is a precious commodity, and I just began thinking of when we have children – what will I do then?  So I decided to do something about it.

Inspired by The Now Habit,  I began blocking 30-minute time blocks just for writing.  I began to take pride in anything and everything that I write – whether it’s an email, a blog post, a proposal, or even a PowerPoint annotation, I truly began to honor the written word and began to constantly focus on my craft.

A big part of finding the time to write is having the space to write.  Inspired by a series of writings on making space in life for creativity, I decided it was very important to embrace down time, solitude, and calm and applying any insights I get back to my writing process the next time I sit down to write.

Dealing with Procrastination

Procrastination is what sets me apart from you.  Procrastination is what has made me mediocre – with so much latent success.  When I procrastinate, I now ask myself why I don’t want to complete project x, and what is standing in the way.  Procrastination is a feeling, you know, an emotion.  It leaves me feeling completely overwhelmed, anxious, paralyzed, and just plain stressed out.  It’s the reason I need a coffee with cream and sugar and a pastry every morning.  It’s the reason I just need to do x-y-and-z before I get started.  Every single time that procrastination overcomes me and influences my decision-making is a time that I have not taken the high road.  I’ve taken many side roads and low roads…

But I also know the real euphoria of completing, getting things done, giving it all I got, you know, accomplishment.  There’s this lightness of being that takes over you – and I realized that I would have to tackle this at the emotional level.

I now begin each project by building in extra days to just let the project “sink in”.  To remove the complexity and to make it familiar.  I start by brainstorming possibilities.  It’s funny how engaged the mind can be when it’s not threatened by a “have-to” or deadline.  I also sometimes tell myself this is someone else’s problem – and oh how the mind loves to solve other people’s problems.

By taking myself out of the equation and removing the pressure of getting the right answer and the right composition at the right time, and by becoming intimate with the problem at hand, I become comfortable with the context and lexicon of the task.  This takes the pressure off, and I get more done.

Conventional wisdom on beating procrastination asks us to break down projects into smaller parts – but the reality is that creating a workflow and project schedule can actually be a futile process that leaves me even more overwhelmed once I see how many moving parts there actually are.  When this happens, I practice workplace tai chi – true active introspection.  I just get into the zen of each task, each mini-deadline… and a strange thing happens: time slows down as I focus on one task at a time.  My behemoth of a project turns into a meditative process of deep enjoyment.

Receiving Feedback

A central lesson that is becoming apparent to me is that writing is not a solitary process – writing is incredibly social.  After all, I’m writing for you, my friend to whom I’m sending this email, the aspiring writer who stumbled upon this blog, the second-year resident who’s reading my book on the 9 train after a stressful all-night call, perhaps my column reader, or my client who is reading my report to make a strategic decision.
We write to communicate.  We write for others.  We write because we feel something, we write because we bump into our stories, and because they must be told.  We write because we know no other way to express ourselves.  For this to happen well, feedback is more important than ever.  I’ve begun to embrace feedback at work, in these informal settings, and in my own writing trajectory.  Feedback is a central component of active introspection, allowing me to calibrate my journey.  I now look for mentors everywhere – whether it’s an author of a book I respect for their advice or for their style, whether it’s my boss or someone else whom I respect.  Even people I never meet – but I look for inspiration and I constantly seek to improve rather than seek to impress.  This process truly allows me to come into my own in an authentic way.
Getting from Here to There
Upon reflection, it seems to me that my greatest weakness is my impatience and inability to see how I will get from here to there.  You know, how will I lose those 30 lbs. and look incredible if I can’t commit to my daily workout routine and avoiding pastries?  How will I be a respected researcher if I don’t move the needle on my research goals?  I have my big goals, but sometimes they encroach upon my everyday – they are incessant – and they never stop.  Sitting, standing, sleeping – my goals overcome me.  I know I should start small, and do the little day by day.  But sometimes, it’s a hopeless resolution.
I find that what works better is changing my mindset.  Is to truly embrace the small.  Not so much to think about my daily workouts, but be in the moment for each moment – to have a sense of clarity that’s true to the moment.  I find that getting there may actually be about being in the right place at the right time, not necessarily in front of a screen hopelessly cycling through the same journal article.  I am finding that the important thing is being out there and being inspired – whether at work, writing a query, with loved ones, drafting an article…success really comes from staying in your sweet spot, in the moment, all the time – in a constant state of introspection, the opposite of inertia.
An Introspection 

Writing is momentum.  That’s why the right pen matters so much.  Your thoughts flow,  your words flow, your pen flows, the pages flow.  The ideas come together, the thesis comes together, and your identity comes together.  Writing is about constantly overcoming uncertainty – it is an ongoing process.  The more you nurture your craft and strengthen your writing core, the more your ability to create grows, your ability to weave words together more gracefully, the more works you can complete, and the more meaning you can create in the world.

Active introspection is a process of self-improvement.  It’s a way of life.

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