You’re reading one of the oldest posts on Aliventures (you probably got here through a search engine).

These days, my blog is focused on the art, craft and business of writing. If you’re not a writer and you’re just looking for content on personal development, it may not be the place for you. (Sorry!)

If you are a writer or a would-be writer, a huge welcome to Aliventures! A great place to start is with my free mini-ebook Time to Writeyou can find out more about that and a bunch of other handy resources here.[/guestpost]

Let’s say you have a problem. It might not be huge. It might not be of “What the hell am I doing with my life?” proportions. It’s just something you seem to be stuck on.

  • You can’t ever seem to keep your desk tidy
  • You’re slipping into debt
  • You’ve been carrying an extra 30lbs for a few years now
  • You always seem to spend a lot of your day on interruptions and distractions
  • You’re bad at saying “no”
  • You’ve fallen out with a friend
  • You buy books and never quite get round to reading them

Those are just a few common problems. The list could go on and on, but I’m sure you can think of examples from your own life.

And, perhaps it’s different for you, but when I have a problem, my immediate reaction is to dwell on it. I give it a lot of thought. I daydream about how things would be if they were improved. I worry about how the problem could worsen. I start feeling irritated at myself – or at the world in general.

You might expect that thinking about something is a good way to resolve it, but I find that generally it isn’t. I rarely fix the problem, and I generally end up feeling even more miserable or fed up.

Thinking Doesn’t Work

It seems counter-intuitive, but thinking about a problem doesn’t seem to help. It’s too easy to get sucked into a spiral of negative thoughts, dwelling on worst-case scenarios, or on past mistakes. And when something’s occupying your thoughts, you can end up losing your sense of proportion. Something which is really a fairly small problem can suddenly become a huge big issue: the silly argument which you had with a friend a few days ago turns into “maybe we were never friends in the first place” or even “I can never get along with anyone.”

Thinking often turns into worrying or fretting or dwelling – none of which are especially healthy, or especially helpful.

I find that it’s hard to think in a linear, progressive sense. My thoughts tend to be vague, fixating on emotions or memories, rather than working towards any resolution. I don’t go through some useful sequence like define the problem – analyse the causes – come up with a solution. I just go over and over the same tired points.

How Writing is Different

When you write, you’re pushed towards structure and progress. Even though your thoughts can spiral around the same points over and over again, you’re unlikely to keep writing about the same things.

Writing also helps to externalise your thoughts: to separate them from you. Getting some words down on a page or on the screen about how you’re feeling can let you take a step back and find some objectivity. What felt like a huge problem may suddenly look like something much more manageable, even quite mundane.

And, obviously enough, writing forces you to use words. Now, that isn’t invariably helpful, but it does mean that you have to define things clearly and be precise. If you just think about something, you can get away with being very woolly and fuzzy. (Imagine studying for an exam : if you think through the material it’s easy to skate over gaps in your knowledge, whereas if you write out what you know, you’ll pick up on problems.)

Writing is a concentrated form of thinking. The act of writing – forming your thoughts into words and sentences, and putting these down on the page – can prompt new ideas, including solutions that you’d never have thought of otherwise.

How to Use Writing to Solve Problems

When I’m stuck on my novel, I pick up my notebook. I start writing, even if I know my initial ideas are weak or rubbish. I essentially think out loud on the page, writing things like “Maybe I could rewrite that bit where…” or “What if he had a brother and…”

Writing anything is better than not writing at all, but I find these two techniques help me to work through problems effectively.

Ask a Question

One of my tutors took us through a writing exercise where we formed a problem into a question, then answered that question. I found this a very effective way to start getting a solution. So, for a problem of viewpoint, I might write “How can I make this character’s voice stronger?” and then I’d write – perhaps in paragraphs or in bullet points – some ideas.

You can use this with any problem, of course, not just fictional ones. You can ask yourself questions like:

  • What’s stopping me from losing weight?
  • Why do I keep getting into arguments with Sally?
  • How can I start getting up earlier?

I find that questions about “why” or “what” are helpful, because they encourage me to get to the root of a problem: Why am I so busy? – Because I’ve taken on a lot of commitments. Why have I taken on too much? – Because I don’t like to turn people down.

Questions about “how” are good for finding solutions. How can I make it easier to say “no”? – I can insist on time to go away and think about new commitments, so I don’t have to answer on the spot.

Set a Timer

Writing about something can slide into sitting and staring the screen, dwelling on it. Writing is also much easier to put off than thinking – because writing feels like more of an effort.

A time limit anywhere between five and fifteen minutes should work well. If you sit down and write for ten minutes, you’ll make more progress than you would in an hour of anxious thinking.

If there’s something weighing on your mind today, can you spend just a few minutes writing about it? (You’re welcome to use the comments section below to brainstorm, if your problem is something you’re willing to share.)