A mess of straw

The horror of small habits: handling habit overload

Some years ago, I went to see a physio about recurring headaches brought on by neck tension. When he was done poking and prodding me, he taught me a set of neck stretches. “Do these for five minutes every day,” he told me, “and you shouldn’t have to come back here.”

Years later, I still do those stretches religiously as part of my morning routine and my neck is much happier. In theory, it would be brilliant if all my problems could be solved this way: take up some small, daily habit and never have to worry about mess, stress, health or happiness ever again.

And yet.

Recently I went back to the physio with lower back problems. But this time, when he finished up with, “Let’s look at some simple preventative exercises…”, my heart sank. The very thought made me want to execute a hard reverse out the door.

So what’s changed? Simple: I’ve hit habit overload.

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A mess of jigsaw puzzle pieces

How to get things done when you’re struggling: start with the easy parts

This isn’t the blog post I thought I was going to write today.

I have a whole thing started about asexuality and the simultaneous prevalence and absence of sex in Western society that I though I was going to finish. But when I woke up this morning, I knew it was going to be one of those days: my gut hurt (something bad I ate yesterday? Or just my old friend, referred stress?), and I had a long list of things I needed to get done hanging Damocles-style over my head.

I didn’t even want to get out of bed, let alone write something pithy and thought-provoking about how our society treats sex.

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Someone sitting in a park with a notepad and pen

Stop procrastinating, start writing

I’m pleased to report that I’m continuing to write almost daily, though the amount I get through before it becomes a battle to remain focused is still much less than it was earlier this year, when writing was an established part of my daily routine.

There are some skills, like cycling, that I can put down and pick up again as if I’d never spent a day out of the saddle; others, like knitting, require a conscious retraining of my mind and my muscles if it’s been too long since I last picked up the needles. Writing as a practice – sitting down to do it every day, without procrastination, and, having sat down, being able to keep my fingers moving even when I’m not feeling particularly inspired – is a skill it’s all to easy for me to lose.

After four months of writing not very much at all (a combination of going on holiday, coming back and looking for work, and then dealing with starting a new job), it’s taking a lot of conscious work to get back to place where writing is something I just sit down and do, not something that requires me to wrestle myself into the chair.

Experience tells me that the key here is practice – just keeping going until I build the habit again. But since I can’t just fast forward to the point where habit is enough, here are some tricks I’m using in the meantime to help me sneak past the desire to procrastinate:

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A half-formed sandcastle

Inspiration paralysis and how to get past it

I’ve been in a writing drought for the last week or two. Not through lack of inspiration, much to my relief, but simply through lack of time and – which is just as important thought less often discussed – lack of mental and emotional resources to spare for it.

This week, though, I’m finally back in the saddle with plans for a brand new story. I have themes and characters and a general shape, and it’s all brimming with potential. And so I find myself confronting the single most hair-tearingly difficult challenge of writing: actually putting words down.

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