Coming back from vacation is always hard. If you’re working for someone else, you don’t really have a choice – you just have to turn up to work, and gradually you accustom yourself to the work routine again. But if you’re doing something like writing, which requires motivation from within rather than outside, it’s more complicated. The funny thing is, I know what works. I just don’t always do it.
I recently took a month off from writing for a trip around the Caribbean. It was wonderful – I’ve scattered a few photos through this post for you to see some highlights – but I’ve had real difficulty returning to my writing routine since then. I say “routine” because, although it’s a creative act, I’ve found that routine is important. I need to write regularly, at a certain time in a certain place, in order to let the creative inspiration come. It’s a habit, and once the habit is set, I write every day with ease.
Break the habit, though, and it’s very difficult to restore.
When I got back in mid-July, I floundered around for a while and accomplished little. I wrote sporadically, making plans and abandoning them and making new plans again.
Then I did something really crazy. Frustrated with my lack of progress, I made an outlandish goal – to finish my third novel by the end of August. The novel needs a lot of work, and the goal was unrealistic. Some days I worked all day, drank loads of coffee and got a lot done. But it was unsustainable. I fell behind, and felt bad about that, and avoided writing out of guilt. Writing is a creative act. It requires routine, yes, but not misery. You can’t flog yourself into writing a great novel.
As I mentioned, I know what works, and it’s more or less the exact opposite of what I did. What works is to consciously and drastically limit the amount of time I spend writing at first. It’s counterintuitive, but effective.
By limiting myself to half an hour of writing a day, I accomplish two things. I make it easy to fulfil the goal, thus reestablishing the habit of daily writing, and I also create a situation where I’m wanting to write more, not less. Half an hour is so short that when I finish, I’m full of ideas on how to continue. But I force myself to stop for the day.
That way, the next day I’m chomping at the bit to write again. Gradually I increase the writing time to an hour, then two hours, and finally back up to the full amount (usually around four hours a day, depending on other stuff going on in my life).
I’ve followed this method in the past and it worked beautifully. But because it’s counterintuitive, I sometimes discard it, as I did this time. I rush in and set huge goals and push myself too hard. I wanted to “hit the ground running.” But as anyone who’s ever jumped from a moving vehicle can tell you, hitting the ground running often ends in a painful fall.
So now I’m back on equilibrium. I’m setting small goals, writing regularly but for short times, and building up slowly. I’m being more compassionate with myself, and more patient. The interesting thing is that some days I’ve written more in an hour than I did in a whole day before.
And I’m still amazed at how often I need to re-learn the