Isaac Asimov: How to Defeat Writer’s Block

If there’s one word to describe Isaac Asimov, it’s “prolific”.

To match the number of novels, letters, essays and other scribblings that Isaac produced in his lifetime, you would need to write at the pace of one full-length novel every two weeks for 25 years.

For Isaac Asimov, writer’s block was simply not an option.

As a semi-regular writer, I often find myself stuck frozen-fingered in front of an empty page. Looking for wisdom on the matter, I turned to Asimov’s autobiography, It’s Been a Good Life.

I wasn’t disappointed with what I found.

Let’s take a look…

1. Accept That Writing is Hard

A struggling writer once asked Isaac Asimov, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Isaac responded—

“By thinking and thinking and thinking till I’m ready to kill myself. […] Did you ever think it was easy to get a good idea?”

Aha. It’s not just flashes of insight on demand, not even for the great Isaac Asimov. Like every other writer, he struggled to have good ideas.

And the struggle was worth every moment—

I couldn’t sleep last night so I lay awake thinking of an article to write and I’d think and think and cry at the sad parts. I had a wonderful night.

Hey, nobody said conquering writer’s block was going to be easy.

2. Recognize You Are Stuck

Sometimes, the words just won’t come out. It happens to everyone—even Isaac Asimov:

Frequently, when I am at work on a science-fiction novel, I find myself heartily sick of it and unable to write another word.

We all get stuck. That’s not something you can control.

It’s what happens next, your reaction, that makes all the difference.

What does Asimov do?

3. Let Your Mind Fill Up Again

I don’t stare at blank sheets of paper. I don’t spend days and nights cudgeling a head that is empty of ideas. Instead, I simply leave the novel and go on to any of the dozen other projects that are on tap. I write an editorial, or an essay, or a short story, or work on one of my nonfiction books. By the time I’ve grown tired of these things, my mind has been able to do its proper work and fill up again. I return to my novel and find myself able to write easily once more.

That’s so powerful…

Here it is again:

  • Put down whatever you are working on
  • Go work on other projects (until they make you sick)
  • Return to find your mind filled with ideas again

Don’t fight the block. Give it space to breathe. Come back to it later, and you may find that it is no longer there.

4. The Secret Sauce

There’s something more behind all the techniques. This is the real reason Isaac was able to show up day after day and write over 200 books in his lifetime—

What I decided was that I wasn’t writing ten times as many books in order to get ten times the monetary returns, but in order to have ten times the pleasure.

Don’t be in it for the money, do it for love.

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Photo credit: Thierry Ehrmann

How I Rebuilt Myself

I hadn’t showered in weeks.

I sat on the floor. Or, what remained of the floor. Most of it was buried in old McDonald’s nugget packaging and unfinished homework. My room smelled of mold. Hell, I smelled of mold.

But I noticed none of that.

My eyes were on the screen, as they had been for the last 16 hours. I was playing League of Legends—an online game where teams of animated characters fight to destroy the enemy’s base. My character was a girl. She was cute and played music on a keyboard. Maybe I’d marry someone like her.

I was an addict. Each day, I would wake at noon, skip class and play until I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I survived on McNuggets and six-dollar burritos from the joint next door.

I had no future. I was a loser. But I couldn’t stop. It was too much ‘fun’…

That was college. Somehow, I managed to graduate. My test-taking skills saved me. I got a job. Somebody hired me.

That changed nothing.

Life Pulled the Plug

In a different life, maybe nothing would have changed. I would have kept my head in the sand.

But life pulled the plug on me.

I don’t know what the trigger was. Maybe it was my induction into “adulthood”. Maybe it was the loneliness. Maybe it was looking into the eyes of people at work…and seeing nothing.

It was a mid-life crisis. I was 21.

Yea, sure, I was pampered and privileged and my parents paid for my education… but it didn’t feel like that.

The fear seized me. It wasn’t the in-your-face kind of fear you get when you see a snake in your driveway. It was softer, deeper and always there. It was the “trapped in outer space and running out of oxygen” kind of fear.

I was suffocating. There was nobody to talk too. I had no friends. My parents wouldn’t understand.

Anything but that.

I’d been hiding the doubt on a corner shelf for the past two decades and now the shelf was broken and all of it fell down and hit me on the head.

It was a strange terror of not meaning, not doing, not living… Anything was better than that.

So I tried.

I looked at myself. Maybe for the first time. I reached out for help. I started reading. I’d never had role models before. This time, I found them in books. I went to the gym. I stopped eating nuggets (but not burritos). I talked to strangers. Girls, even. I got rejected. It sucked.

But I kept trying.

I had relapses. I would fall back into a mess of self-hate. I binged on onion rings, called in sick to stay home and play card games, and dodged reality with poorly subtitled Korean soap operas.

But then, sure as sugar, the empty fear returned. Oh my god, it’s happening again. And there was nothing worse than that.

So, no matter the suck, I got out and started over.

Each time, I failed. Each time, things got a bit better. I could control my desires. I learned new skills. I found a little confidence.

Something interesting started to happen.

For the first time in my life, girls started to notice. Friends came to ask for advice. I got compliments on my dress, my intellect, my way of life… People started to use escape words: I was now “gifted”, “talented”, “smart” and “sociable”.

It was all a lie. I knew who I was. I was a loser. Still, it was addicting.

The emptiness left. In its place was something else—something more addicting than any video game. I was high on momentum, high on growth and high on meaning.

And so it went. I fell over and got up again. Each time, I stood a little longer. I read more books. I started writing. I taught myself to program. I quit my job. I traveled.

These last two years were the best in my life.

Shit still happens. My girlfriend dumped me this year. I cried. I shaved my head. I got pissed off and threw my phone in a pond.

The itch comes back. Come on, let’s play. Just a little bit. Sometimes, I laugh it away. Other times, it gets me.

But, whatever happens, my old friend fear is there to catch me. He gives me a kick in the ass. And I’m back here going forward, climbing, getting better every day.

Here’s to the next two years being even better.

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Photo credit: David Blackwell

Whatever You Do, Do Not Quit Your Day Job

I’m tired of the dream.

You hear it all over. Quit your job. Find your passion. Travel your world. Start a business. Make a million dollars. Oh, and do it all overnight.

Pffft, if only it were that easy.

In a way, I’m guilty of feeding the dream. I quit my job a few years ago. I’ve been to half a dozen countries this year. I started a small business.

But it didn’t happen overnight. And it certainly didn’t happen the way people think it did.

Think twice before you quit.

The coconut fantasy

People see the fantasy—coconuts on beaches, multi-millionaire startup founders, the freedom of self-ownership—and they get HUNGRY.

They think, “Well, THEY did it. Why can’t I? I’ve got balls just as big!” (You too, ladies.) So they quit their jobs. They buy a ticket to Thailand or Vietnam or some other “paradise”. There’s fire in their eyes. They’re gonna make the next great widget and it’s gonna rocket them to fame.

Somehow, they’ve almost completely missed all of the following:

  • They don’t know if their business idea works or not
  • They don’t even have an idea in the first place
  • They don’t have any funding

Guess what happens?

In less than 6 months, these same “ballsy” wantrepreneurs run home, tails hung in defeat. All they’ve got to show is a load of credit card debt and a farmer’s tan.

They go back to the same jobs. Or, even worse, their jobs aren’t waiting for them anymore.

Don’t quit your job…yet.

I get it. You don’t like your job. It’s not fulfilling. You want to do something valuable. You want to be in charge.

I that’s great. But, it’s important to be realistic.

We glorify the “make it or die trying” mentality. But it’s all a Hollywood wet dream. Real results don’t happen that way. Real results are boring.

If you study the successes, you’ll notice something interesting: everything is calculated—no failure is ever no large that we can’t get up tomorrow and try again.

The Barbell Approach (What to do instead)

Before you quit your job or dump everything to try something crazy, know this:

  • There’s no proof your business will work
  • There’s no guarantee you’ll “find your passion” anytime soon

So should you give up?

Not quite. If you want it, go for it, I say. But they don’t come easily, and they certainly won’t come on the first try.

It’s going to take a lot of experiments, failed ventures and dead ends. There are no shortcuts.

Failures cost money.

Before you quit your job, start a business, or invest large amounts of capital into anything, you need to prove to yourself that it works.

How to do this:

1. Keep your current job. This is your cash cow. It’s going to fund everything else that you do. Spend as little mental energy as possible while at work. You’ll need it for later.

2. Develop a breadwinner skill. You can’t live off savings forever. You need a way to earn money first. Use your off-work hours (or on-work, if you’re sneaky) to train yourself. If you don’t have any hard skills (like programming), get some. If you do, learn the soft skills necessary to go independent (marketing, basic social skills, etc.).

3. Barbell your experiments. This concept comes from Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile, my favorite book of all time. Spend 80% of your time on ‘safe things’ (your breadwinner skill) and invest the other 20% in ‘risky’ experiments (new business ideas, etc.). This gives you a stable base to fall back on, which is what you really need to do the tinkering.

Keep using your “20% time” to do experiments. If you’re failing a lot, figure out why. Learn from it. Keep refining the process.

Eventually, something will take off. Don’t run with it yet. Keep testing assumptions for a few months. Make sure you’re right.

That’s when you quit. When you know it works. Now you’ve got a baby to grow. Maybe you’ll even a travel a bit.

I’ll see you on the other side.

Marc Andreessen’s System for Massive Personal Productivity

If you’re a tech person, you already know who Marc Andreessen is.

He co-founded Netscape. He’s a serial entrepreneur. He runs a venture capital firm with $1.2 billion under management. He’s also got his hands in Facebook, Ebay and dozens of other important things.

As you can imagine, his life can get a bit disorganized.

Recently, I stumbled onto this archive of Marc Andreessen’s old blog. In it, he writes extensively about his personal productivity system.

I’m a lazy person. I’m always looking to get the maximum effect from minimal effort.

Why build a productivity system from ground up when Marc has done the heavy thinking already?

Let’s take a look and steal everything we can.

1. Keep only three lists

Here’s how Marc manages his tasks.

He keeps only three lists:

  • A Todo List — Everything that has to be done—commitments, tasks, obligations—goest here. If you want, the list can be sorted into days, weeks, months, etc.
  • A ‘Watch’ List — Things that require external events go here. This can be a future reminder, a followup with someone else, a response to a reply, etc.
  • A Later List — All the low intensity or low priority tasks so be done at some point.

Anything that doesn’t fit into these lists “doesn’t exist”.

Like myself, Marc finds Daven Allen’s popular Getting Things Done system too bulky to deal with:

For me, an organization system that requires significant time to deal with in and of itself is not optimal. Much better, for me at least, is to focus on stripping away nonessentials and freeing up as much time as possible to deal with whatever is most important.

Agreed. More complexity isn’t the answer.

2a Before bed, make a MIT notecard

I sit down at my desk before I go to sleep, pull up my Todo List (which I keep in Microsoft Word’s outline mode, due to long habit), and pick out the 3 to 5 things I am going to get done tomorrow. I write those things on a fresh 3×5 card, lay the card out with my card keys, and go to bed. Then, the next day, I try like hell to get just those things done. If I do, it was a successful day.

Here it is again:

  • Pull up your Todo List
  • Choose 3 to 5 MITs (most important tasks) for tomorrow
  • Write those on a card
  • Go to sleep

Notice this is done before bed. There’s a reason for this—you want to get on tackling tacks as soon as you wake up in the morning.

Andreessen calls this one of the most successful techniques he has ever tried:

Once you get into the habit, you start to realize how many days you used to have when you wouldn’t get 3 to 5 important/significant/meaningful things done during a day.

That’s not all there is to the card, though.

2b Use the notecard as an “Anti-Todo List”

The next day, Marc carries the notecard with him and uses the back to track wins.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Whenever you do anything that day, write it on the back of your MIT Card.
  • Review your Anti-Todo List at the end of the day. Celebrate your accomplishments.
  • Discard or document the card.
    Marc mentions the psychological lever behind this technique:

Each time you do something, you get to write it down and you get that little rush of endorphins that the mouse gets every time he presses the button in his cage and gets a food pellet.

There’s also something to be said for “celebrating wins”:

…by writing down things on my Anti-Todo list as I accomplish them throughout the day makes me feel marvelously productive and efficient. Far more so than if I just did those things and didn’t write them down.

How to implement Marc’s system

The beauty of this system is its simplicity. At a base level, all you need is a notepad (for the 3 lists), a notecard and a pen.

Although I prefer analog, you can replicate this digitally like so:

  • Use a todo list manager like Wunderlist to manage your tasks
  • Keep the MIT Notecard and your Anti-Todo List in a smartphone app like Google Keep. Or, just use more lists in your todo list app.

Personally, I’m phasing out my smartphone. I went and picked up a stack of notecards today. Excited to try this.

You can read the full article by Marc here.

Why 95% of Blogs Fail

I’ve started a few blogs before.

They all failed within a few months. I worked for hours to make my “best content.” I waited. And waited. But nobody came. It was frustrating. I thought I was a bad writer. So I quit.

But that wasn’t it. I wasn’t a bad writer. I was just making mistakes—the same mistakes that 95% of bloggers make. And that is why they fail.

Here are some common ones…

They don’t test assumptions

Failing bloggers blow hundreds of dollars into domains, site design, hosting, and SEO before they know if their idea will even work.

There are over 3 million blog posts written every day. Where’s the proof that yours will do well?

First, make sure your blog’s niche, writing style and unique angle actually work. Treat your blog like an early-stage startup: validate your ideas first, then spend the big money.

They do fake work

It’s the Internet age. There are thousands of things bloggers can be tweaking: site design, headlines, buttons, word counts, keywords…it goes on and on forever.

Unfortunately, 99% of these ‘tweaks’ don’t matter at all. Bloggers spend hours tweaking trivialities and then scratch their heads wondering why no results happened.

Most things don’t matter. Here’s what does:

  • Making your content better than everyone else’s
  • Putting your work in front of people
  • Building a readership

Your time and resources are limited. Only tweak what needs tweaking.

They write for themselves

“There is only one thing that you write for yourself, and that is a shopping list.” —Umberto Eco

Your blog isn’t a private journal. Whether people admit it openly or not, they write on the Internet because, deep down, they want to be read.

Make your writing about other people, for other people.

Some questions to ask:

  • Who is my target audience? Make it ONE person. What does he do? Where does he live? What’s his income range? Where does he spend all his time on the Internet? Figure out way more details than you need—then you’ll have just enough.
  • What unique value am I adding? Write down three things: (1) what you love to do, (2) what you are good at and (3) what your target audience needs. Find what lies at the intersection of these three, and the magic happens.

They don’t understand the game

Let’s face it. You blog because you want people to read your content, come to your platform and engage with you. So does every other blogger out there.

The blogging word is harsh. We’re all playing to win. If you want to do well, you need to know how the game is played.

If you don’t know how to earn attention, where people gather, or the tools and tactics your competition is using… You’re playing a loser’s game.

Don’t let that happen. Study the art of blogging.

They’re greedy

Successful bloggers come in many colors, but they all share one common trait—they give (almost) all of their content away for free.

If any decent publication wants to syndicate my content, I always say yes. Leo Babauta does the same thing with his “Uncopyright”—anyone who wants his stuff can have it. No questions asked and no referrals needed.

You won’t get anywhere by hoarding value. Make the switch to providing incredible value instead.

They don’t create a conversation

Congratulations! You got some readers to come to your site.

What’s next for them? They click the “Home” button and leave your site forever… Most bloggers focus way too much on traffic. It’s a leaky funnel with no end.

Of course, you need people to come to your site. But of equal (or greater) importance is building a community of loyal readers that keep coming back over and over again.

They copy

Over 90% of blogs fail. To be an “average” blog is to fail. By definition, if you do what everybody else is doing, you will get average results.

To make a successful blog, you must do things differently. This can be with target audience, with content quality, with design, with marketing or with something else that nobody has caught of yet.

Whatever you do, don’t copy. And whatever you do, make it the best there is.

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