Write More and Stress Less

For many years my writing process was dysfunctional. I’d get a great idea but never write up the piece. Or I’d get started with a project only to abandon it midway. I called my writing problem by many names: writer’s block, lack of talent, not enough imagination, poor artistic discipline. I looked for answers in books on writing and creativity, but nothing I found there worked because none of those books got to the root of my problem. Writing, even just the thought of writing, caused me to practically break out in hives. Writing filled me with a paralyzing anxiety. I finally found the answer to my creative stagnation in an unexpected place.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity is the classic text on personal productivity that nowadays sometimes gets a bad rap as having kick-started a toxic productivity culture. But Allen maintains that, despite the book title, the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology isn’t primarily concerned with increasing productivity. Instead, the focus is on gaining a proper engagement with your work, and for Allen proper engagement means that the work doesn’t stress you out. When you’re appropriately engaged with your writing, you feel in command of your workload and deeply committed to your goals no matter how many projects you’re juggling simultaneously.

I don’t use all the techniques detailed in the book, and I’ve modified some of the ones I use to suit my purposes, but in general GTD does contain key principles that have elevated my creativity, engagement, and sense of purpose as a writer.

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Close the “Open Loops” that Cause Stress
According to Allen, to get to that “stress-free” state in your work, you don’t have to wait until all your projects are completed. You just need to reach a point where they’re clearly delineated. Each project should have a shape in your mind, or in your organizing system, with a defined goal and determined “next actions” that bring you ever closer to accomplishment. This is what Allen means by closing “the open loops.”

Let’s say you’re out of milk. So long as you don’t know what you’re going to do about it, the empty milk carton is an open loop in your mind. It hangs over you, and consciously or not, it causes some level of anxiety. Multiply this by ten or a hundred different open loops and you’ll create of your life a whole atmosphere of unease, what Allen calls “ambient anxiety.”

How do you close this open loop and stop the anxiety? You can go to the store and buy more milk, of course, but actually you don’t have to go that far, literally or otherwise. Just writing “milk” on your grocery list will close the loop. You don’t have to worry about it anymore, because you have reached clarity about the milk: you will pick it up during your next trip to the supermarket. As a high-strung person myself, I can say that this approach has been very effective and even liberating. Many nights, as I’m about to go to bed, just because my mind works that way, I suddenly have a flood of story ideas, and reminders, and things that I suddenly decide are urgent.

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In my pre-GTD days, I would have lain in bed ruminating over all of it for an hour or two. Now I immediately write each item on a separate sticky note (for processing later — more on that below), and I am instantly free of anxiety. Even though I’m still in bed and I didn’t actually complete any task, I have closed all the open loops in my mind because I know what I will do next: deal with it all in the morning. I can fall into a blissful night’s sleep.

Capture Your Ideas
Inputting ALL of your “items,” into an In-box is a central concept in Allen’s organizing system. Getting everything that’s on your mind into some external placeholder is termed “capturing,” and you can capture just about anything: a writing topic, an editor’s email address, to-do items for an article you’re working on. For writers, of course, story ideas and project tasks are going to be at the center of capturing. But no matter what items you capture, they all go into the In-box, whether it’s a physical In-box on your desk or a digital app on your phone.

I’m definitely old school when it comes to organization and use a paper-based planner and sticky notes. The first page in my planner is my chief In-box and takes center stage. This In-box is where I write all my “items” as they come up. It is where I can attach all the various sticky notes I write throughout the day and night, so that they aren’t scattered all over my house and car and lose all of their organizing purpose. To an outside observer, this may all seem like a messy way to go about the work of writing, but this is another saving grace of Allen’s methodology. It doesn’t matter if your system doesn’t make sense to anyone else, so long as it makes sense to you and you’re comfortable using it.

Develop Your Ideas
To be a creative, productive, and relaxed writer, you will need to develop your ideas. This means you’ll need to clarify and organize your writing. There’s a large section of the book devoted to this aspect of productive engagement, but it boils down to determining the context of the “item” (clarifying) and figuring out what you will do with it and how you’ll do it (organizing). This is all part of what Allen calls “mastering workflow,” terminology that sounds bureaucratic, admittedly, but I tend to associate it with the idea of a creative process.

When we “clarify” we are determining the context of an item. This means you have to figure out where your idea, concept, bit of information, or other writing-related item “goes.” Is it part of a novel you’re drafting? Will it go into a story for Medium? Is it a bit of research you don’t exactly know how you’ll use yet but have some possibilities? Simply capturing everything and then leaving it in a big pile will not keep the ball rolling on your minimized stress. Your In-box stack will get bigger and bigger and will soon enough become as chaotic as the chaotic situation you were trying to avoid. And you’re back to square one.

Items will keep dropping into your In-box. To stay stress-free and creative, you will have to keep clarifying those items, consistently getting them out of the In-box and into their proper place. What is the proper place? That’s up to you. You might keep a digital list for each “context” with titles such as “self-improvement stories,” “newsletter,” and “My Memoir.” I tend toward an organizational style that is spatial and visual, so you’ll find physical containers in my office in the form of magazine holders. They have prominent label plates where I write the title of each project or the name of each context. One magazine holder is labeled with the title of my novel-in-progress, and others are labeled in terms of their context: “essays,” “Medium stories,” “lectures” and other categories of writing that I produce in my creative and academic capacities.

And I have a final important container in my office: the wastepaper basket. It’s okay to throw things in there as well. Letting go of ideas or projects that just aren’t working or aren’t of interest anymore is an important way to keep yourself sane and feeling in control. If you’re afraid to completely abandon an idea — even one that may have been languishing for years — David Allen has you covered. Make a list or keep a file labeled “Someday/ Maybe.” There’s no commitment, so there’s no pressure to follow through. On the flip side, there’s no anxiety about memory-lapsing on a dormant but possibly promising idea.

Once we have each item in its proper context, we can start to organize our writing work in more detail. This means determining our “next actions,” GTD terminology for to-do tasks, the very specific discrete steps we will take on each creative work. Here is where we start to move toward shaping more clear-cut writing projects. In my “short stories” container, there was recently a draft of a story that had been “capturing” random bits of writing, questions, character descriptions, and sticky notes with various ideas.

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