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Right-sizing your writing: the anxiety and productivity myth

A year ago I launched my business. I’ve been doing the hokey-cokey about this for a long time (i.e., right foot in, right foot out, in, out, in, out….) but it suddenly became an imperative. I had the space and time, and it kind of felt like the universe was tapping it’s wristwatch and saying it’s time. Part of that universal signposting had come in the form of various webinars I had attended, all encouraging me to get on with it, as well as Shia Le Beouf whose hysterical JUST DO IT will remain my favourite Youtube video for the rest of eternity.

Around the same time I was offered the chance to write a book.

So here we are a year later. The book is on the shelves, I’ve written and delivered a writing course for beginners, I’ve built a website, a coaching and mentoring service, this blog and a subscriber list….and yet I spent the best part of the past year in a state of arse-clenching terror.

My impulse, whenever anything moved forward was to abandon ship, to decide it's too stressful and not worth it. Ultimately, I wanted to make myself as small as possible.

It’s a well-established pattern of mine: get a brilliant idea, take loads of actions, gallop up to the jump…and shy away. The next stage is to give up and do nothing for months.

Expand and contract. Binge and purge. Boom and bust. All or nothing.

This exhausting way of being drives almost every area of my life from eating to exercise to relationships to work. The anti-productivity side of this equation can arise from taking on too much and burning out, but it’s most often driven by anxiety: I can’t do it. Who do I think I am? What if I make a mistake? No-one is interested. You’re going to make a fool of yourself. What if I commit and can’t deliver?

Here I could get all sciencey and talk about the neurodiverse brain and its complexities, the psychosocial impact of having these difficulties in a hyper competitive hostile world - rejection sensitivity, paralysis, demand avoidance, overwhelm and so on. And, those things are all real, interrelated factors.

But while knowledge is at least reassuring if not power, it often doesn't help.

I understand completely why I am like this, why I want to stay small. Small and invisible is much safer than being out there for everyone to see, where people can complain about your services, leave shitty Amazon reviews, make snarky comments on social media. Plus, if you aren’t visible, you can’t be ignored, which is often just as painful. There’s nothing quite like dropping a well crafted tweet and getting tumbleweed and crickets in return.

The important question is how to keep moving forward when you want to run and hide.

Because if you don’t do it now…then when?

First we have to drop the idea that one golden day in the future we will have the confidence and poise to do all the things we want to do, whether its freelancing, pitching a novel, self-publishing your poetry or whatever. That day is not coming. It’s not. I’m 45, and the only difference today is that I'm in possession of the wisdom of my experience, and that experience has shown me that I haven’t changed very much in twenty years, at least not in that respect. I’m still afraid, I’m still overwhelmed, I still procrastinate.

But doing the work and being anxious and hypersensitive do not have to be mutually exclusive. I don’t have to wait to feel calm and confident before I write a story and send it out. The difference for me today is being honest with myself about that, and finding ways to take care of myself when the fear really hits.

I can tell you that every time I write a newsletter I’m in fear. Every time. But it’s ok!

So here’s what works for me.

1. Gentle reverse psychology. Kicking my own backside doesn’t work, as does trying to convince myself that I don’t care what other people think. The point is I do care, I can’t help but care. What I tell myself is that I don’t have to do anything that I’m too scared to do. I can hide behind the sofa forever, and that’s fine. I allow that.

2. Make it minimal. We can’t do everything every day, despite what productivity fascists might tell you. We’re not even meant to be productive every minute of every day. We’re mammals and we’re supposed to be staring at the sky if we aren’t looking for food, running from predators, or rearing young. Anyway, the people who appear super productive, oozing confidence, perfectly at ease with themselves and seemingly impervious to criticism and naysayers, will have their own personal pain. It’s never as great as it looks, and even if it is, I don’t have to look like them, and I don’t have to compete with anyone. Today I just have to write this blog/edit this flash/pitch this article.

3. Be careful with to-do lists. I keep a master list where I dump everything that pops up in my fevered mind, but I don’t look at it very often, only when I have done the current thing I’m doing. It’s the only way I can move forward. One baby step after another. If I try to run, I will trip and fall and might not get up again for months.

4. Use affirmations. They work, over time. Mine are very simple. I can do this. I am okay. I am safe. Affirmations can regulate your nervous system - which, if you are neurodivergent, is likely to be aroused on a regular basis. It doesn’t take much to tip us into fight/flight/freeze. In fact research in cognitive neuroscience shows that its quite possible to grow new neural pathways in this way, making it more likely to become your new reality if you persist with it. A few rounds of everything is totally fine might make all the difference between you bashing out some words and you staring out of the window for two hours in a state of paralysis.

5. Keep it in the day. If I find myself obsessing about the future, worrying about what happens if I can’t deliver on promises, or things get too big for me to handle, I bring myself back to today. I (rather morbidly) remind myself that a meteor might take us all out next week and I will have wasted today worrying about a future that will never happen. Just for today is the best way to live. It’s manageable, finite, and low-pressure.

6. Get support. I share my successes with other creatives who have similar problems. Community is so important. If I am isolated my mind is an echo chamber and it gets incredibly loud and really believable without comrades to cheer me on.

So there it is. You don’t have to be a leviathan, a writing Godzilla, destroying the competition and downtown Tokyo, but neither do you have to be invisible. You can be a moderate, human being-sized writer, and that’s alright, at least for today.

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