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Fear Not, Write On


No. 159 | By Christine Carron

Can you think of a writerly task that scares you? Perhaps it’s getting your work critiqued. Perhaps it’s reading the feedback from a critique. Perhaps it's tackling marketing. Or doing author talks. Perhaps it’s drafting. Or revising. Or going to a conference and doing the dreaded networking. Or dealing with anything that remotely smells of technology.

Every writer I’ve ever known or coached has at least one writerly work bugaboo, and most of us have more than one.

Let me ask you another question. Which is harder for you to get done: writerly tasks you love to do, or the scary ones?

My guess that the answer that popped into your head just now went something like, “Duh, Christine, the scary ones.”

So far every writer I have asked that question has answered that scary tasks are harder. Then we look at the plans they made to get those scary tasks done. That's when things get really interesting.

Pretty much always, their plans have completely ignored the fact that they intuitively knew that those tasks would be harder. Basically, the writers planned and estimated the scary tasks as if they weren't scary tasksThat is a massive planning hiccup.

Scary tasks are different. We not only have to handle the task itself, we have to handle our fear (i.e., the emotional toll) of the task. That means scary tasks require a heavier lift to get done than tasks we love to do. They even require a heavier lift than tasks we feel neutral about. 

If we ignore the reality that scary tasks are harder, that 1/ opens the door to mindset snarls and 2/ pretty much guarantees that we will struggle more than necessary to get the tasks done.

Here are three tips to help you plan scary tasks more effectively, so you can stay in charge of your mindset and get those puppies done. 

Tip #1 | Account for the Scary in Your Estimate

Let’s say you have two tasks that you've estimated will each take fifteen minutes to finish. One of them, however, is one of those tasks that you dread doing, i.e., a scary task. 

As noted, it's almost a given that the dreaded one will take longer, as you are going to have to work through your fear of the task, including whatever avoidance or delay tactics kick in for you around tasks you don't want to do. (We all have our own special smorgasbord of procrastination skills.)

If, at the minimum, you acknowledge this by increasing the estimate to account for the associated mindset management work and the "overcome procrastination" work the task will require, you will be in much better shape from a planning perspective and a getting-it-done perspective. 

Tip #2 | Redesign the Task

If you find yourself avoiding a task you have on your weekly to-do list, and it keeps rolling over to the next week, and then to the next week, and on and on . . . call it: The task, as you have currently defined it, is blocked.

Think through how you can redesign the task to make it less scary.

Let’s imagine a workshop instructor has given you a summary critique with line notes on a set of pages from your work in progress. You have not yet read the feedback even though a "Read the notes" task has been on your to-do list for a while, because . . . scary!

Here are three options off the top of my head that you could use to defang the task, or at least make the scary more manageable:

1/ Instead of making yourself read all the notes at once, you could read one page a day.

2/ You could ask a trusted writer friend to read the feedback first to help you level set on how “bad” it really is. 

3/ You could temporarily remove the "Read the notes" task from your weekly to-do list, and add these two tasks instead: 

→ "Journal about why it makes perfect sense that the 'Read the notes' task is scary to me." 

→ "Brainstorm ways that I could make it easier to get the 'Read the notes' task done."

The journaling task will help you redirect your inner dialogue around the scary task toward compassion and kindness. The brainstorm task moves you into empowered action because you have designed yourself a task that sets the expectation to you (and your brain) that it is possible to make the scary task easier.

Note: Sometimes a writer will push back on suggestions like these. A part of them feels that they will be catering to a "weakness" if they redesign scary tasks in such ways. Plus, they tell me, "All this will take longer."

Here's the deal. I am highly practical when it comes to getting writerly work done.

If "catering," which I would more generously call "meeting yourself where you are" (i.e., working with a fear in a kind and compassionate way), gets flow going again, then I am thinking "catering" is an effective strategy.

As for taking longer, sure, that is theoretically true. But if the "this will take longer" approach actually generates forward momentum, and the supposed "shorter" approach leaves them (or you) blocked and frustrated, which one is actually the more time consuming approach? (And let's also note the damage to a writer's confidence when they feel intractably blocked. That pain point subsides when a writer reclaims forward momentum and flow.)

Tip #3 | Don’t Avoid the Avoidance

Often the tasks we find scary, if left unacknowledged, become blind spots of inaction. Sometimes I will ask a writer if they are blocked around a scary task. They say "no." Yet, we both see the task not getting done.

So we talk about what is going on. The scary. The avoidance.

My go-to recommendation in these scenarios is: Don’t avoid the avoidance.

Give yourself full permission to avoid the task. And I mean full permission. Put a task on your to-do list that says “Avoid xyz scary task.”

Don’t stop there. I want you to really think through how you are going to avoid the scary task. Design the avoidance. Plan it out. What will the output of your avoidance be, beyond not having the scary task done.

No more passive avoidance allowed. Go all in on the avoidance. Revel in it. With verve. With style.

And then see what happens. Often when we authentically give ourselves permission NOT to do a dreaded task, our energy shifts enough that we can see new possibilities for tackling the work.

It’s, of course, not a guarantee. But at the minimum, taking action on this suggestion usually brings a more playful dynamic into the scary task tackling, which can be a blessing in and of itself. 

Process Smarts for Scary Task Triumph

There will be scary tasks we have to get done on the writing adventure. The trick to handling them with less frustration and mindset turmoil is to get real with the scary. It is what it is. Then use the tips above and all the process smarts you already have to figure out a way to make those scary tasks easier to get done. 

You’ve got this!

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