Die to the past write in the present

The past is not the place for a working writer to be all the time. That’s the realm of guilt and regrets where questions of should, could and would tend to dominate. The more time you spend thinking about things you can’t control, the less time you spend thinking about what really matters— the writing.

Regret can be a powerful motivators. The desire to avoid it can drive you to work hard, but slip ups can feel devastating and lead to more regrets.  Perhaps you missed an important goal or made a decision that led to a bad outcome. The fear of either situation can do one of two things: make you work harder or drive you to stop trying.

Successful people work in spite of that fear. They understand that you get what you think about most of the time so if you dwell on mistakes then that’s what you will get in return. That’s not to say they don’t acknowledge the bad things, on the contrary, they face the consequences and move on faster than unsuccessful people.

Regrets stem from the past where major success and failure  are extrapolated into perceived future that is not wholly grounded in reality. For example, the writer that can’t get started on the second novel is still in some ways rooted to a past success that they perceive they can’t overcome the second time around. Yet how does anybody know how successful that second novel will be if it hasn’t even been written yet?  This is different from making an informed decision based on experience you gleaned from the past. The difference is that informed decisions are  fully grounded in the present, based on circumstance rather than an irrational need to avoid having regrets.

Writing is a task that requires you to vacillate between thinking about past, present and future. You draw on research and knowledge from the past to write in the present and then edit your story trying to anticipate what a future audience is going to think.
The trap lay in spending too much time dwelling on the past and future. No matter how much thinking you may have to do, the task of writing always happens in the present. I may have thought about what this post was about in the past and you may be reading these words at a future date, but I typed everything out in the here and now.

To approach your writing goals with an air of negativity does not make a sustainable career. Bad feelings can always be traced to some past regret or anxiety that is based on a projected future that stems from those regrets. It’s  necessary to work through that negativity before getting started or else writing will become a grind— It’ll be something you’re forced to do. Every hesitation becomes a reason to stop writing because it’s simply not appealing to you.

Writing doesn’t have to be something you enter kicking and screaming. It’s shouldn’t feel difficult or hard, but a genuinely enjoyable experience. The actual work may be difficult sure, anything creative is, but sitting down to focus on something you genuinely love should never be a problem.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind when it comes to regrets:

There are no such things as a mistake- The nature of creating goals is binary. You either succeed or fail at it and that clear cut distinction either forces you into one camp or another. Trying does not guarantee success, but not trying guarantees failure.

There are a lot of people who can’t even muster up the courage to try because past mistakes have caused them to decide that future efforts equate to failure.

Thankfully, you have the ability to frame things any way you want and in the realm of trying there is no such thing as a mistake. To get started means you have enough self worth to believe that something is possible. The outcome may not be to your liking, but taking action is never a mistake no matter how you may frame it after the fact.

Failure does not mean you made a mistake, it means you have an opportunity to do it better in the future.    

Learn the value of acceptance-  Successful writers learn to identify the things they can control and act on it. The hallmark of insanity is dwelling on things you can’t do anything about and spending time fretting on it.

This may sound difficult, especially when it comes to something you care a lot about, but it’s actually quite simple. The key is acceptance. It’s realizing that something is absolutely out of your hands then taking ownership over those feelings by choosing to act on things that are in your sphere of influence.

It’s impossible to take take ownership over something that you haven’t acknowledged yet so the first step is being aware of where your mind is going. Once you realize it then it’s a simple matter of choosing to focus your attention on things that are more important.

This may be hard for people that believe they are in control of everything, but in many ways it’s about being ok with not being in control sometimes. The sooner you realize that the sooner you can focus on the things that you are really in control of.

Fear and the writing life

There’s nothing particularly scary about writing. You’re not in any imminent danger sitting down at your computer to type a few words and there aren’t any life threatening consequences to missing a looming deadline or not finishing that novel, yet there are so many out there that struggle to get started.

Fear is insidious. It’s not as if we go around avoiding work because it is scary, instead we dress it up and call it procrastination. Nobody likes to face uncertainty and maintaining focus gets more difficult the larger your goal.

The urge to procrastinate is directly correlated how much a writing project means to you. The reason is that larger goals mean higher personal stakes and the consequences for failure can feel like it’s going to crush you.

Procrastination is a mechanism to avoid dealing with the fear of failure. It’s impossible to fail if you don’t attempt it at all, but you can’t achieve anything without trying. If you are not careful, It’s easy to fall into a cycle of putting things off until anxiety builds up to the point where you are forced to take action.

This is an inefficient and very stressful way to work that rarely leads to consistent results  because forced action is not positive. Writing projects quickly become a slog through the mud then it won’t take long before your goals will feel unattainable.

Following through with a large writing goal takes patience, persistence and a healthy dose of courage. It requires facing the fear of failure and working in spite of it time and again. There are plenty of instances to quit when your dreams take weeks, months or even years to complete so it’s important to have a plan for following through when faced with the inevitable doubts that may lead you into the procrastination trap.

Here are my five rules for following through:  

1. Acknowledge the fact that you will face many obstacles
2. Accept it will be difficult.
3. Try your hardest when it’s time to work.
4. Celebrate when that time is up.
5. Repeat until you’ve achieved your goal.

Procrastination also means choosing to work on things that are not important. It can still feel like you’ve accomplished something like beating a video game or finishing a movie you’ve always wanted to watch, but it’s still time spent on something other than your goal.

The other side of following through is knowing whether you’re simply “working” or working toward something. Here are a few tips that may help get back on track:

• Personal organization- It is about clarity. It’s about knowing what you are up against so that those tasks that seem so daunting look a lot simpler. Fear is predicated on the unknown so when you don’t have a plan then it’s easy to procrastinate.

• Make sure first things are really first- The first step is to figure out what it is you truly want then how to achieve it. Next is a matter of acting with integrity and making those steps a priority in your life. Making a choice to follow through doesn’t happen on paper, it done through actions. The only way to show you’re serious is to put the important things first and foremost in your life.

• Know how to struggle- Nothing worthwhile is ever easy so just accept you’re going to hit obstacles and work through them. There is a difference between working hard and struggling to achieve something.
Working hard is aimless and without direction. You can work hard at reading, cleaning your bathroom or washing the dishes. Struggle means overcoming an obstacle. It implies there is an obstacle in the first place and you can’t have an obstacle without a goal.

• Make sure you want it bad enough- We’re conditioned to be motivated by something whether it’s external or internal. The ticket to overcoming fear is being motivated by the latter.
External motivations foster resentment, a feeling of “doing it because you have to.” This is a very disempowering way to work because you are never really in control over what you are doing.
Struggling to achieve a goal is difficult as it is, but it’s even harder when you haven’t really taken ownership over it in the first place.
Internal motivation means the goals are your own. It’s something you’ve thought about, decided on and are committed to achieving. These type of goals may be suggested by others, but only belong to you. These goals can’t be manufactured and you can’t be ordered to do them because you’ve made a choice to try and achieve them.    

• Trust your instincts- If you’re really clear about what your goals are then it’s easy to know what is the right or wrong thing to be doing with your time. Guilt is a good indicator that you are making the wrong choice or about to make the wrong choice. The goal in all this is to feel good about what you are doing so if a task does not foster a sense of real accomplishment then think twice about doing it or attempting it again.