How to Break Out of a Vicious Cycle

I will do the opposite.
I used to sit here and do nothing, and regret it for the rest of the day.
So now I will do the opposite, and I will do something!

— George Costanza, Seinfeld

Recently I was having some trouble keeping up with my wordcount goals for writing fiction. The creative aspect of novel-writing is a lot less natural to me than writing blog content, so although I’ve been dedicating my Tuesdays and Thursdays to fiction, not much was actually getting done.

My Tuesday/Thursday routine was to shower, eat breakfast, and then head to the library with my laptop. I’d set up my writing space using one of the desks in the center of the 2nd floor, boot my laptop and open my word processor. In an effort to force myself to simply start writing, I’d often begin with an outpouring of negative internal feedback, for example:

You can’t be serious. You can’t write. You’re not going to succeed as a writer. You’ll never do it. You’ll goof off and lose track of what you’re doing and fail miserably. You’ll never amount to anything good in life. You’re a tool. You’re a wannabe. You’re just trying to be something you’re not. Suck it.

Then I’d hit enter twice to start a new paragraph, and continue writing my fiction story where I had left off the day before. Although this process might seem a bit masochistic, for a while it seemed to work well for me. I’d get all of the negative thoughts out of my system, and then move forward with the task at hand.

The problem was, that after many days of doing this, the negative feedback portion of my writing started growing larger (and the fiction I was supposed to be writing became smaller). I was gradually spending more and more time doing things I didn’t need to be doing, until there were entire days when I’d accomplish nothing at all. Put another way, I was trapped in a vicious cycle.

Vicious Cycle, or How I Live My Life - by Dr. Doobious

Even on days when I managed to get myself to the library, I’d avoid the word processor application. Instead of writing, I’d spend my time checking my email, poking around on Facebook, browsing Reddit, or even playing online games. Eventually, I’d get hungry and leave the library before even trying to write at all. I’d spend my lunch regretting the bad habits I’d adopted, but then I’d go back to the library and keep doing it. It was stupid.

Procrastination can turn into a vicious cycle if you let it. Goals that you can reasonably accomplish with the routine of taking small steps over a long period of time start to slip away from you. You realize that you need to make up for falling behind, but the once simple task has now grown into a more difficult task. The task becomes more intimidating with every day that you spend doing nothing, but instead of tackling the beast you shy away from it. You lose days to fear, spent worrying about failure and the always-approaching deadline.

For me, the best strategy for overcoming these fears is to look at the situation objectively. I tell myself “If I keep this up, then I will certainly fail. And if I fail because I barely tried, then I must not have really wanted to succeed.”

It’s an honest, deliberate motivational speech I sometimes give myself. It causes me to snap back into “go” mode because I DO WANT TO SUCCEED!

The library environment wasn’t working for me. I’d gotten into the cycle of going there but never accomplishing anything. Consequently, I started associating the library with the negative feeling of shame. Furthermore, the fact that so many students surrounded me who were focusing on their work — studying, reading, and researching — only made me feel worse about wasting time. I needed to do something different.

Yesterday, instead of going to the library or staying home, I went for a change of scenery: a nearby coffee shop. Although I think it’s really cliche to write in public, I was surprised at how much good the change of scenery did me.

Instead of being in the center of the quiet library, I set up my writing space in a corner of the coffee shop beneath a music speaker. At the library I felt nothing but pressure and guilt, but here I felt relaxed and refreshed. As an added bonus, I noticed how background music actually helped me focus. You see, in the library I frequently got distracted when people would talk, or even whisper to each other. Here, I couldn’t really hear other people’s conversations unless I was trying to listen. Best of all, when I inevitably got hungry, I didn’t need to pack up and go someplace else to eat. I just bought a muffin at the counter, then went right back to writing.

It was the most productive “fiction-writing day” I’d had in weeks, and it was all thanks to one simple change. I still have 45 pages left to write in order to meet my 80 page goal, but I’m back on track. I’ve broken out of the vicious cycle.

If you’re trapped in a vicious cycle, think about simple changes that you can make that can help you break out of it. You won’t necessarily need to do “the opposite,” the way that George Costanza does, but you will need to do something different. After all, when you keep things the same, you’re only feeding the cycle.

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