Writing Life

5 Steps to Staying Creative During a Crisis by Micah McGuire

2020 will be remembered as a year of crisis. We’re all functioning under an immense amount of stress: a particularly nasty, exogenous type of stress that’s difficult to fight because we have so little control over it.

And as any creative knows, nothing kills off creativity like stress. Which means for writers, 2020 is a creative crisis as well. 

So will the year simply derail our efforts completely?

Fortunately, no. Keep reading for five steps to keep your creativity flowing during a crisis. 

1. Ease up on yourself

Peek into the world of productivity and you’ll inevitably hear the gospel of The Hustle. “Keep your nose to the grindstone for 90 hours a week—you’ll make it eventually.” “You can relax when you’ve hit the top.” “Sleep’s for the weak.”

At the best of times, the advice is a recipe for burnout. Given during a crisis, it borders on madness.

Crises sap your willpower, energy and other cognitive resources. And the less control you have over the situation, the more trying to fight it will drain your resources.

So don’t expect yourself to function at your peak. If you’re struggling to write or feel frustrated with your projects, take it easier on yourself. It’s probably not you, it’s the stress you’re under.

Don’t forget that crises come in all shapes and sizes either. Some, like COVID-19, are obvious when they’re splashed across the news daily. But others, the smaller, more personal crises, like caring for a sick loved one, flare-ups of health problems (both physical and mental), or grieving a loss, aren’t so plain. Even the “manageable” crises may seem daunting when other major stressors are at play.

So recognize the load you’re working under and cut yourself slack

2. Change How You’re Setting Goals

Writing during a crisis takes some craft-related mindset changes too.

Most writers set goals in terms of word counts. As anyone who’s attempted the overwhelming goal of 50,000 words in a month for NaNoWriMo knows, word counts can be a helpful push to keep us going under normal circumstances.

But during a crisis, word counts are a terrible goal type to rely on.

There are two different ways to track goals: leading measures and lag measures. Leading measures track input while lagging measures track output. Think of leading measures as the effort going in, where lagging measures are the results that effort gets you.

For writers, word count is a lagging measure. Worse, it’s a variable lagging measure—you’ll rarely produce the same number of words in a certain timeframe. On a good day, 500 words might flow onto the page in five or ten minutes. But on a bad day, it might take thirty minutes or more to force those same 500 words onto the page. So word count goals fail to take into account the effort and time you’re expending.

So instead, take it easier on your brain: drop the word count goals and start setting leading measure goals.

Since leading measures are measures of effort, the simplest leading-measure goal is time spent writing. You can hit the goal as long as you’re able to spend a certain amount of “butt-in-chair” time.

If you’re not a fan of time-based goals, alternate leading measures include gauging your mental exertion or energy levels and small-chunk completion goals (i.e. completing a single conversation between two characters or an entire scene).

3. Work with Your Productivity Cycle

Humans are not robots. We don’t work at 100% efficiency, 24/7/365.

Instead, we function best on a work/break/repeat cycle. It touches all aspects of our lives: afternoon slumps, exercise recovery days, even our seasonal work patterns.

Your productivity is no different. So if you’ve been cranking out thousands of words a week and abruptly hit a wall, don’t be surprised or beat yourself up. It’s just part of your productivity cycle. Reduce your workload, rest completely if you need to, then start again when you feel you’ve properly recovered.

Unfortunately, crises aren’t the best time to figure out your exact “natural” productivity rhythm since the extra stress can throw the most laid-back of us a bit off-kilter. But you can still take advantage of cycles on the micro-level.

Enter the Pomodoro technique. Set a timer for twenty-five minutes. When the timer starts, you work for those twenty-five minutes. Once the timer goes off, you take a five minute break. After repeating this work/break cycle four times, you take a longer, 15 minute break.

Now, while the Pomodoro can be great for forcing yourself to work on pieces you’re struggling with or have been procrastinating on, some writers find such brief intervals keep them from hitting a strong flow state. If that’s the case, try a longer 52/17 work/break interval or the relaxed rules of Flowtime cycling

4. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize

During a crisis, it’s critical to narrow your focus to your most important tasks. Nonessential tasks will do nothing but drain your already stress-taxed willpower and energy levels.

Enter the Eisenhower Box.

The Eisenhower box is a prioritization method credited to US President Dwight D. Eisenhower. To get started, draw a box and divide it into four squares. Now label the columns “Urgent” and “Not Urgent” and the rows “Important” and “Not Important.”

Each box will now correspond to four categories:

  • Important but not urgent
  • Important and urgent
  • Not important but urgent
  • Not important and not urgent

Your tasks can then be prioritized by sorting them by these categories.

Naturally, you’ll want to address the important and urgent first. Most of your work tasks will fall on this list, especially writing with a deadline.

It should be possible to brush the not important and not urgent tasks off to a back burner. Usually, these tasks can be postponed without a problem. The goal is to eliminate some of these tasks and get some breathing room in your day.

The tricky part comes with non-important but urgent tasks—like email messages. Optimally, it would be nice to delegate these tasks. But not everyone has an assistant to hand tasks off to. Automations like Zapier or using templates with a tool like Textexpander can help. But in the end, recognizing these tasks should be “done fast, not perfect” is key.

Finally, the important but not-urgent tasks, like self-care, spending time with loved ones, and writing projects without deadlines, should not be swept aside. These activities may feel aspirational when we’re under such massive stress, but they’re often the most important parts of our lives. Ignoring them will only drain you in the long term. So try to carve out time for them each week. The energy boost they provide may surprise you.

5. Find Connections

All too often, talk of productivity is so driven by results that it forgets the need for a human touch. But humans are wired to be social—isolation is bad for our health. So in times of crisis, it’s more important than ever to find ways to connect with others.

Keeping up with family and loved ones is a great place to start. We may not have the usual variety of social outlets open to us due to the pandemic, but there are always alternate ways to stay connected, like phone and video calls.

If you’re not already part of a writers’ group, now’s the time to start looking. Finding a good writing group isn’t just a good way to improve your skills—it’s a way to stay connected to your craft. These groups give you a like-minded group of peers who “speak your language.” Other writers understand the frustration of reworking a first draft. They can help answer questions about publishing or support you when you get a bad review.

The good news is that today’s technology has opened up more options than ever for finding groups.

If local meetings are starting back in your area, search for local writers groups on Google or Meetup. Independent bookstores are also a treasure trove of information. They can direct you to local groups who may not have an online presence, provide dates for local conferences or NaNoWriMo chapter meetings or point out courses or university classes that are open for students.

Online, the options are nearly endless: Facebook groups, forums, Slack networks, niche websites. Name a platform and there’s probably a writer’s group on it. It’s simply a matter of finding the right group for you.

If you’re interested in finding groups, online or off, try any of the following:

Offline Writer Network Finders

A Small Sample of Online Writing Communities

Ultimately, staying creative through a crisis requires some mindset shifts. But if we take it easier on ourselves, recognize our constraints, and work to stay connected with one another, we can all keep writing when the world needs our stories the most.

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Micah McGuire is a writer, American Council on Exercise (ACE) certified health coach and a self-professed productivity geek. She is the founder and pr...