Friday 9 January 2015

Let's talk productivity and limiting beliefs

I've been exposed to NLP for a while - I was taught by people who're also qualified in NLP, or Neuro-Linguistic Programming - basically a model that tries to explain how we think and how to fix problems that arise from how we think of things... it's become clearer when I apply some of the model further down.

Mind you, I'm not qualified myself yet, though I'm hoping to find the money in 2015 to change that. It just appeals to me.

Let's see if it makes sense to look at a writer's productivity from that model.

NLP was created to "model" success - examine how highly-skilled people achieve success - their habits, their attitude, their thinking, everything. You want to get into their skin/head and, the thinking goes, you'll be able to do what they're doing or at the very least vastly improve your own performance as you use the elements that are working for you and discard the ones that don't.

Say, you want to model highly productive people - you study how they work, when they work, what's going on in their heads as they work or just before. How their life and habits support being productive. You might be able to study them "in the wild" or get as close as possible by other means. I believe this is why writers, for example, love books on writing, and writers' biographies. We're on a quest to find "the secret". At the very least, we hope to learn from people who've walked the walk.

I've devoted a bit of time to this, and talked to/watched both very productive writers and less productive ones, and the most productive writers have very little "negative self-talk" going on, while I'm at my most unproductive when my inner voice has me convinced that I can't write my way out of a wet paper bag. I don't write a word when I listen to that. A productive writer is usually able to switch the voice off.

Conversely, I'm at my most productive when I'm having fun - it's no longer "work" or "serious", but play. Nobody gets graded/evaluated/paid for "having fun". Except I often get paid when I'm just having fun. That's kinda awesome and mindboggling.

NLP works at identifying "limiting beliefs" - in short, convictions that we all hold that are counterproductive to achieving our best. If you look at the paragraph above, there's a limiting belief right there - one that a lot of writers have: Having fun and getting paid for it is a conflict. It's strange to get paid for "having fun". It's kinda cool, but it's not what work is ABOUT, right?


Actually, it's bollocks. I've made a LOT of money from stories where I was just playing. But somewhere inside lives a little voice that firmly believes that "work has to be hard", "and hard work means getting paid well". Presumably the harder the work, the more money I get paid for it.

Now that we've isolated that belief, we can see how it's "limiting". It might, for example, mean I'm not doing stuff that's fun - I might prioritise the tough work, the constant battle and simply not even start on projects that are "easy" or "fun". And my quality of life takes a nosedive as I act to verify that inner belief.

There are a LOT of limiting beliefs around productivity:

- If you write fast, it has to be crap.
- Fast writers are just churning stuff out.
- Fast writers aren't artists. They don't care about quality.
- I can't possibly write 3,000-5,000 or even 10,000 words per day. Some hacks might be able to do it, but I want quality.
- If you write that fast, you can really only write the same story over and over.
- Nobody has enough good ideas to write more than a novel a year.
- Only sell-outs and bad writers write more than a novel a year.
- Writing so much is such hard work! How can anybody do that?
- Fast writers are less deserving of money/praise, because their books are nothing special.

And so on. If you're a writer wrestling with productivity, make your own list. Really. Look at your beliefs. See what's going on in your own head. Write down as many of them as you can.

NLP believes that every behaviour we have is based in these beliefs and all of them try to achieve a good end - for example, you might write less than you could because you really want to seen as an artist. The good end is "respect". You might write less than you could because you feel guilty for spending so much time away from your family/partner - not writing is a way to show your love and care for those closest to you. You might make the sacrifice to prove your love.

These limiting beliefs get extremely powerful when fed in from the outside. If people keep telling you that "fast writers are always crap", and they're your friends/family or have credibility with you, you will slow down because a) you believe the same, and b) you try to conform to their expectations/want their respect/love/acceptance, and c) believe you have your best interest at heart, because they're your family/friends, right?

Personally, I might have my own limiting beliefs mostly under control (they can pop up every now and then), but I still encounter that negative belief from the outside. Sometimes, people are aware what they're doing, and they phrase it as, "All fast writers are crap, though of course not you."

It's important to reject those limiting beliefs - your own and those from the outside.

First, find proof that they're wrong.

It gave me a lot of heart to learn that William Faulkner, my own favourite author, wrote some of his books in a matter of a week or two (can't remember the title, but he went into frantic bouts of productivity during which he literally locked himself away and wasn't seen anywhere.) And I ignore the little voice that says, "Yes, but you're not William Faulkner". (No, I'm not, but I don't have to be. He's been taken.)

I've co-written a full historical novel in 3.5 days. It's possible to do 10k days. They're tough (yes, they are), but it's doable. It's actually pretty easy, if intense, if you're having fun. The big thing is to make sure I'm having fun and actually care passionately about the story.

Make a list why those beliefs are wrong. ("There's no limit of good ideas. I had two good ones on the bus today alone! If I could write faster, I'd be able to write those stories, because the ideas were actually pretty cool!")

Make a list why productivity is a good thing:

- I don't have to choose my favourite idea to work on - I CAN WRITE THEM ALL.
- People are desperate for a sequel of [book]. If I'm more productive, I can make them happy/give them what they want.
- Not every book might be a hit, but every book I write has the potential to sell a lot of copies. Nobody knows what's going to sell, so finishing another book is like buying another lottery ticket.
- More books = more income = more freedom.
- If I write that book, that idea/character will stop haunting me.
- It's not really work if you're having fun.

Do those beliefs feel a little bit different? Maybe lighter? Like a couple doors opening in your head?

Do that with every belief that holds you back (example: "I'm not good enough to work with [publisher]", "Self-publishing is too hard/nobody will respect me if I self-publish", "nobody can live off writing", "these are terrible times to be a writer", "why do I even bother? I'll never amount to anything.")

Very often, these beliefs have no basis in fact. Weakening or knocking them out can make a world of difference.

Another thing that's very important is to manage who you're exposing yourself to. I tend to not hang out with people who believe and say that productivity is an awful thing.

Productivity means I get to eat and pay my mortgage - for me it's not only a good thing, but absolutely vital - and I won't allow anybody to mess with that conviction. This conviction means I am able to write several books per year.

Many of us already do this - many people have the good sense to shut out negativity - we know instinctively when somebody else's negative beliefs are messing with us. For example, I'm simply not associating with people who think that all authors are greedy and heartless and cynical, or people who believe that authors shouldn't get paid. I've cut off a friend years ago who told me that "all content wants to be free" and told me I was robbing society by insisting I have copyright and want to get paid for my work. I've cut off another friend who kept telling me what an awful writer I am. If I'd believed her, I'd have stopped writing circa 2005. Fighting her over it was pointless - there was no way I could have changed her attitude.

So, yes, creating and guarding that "positive space" is about managing your own beliefs and those of people you're surrounding yourself with. If all your closest friends believe that productivity is a natural thing, that writers write, that success is definitely possible, and meanwhile that writing and creating is awesome, very often fun and a worthwhile way to spend your time - you're surrounded in a kind of energy that will have a beautiful impact on your ability to believe and create.


  1. Thank you for yet another wonderful and thought provoking post. Also, thank you for showing me how lucky I am. Because I'm not surrounded by negative people. My husband is supportive in every way imaginable, up to and including reading everything I write to make sure most if not all spelling mistakes I are corrected; the fact that he ends up reading a genre he's not really a fan of doesn't curb his enthusiasm. My daughter has informed me she's incredibly proud of me but has no intention of ever reading my stories because thinking of her mother and sex in together is just too yucky. Fair enough I guess. Much to my surprise even my colleagues in the library are supportive, at least to my face. My manager keeps on asking me about print copies of my books (which there are no plans for) and she would order them if there were. I'm flabbergasted.

    Dealing with Crohn's disease has taught me to keep a tight reign on my thoughts. Stress triggers an attack and negative thoughts and feelings can be extremely stressful. I don't claim to be a ray of sunshine and I do of course have moments where I'm convinced everything I do (writing included) sucks, but mostly I either correct myself or convince myself that even if that were true it doesn't really matter.

    As for how much anyone can write; I guess that depends on the person in question. I really can't find fault with people who write a lot or people who only produce a book every five years. Whatever works for them is what's right. But then, comparing yourself to others is another one of those potentially stress inducing things I try to stay away from.

    Thank you for continuing to make me think.

    1. Why not make print copies? Isn't that another limiting belief? With POD services, there's no excuse not to do it. I use Createspace and they have tutorials for all aspects of putting your book together. It's actually easier than creating an e-book.

    2. Why not make print copies? Isn't that another limiting belief? With POD services, it's easy. And it's great fun seeing your book at the library.

    3. Helena - sound like you have it pretty much sorted. :) Especially with a condition that gets triggered by stress, it's important to eliminate as many stressors as possible.

      Regarding print copies - they are easy to make and no expensive. Provided the length is right (they make most economic sense when the book is over 50,000 words), I'd always put books also into print. I've found it well worth it, if only for the convenience of some readers and being able to gift the books/do giveaways.

  2. I like that point about productive writers avoid negative self talk. I think that's an important point. While I'm still constantly amazed that publishers continue buying books and stories off me, if I start getting into a cycle of negative self-talk I remind myself that so far I'm doing okay. If I get nervous about a draft or an edit I remind myself I've done it before and learned lots from that, so get on with it.Then I do and I find I can do it, like I have over and over now. That's a key to it too. The more books I've completed from outline to publishing the more I believe that I can do it again with the next one.

    I'm still anxious when I've got one out on submission that it will be rejected. But that's different than the first time. Yes, it might be rejected, but I know now that I can write books that are publishable. I didn't know that when querying the first time, so it's a different kind of anxiety. If I get one rejected now I think, damn, that story still needs some work. not I'm a no-talent idiot wasting everyone's time.

    I had one crisis of confidence last year, that lasted exactly one evening, because I got up the next day and reminded myself of what I'd done so far and that there was no reason I couldn't do it again.

    It's not that I'm an individual who breezes along confidently the whole time. I can get anxious over plenty of other things - usually for no good reason. But writing seems to be the aspect that I suffer the least pointless anxiety over. (I say pointless anxiety, because there is still plenty of sweating blood over the tricky bits on those days the brain just won't cooperate. But that's okay. All part of the game.

    1. Yep - the "I've done this before/I can do this" is a good way to counter the inner negativity. It's proof, for one. And the more proof you have, the less likely the inner voice can counter with, "yeah, but that was an accident."

      I'm definitely fretting over stuff - I tend to blog more when the fiction just won't come - but just being aware of negativity/negative self-talk can help. Lots of writers believe the self-talk to the point where there's literally no *other* voice talking in their heads.

  3. I'm definitely my own worst enemy when it comes to negative thoughts. Unfortunately, the "voices in my head" speaking those thoughts aren't entirely mine, or at least don't entirely *sound* like mine. They're the voices of abusers and bullies from my past. I know that *now*, it's my own thoughts and actions, but the negative spewage is heavily impacted by all the things said and done by those people for the first three quarters of my life.

    That isn't to say I can't work to overcome them, mind... just that it's an uphill battle. I've internalized everything I heard in the past, but it didn't *start* with me. Fortunately, I usually can identify when the thoughts are inaccurate or are springing from someone else's beliefs and not my own, and when I struggle with that, I have incredibly supportive people in my life who help me change my perception.

    I'm definitely going to try some of this as a written exercise, though, because seeing it all written down will get it through my head better than just thinking about it.

    1. Karenna - The good news about that is that you can get rid of those "not you" voices. Good luck!

  4. There's an idea I like to consider that goes something like this: You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time around.

    I've always been very deliberate about who I spend my time around. It's been obvious to me from the start that their beliefs influence mine, positive or negative. It may feel ruthless to those who don't follow the practice, but cutting people out of my life that were not positive or emotionally healthy is probably the single-most useful thing I've ever done from my own mental health.

    As a result, I've cultivated a very positive default outlook.

    The second productivity trick I've learned is to have a goal and research ways to get there. But when you start following the path, don't get caught up in how you're getting to the goal. If you stick strictly to your path, you'll miss all sorts of opportunity that crops up along the way. You may also miss the goal.

    1. Tami - Both are very good tricks! The "average" thing is especially powerful. I've also heard an interesting thing from a very spiritual person, who was asked how she knows how well she's doing on her path. Her answer: "I see what kind of people I attract and who I'm attracted to." It's the whole "birds of a feather" thing, really.

  5. This post took my breath away and so have the comments. I'm in a completely negative place right now - not my online peeps, you all keep me going with your kindness, care and support - and my negative sources aren't ones I can walk away from BUT if there's a chance I can change the way they affect me, if I can block out some of the worst, I might have a chance to fight through the black dog and create again instead of just consuming. Creation for me has always been a marker for happiness, but I don't know which is cause and which is effect. Am I happy therefore I write and make art? Or is it the other way about? Either way, denying my own creativity as an expression of my love for others is something that has to stop.

    Thank you, Aleks. You've givenme a lot to thnk about and some decisions to make.