Deadline + decision = ideas + inspiration - Next Action Associates

Occasionally, readers with writing aspirations of their own will ask something like, “How do you manage to produce those blogs every month?”. Mostly I’m kind and offer a one line response. Occasionally, if I’m feeling mean and/or expansive, I’ll check first that they have no means of escape, then launch into a full description.

I’ll spare you all the detail of that as I’ve written about the process once before, but since writing that piece I’ve noticed some critical components in the process I described earlier. 

For starters, it is probably worth saying that I’d never write anything without a deadline. Actually, let me rephrase that: I’d never complete any writing without a deadline. I have decades worth of journals in storage that testify to the fact that if unstructured self-obsession is the desired outcome I can write pretty much until the cows get home and learn to hold a pen.

Once the deadline has been accepted, initially I have a rich mix of anxiety (‘what am I going to write about?’ and ‘will it be any good?’ are on repeat in my mental playlist) and guilt (‘you should have started by now…’). Given my once-a-month frequency in the rota for these blogs, that can last for… well, up to a month.

When I’m on my game it is shorter, but that state of anxiety and guilt invariably continues until I make a decision about what I’m going to actually write about. It is only once I I make that call that the process starts to get easier. Oddly, the convergence of deciding on a topic from all the available ones leads to a radical divergence in my thinking on that topic.

With a decision on what I’m writing about this time, I engage a very powerful and somewhat uncontrollable part of myself that starts feeding me ideas, humour, structures that I simply have to capture and massage into shape. It would be an exaggeration to say that they write themselves, but sometimes it really does feel that way.

I’m not the first person to have noticed this. To quote Goethe:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back — concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans:

that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”

Goethe’s powerful prose can make it sound a bit like my decision actually changes the universe in some way, and gets it on my side. That would be very cool but it just ain’t so.

What happens instead is that by making the decision I change myself and what I’m looking for in the universe, and I find all kinds of cool things that work to help me do what I’ve decided to do. They were already there, I just couldn’t see them until I was clear about my decision.

Goethe couldn’t have known this except intuitively, but there is actually a part of our brains that support it. It is called the reticular system, and it’s an amazingly powerful part of our subconscious mind. It works 24/7 to help me with things that are important to me. Unfortunately it can only help if I tell it clearly what I’m looking for.

Strangely, reducing my list of options from 300 down to three doesn’t help. Keeping three options open doesn’t get me the benefit. Until I pick my topic (and commit by writing at least a bad draft) my subconscious can’t help me. There are too many possible solutions.

Once I decide, I get all kinds of ideas and inspiration on that topic. I see examples of it in the world all over the place, I remember things from my history, and examples of how it works in other domains. But I don’t get any of that until I decide.

The decision gets me divergence in my thinking on the topic chosen. Loads of ideas and possibilities. That requires the convergence of the deadline to help me get to the finished product.

As the deadline approaches, it will – for instance – become clear that I actually have too many ideas for one blog and that I need to drop half the content for another day. Or that the whole piece doesn’t work unless I put in a connecting sentence after paragraph 12. Or, that although there is a formulation that I love in paragraph 4, the entire paragraph doesn’t pull its weight and has to go. I hate to make those calls, but without them the piece simply never gets finished.

Now this could simply be a blog about blogs, and that would be useful to the handful of you who aspire to write one. But it’s not a blog about blogs. Actually, the same logic applies throughout our lives.

Until I choose a career, I could do anything, but I actually do nothing. For me, by deciding that it was coaching, training and consulting, I engaged that same subconscious part of myself and a world of possibility opened up. The deadline (imposed by a dwindling bank balance in this example) meant I had to make hard choices to turn all of the possibilities into a living.

More prosaically, the decision to go out for dinner diverges (there are how many restaurants in this town?), while the deadline (hunger) imposes choices that lead to actually getting fed.

You see, it is impossible to start writing a blog until I’ve chosen the topic. And impossible to finish it without the deadline. Look around – that pattern is everywhere.

Decision + deadline = ideas + inspiration. Count on it.


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