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Your Biggest Challenge as a Writer - and What To Do About It, Part 1

I recently did a survey of writers, asking them what their biggest challenge was in relation to their writing.

A few answered that they were struggling with marketing, or with story quality or self doubt or even grammar. Each of these categories amounted to 5% or 10% of the total answers.

But by far the largest proportion of writers - over 60% - revealed that their main difficulty was related to two connected things: time and procrastination.

These writers told me that they were frustrated because they either didn’t have the time to write or, when they had it, found that it was swallowed up with distractions and interruptions, most often self-generated.

This is big.

In fact, this is far more revealing than I think many of the authors who said it probably realise.

Now, when it comes to dealing with time and procrastination, you’ll find a number of guides, articles, lists of things to do and so forth on the internet, all of them giving insights into the matter and suggesting ways forward. But all of this kind of thing is like ‘first aid’ for writers - the suggestions might serve to patch them up and help them to get a bit more done, but they tend not to go to the heart of the problem. If that could be addressed - if the core of the issue could be handled in some way - there would be no need for temporary remedies and partial solutions. Procrastination and time-related factors when it came to writing would evaporate.

You would never waste time again.

You would get tons of writing done.

Is this possible? Surely, there isn’t anything to be done with regards to procrastination? Isn’t it simply human nature to be distracted and to put things off?

Let me begin leading you down the path to the solution through a comparison: if you went to see your GP (that’s ‘General Practitioner’ or local doctor, for those of you in the States or elsewhere) about a health issue, you wouldn’t expect them to not show up for your appointment on the grounds that ‘they had been distracted’, would you?

Even more extreme: if you called the Fire Brigade in an emergency, the last thing you would expect to hear would be a recorded message explaining that all the fire people were off doing something else for a bit, and could you call back?

In other words, in almost every other department of life, we expect that others will present themselves as available and functioning according to their jobs. If you describe yourself as something, then society demands that you turn up, ready to perform your duty, as a professional, whether you are part of fire services, a doctor, a data entry clerk, a shop assistant, a salesperson or whatever. If you don’t appear and perform, you lose your job. It might be truer to say that, if you don’t function as your job, you are undermining what you are in others’ eyes and you will eventually fade away.

So why do we not expect this from writers? (I could also add ‘or other artists’, as they also often struggle with this.)

The answer to that question isn’t what you might be expecting. It’s not quite ‘You’re not taking yourself seriously enough as a writer’, though that’s how it manifests itself. I realise that by far the majority of writers take themselves incredibly seriously when it comes to writing - so much so that the frustration of not being able to write can cause them pain ranking with physical distress. They are desperate to write; that they cannot seem to find the time, or get so distracted, is a real concern to them.

I feel their pain.

For most of my life I was in a similar position without realising it. I was working at various professional jobs and tasks and feeling deeply unhappy and unsatisfied because the worlds and words that were spinning around in my head were never able to escape onto a page or screen. And then, in those brief moments when I had a chance to write, my time was entirely consumed by self-generated disturbances, interruptions, intrusions, pastimes, activities, which befuddled and bewildered me until I had to return to whatever it was I was ‘supposed to be doing’.

What was at the heart of that?

And how did I deal with it so that, over the last five years I have published over 100 books, written about three million words, generated a daily blog with over 2,000 articles, and put together a writers’ group with almost 3,000 members?

How did I get to the point where my whole life is structured around my writing?

How did I reach the stage where, instead of ‘trying to find the time to write’ I now struggle to find the time to do anything else?

The Beginning

I once worked as a management consultant in the heart of London. I had an office just off Berkeley Square in Mayfair, and would occasionally take clients for tea at the Ritz Hotel just down the road. I remember walking across Green Park one spring day - the trees were turning green, the deckchairs were out, and I was on my way to an interview with the BBC regarding a programme that I was involved with which wanted to introduce a post-communist Russia to principles of management from the West. My colleague, whom I was to pick up on the way, was a peer from the House of Lords.

It felt as though I had ‘made it’: my career had reached a high point. It was indeed the apex of something - but I remember a friend telling me some time afterward that he didn’t feel that I was cut out to be a management consultant - I didn’t have the passion or enthusiasm, the bright sparkle in the eye, that suggested to him that management consultancy was my life-long dream.

He was right.

A couple of years later, quite out of the blue, I was approached to teach English Literature at a private school in the countryside. Having had no experience of teaching, or even with children, I attended a formal interview with some trepidation, mixed with curiosity. When I didn’t hear back from the school for some weeks afterwards, I went back to consulting for the wealthy clients that I had built up - then, as the beginning of the English school year approached at the end of August, I thought I’d better check back with the school.

‘Oh yes,’ they told me, ‘you’ve got the job. Be here on Monday morning.’

Shocked - it was Friday- I made the needed adjustments to various appointments and made my way to the school just in time for the start of term.

Something peculiar then took place: though the routines and activities in which I was suddenly involved were quite foreign to me - calling registers, organising lesson content, the nitty-gritty of dealing with teenagers whose first choice would never have been to study literature, and so on - I knew that I had made a considerable advance towards something about which I did feel that passion and energy which I hadn’t felt for management consultancy. There was something going on here, I felt - something that I wanted to be more involved in.

Such was the fire that had been lit in me that I used to get up at 5:00 am, stumble in the dark (the freezing and slippery dark, in winter) down the steep Highgate Hill from my home to Archway Tube Station, catch the underground train to Victoria train station, then the 7:22 am train to my destination, stumbling up the road to grab a bite to eat from a café before catching the school bus. I would then teach for a full school day before making the entire journey in reverse, getting home exhausted at about 8:30 pm.

I only did this for two or three days a week, as I was still engaged by clients in the middle of London as a consultant - and it shattered me physically each week. But something was happening to me other than physical exhaustion - I was finding a purpose. That purpose grew strong enough over the next couple of years for me to make changes to my whole lifestyle, routine and habits. Within two years, I had worked my way into being a full-time teacher of English Literature to feisty groups of 11 to 18 year olds, and had gradually backed out of management consultancy almost entirely.

I’m not telling you this story to give you a glimpse into my life as much as to show you how to reorientate yourself to a different set of criteria.

If your biggest challenge as a writer is related to time and procrastination, what I am going to tell you next may put you into a mild rage or it may switch on a light for you.

You are having trouble with time and procrastination because you quite probably have fallen for a false image of what a writer is in this society. This society says - in various ways, most of them subliminal - that writers are broke, struggling creatures who strive to get noticed by working on their books in between having a ‘proper’ job. Writers, so goes this image, are usually writing outside the normal schedule set aside for serious work - they ‘find time’ when they can, usually late at night after the children have gone to bed or whenever they can find peace and quiet, and they slave away at various creative projects without much hope of getting published or even of being noticed by anyone other than a few indulgent family members or friends. There’s no money in the game at all, says this picture: it’s all verging on being delusional, especially when you factor in the vast numbers of people doing the same thing and the way in which the world is saturated with works of fiction, pouring out onto the internet and drowning any new writer’s attempts to get seen by anyone of importance.

‘Of course,’ says society, ‘the outcome of all this is dismal failure, sooner or later.’

Against this, the writer battles, physically and mentally. But psychologically, this picture is powerful and active: it views Time as a precious commodity, to be eked out here and there, between appointments or on train journeys and around the more important 'job'. And then the image goes even deeper, making the urge to write such a precious, coveted impulse that it’s almost as though some writers grow afraid to write - the passion and desire is so strong that they are backed off from actually releasing it onto the page or screen and so unconsciously find anything to do rather than write.

It seems paradoxical at first glance - that something that an individual feels so strongly about actually results in distraction and avoidance. But time and time again this is what happens - the writer approaches the page or screen and diverts into some other activity, precisely because the passion is too intense to confront.

In fact, often the less time that is available, the more procrastination occurs, it seems.

What’s needed is a reorientation. To escape from the Big Lie - that a writer’s life must be one of penniless struggle in which time is so highly valued that it focuses passion into a laser beam which is then so ‘hot’ that it is shunned - an individual must actually progress towards a completely different image.

The new image is of a writer whose entire life is structured around writing -who has all day to write, with very few other pressures; whose basic bills, food, shelter and so forth are in some way under control; whose passion now has so much room to breathe that it ceases to panic and can in fact ‘take time off’ to do other things from time to time without any feeling of insane compulsion haunting it.

‘But… that’s impossible!’ you might protest. ‘I have a house to pay for, children to look after, a job! I can’t just throw those things away!’

My career as a management consultant was a lucrative one. I had clients all over London, some of them millionaires. I had a lifestyle that I enjoyed, a prestigious home in Highgate, and expensive tastes in books. I had ordered everything around those things.

But it was slowly suffocating me.

Painstakingly, over several months, I progressed from that pattern towards a new one. It was not easy - some corners had to be cut, some horrible commuting had to be done, some potentially well-paid jobs had to be walked away from. Indeed, my income dropped considerably for quite a while. But my job satisfaction rose to heights never before dreamed of - and I knew that I had made major strides towards doing something good for my soul.

It took a few more years - and quite a considerable amount of pain - to progress further. But now my entire life is structured around writing. Yes, I have other things that I have to do, other duties, other roles, including (unexpectedly) the cherished role of parent. But that inner angst that made me deeply unhappy has gone. And I am able to generate an output writing-wise that I couldn’t even have imagined generating a few years ago.

I even get to procrastinate a little without stress - because I know that I have the time.

I haven’t entirely given up consultancy. I offer a Lifestyle Consultancy to any writer who feels stuck, unable to write or trapped in a ‘procrastination vortex’, distracted to the point of fading out as a writer. But the essential elements of that consultancy are to do with building a life around writing, rather than trying to fit writing into an existing life.

It can be done.

I’ll help you to do it.

Email me at

In the meantime, stand by for the next article in this series which gives you five big practical steps you can take to move closer to your ideal writing life.


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