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How to Overcome Common Writing Roadblocks, Part 2

Writing Sep 16, 2021
Writing roadblocks prevent us from making progress on our writing tasks. Part 2 discusses imposter syndrome, procrastination, and how to conquer them.
In this article

In Part 1 of How to Overcome Common Writing Roadblocks, we discussed what writing roadblocks are, specifically, and went in-depth on the biggest issue of them all: writer’s block. That post covers what writer’s block is, how to spot it, and how to move past it to make real progress in your work.

In Part 2 of How to Overcome Common Writing Roadblocks, we’ll discuss the other two most common writing issues: imposter syndrome and procrastination. We will cover what they are, how they manifest as progress blockers, and what to do about them.

What is imposter syndrome?

“Even after writing eleven books and winning several prestigious awards, Maya Angelou couldn’t escape the nagging doubt that she hadn’t really earned her accomplishments.

Albert Einstein experienced something similar: he described himself as an “involuntary swindler” whose work didn’t deserve as much attention as it had received.

Accomplishments at the level of Angelou’s or Einstein’s are rare, but their feeling of fraudulence is extremely common.” TED-Ed

Comic depecting little characters talking about imposter syndrome.
No, we really love your work! (Source: Honey Dill Comics)

This is imposter syndrome━the feeling like you are “secretly” less capable than your peers and mentors think, and that somehow you’ve “lucked” into all of your achievements thus far. You worry that one day they will figure out that you’re a fraud, or worse, realize you’re actually not smart or good enough for your role or profession.

Also known as imposter phenomenon [1], imposter experience, or, collectively, imposterism, imposter syndrome disproportionately affects underrepresented groups, though all age groups, (from teens to professionals near retirement), gender identities, and other grouping indicators have shown documented cases of this issue [1, 2].

Here’s a short list of how imposter syndrome can manifest itself:

  1. Feeling constantly unqualified, no matter your level of education or skill
  2. Intense anxiety that the quality of your work or your ability is not up to par
  3. A fear of failure rooted in not being “enough” in some capacity━not smart enough, gritty enough, creative enough, etc.
  4. A nagging feeling that someday everyone will realize you aren’t “what you say you are” or present yourself as
  5. Intense self-doubt that, despite your best efforts, you might not make the kind of impact you want to make

After each of the above items, you can tack on any of the following caveats: despite a mountain of evidence and achievements to the contrary, despite you having a history of great feedback, despite you having colleagues and mentors who believe in your capabilities, etc.

Comic where a boss praises a worker and he thinks she hates his work.
Internalize the positive. (Source: Work Chronicles)

However, imposter syndrome’s power lies in the fact that you often can’t internalize these positive caveats when you are feeling so negatively about yourself.

Imposter Syndrome as a Writing Roadblock

While it may not seem to be a straightforward connection at first, imposter syndrome can severely hamper writing and research progress due to the onslaught of anxiety it brings. After all, if you already feel unworthy and plagued by the fear you’ll be “found out” for being “less than,” how can you do your best work?

If you’re worried that your research proposal might actually be embarrassingly bad, will you want to work on it?

If you get positive feedback on a cover letter from your advisor and still think, “They’re just being nice. I probably won’t be able to pull this off,” will you push for bigger and better opportunities?

Even if the answer to any of these questions is a “yes” only sometimes, the issue of imposterism is that it’s taking things from you━your confidence, power, motivation, and drive. So, like writer’s block, it’s important to understand and articulate it so that you can move past it in both your daily life and career.

A cat crying over his 10 years of experience.
Can you never repeat the question again? (Source: dannysteenman / Twitter)

The truth is that you’ve worked hard. The truth is that you are capable. The truth is that you belong where you are because you did the work to get there.

How to Overcome Imposter Syndrome

There are a few basic ways you can combat imposter syndrome and remove it as a writing roadblock.

  1. Articulate the issue.

Finally being able to name what that nagging, anxious feeling is can be empowering in and of itself. You have to put intention behind anything you choose to work toward, so the first step here is to call out the issue when you feel it so that you can intentionally work toward removing the block. Just like calling out writer’s block, you will get faster at naming the issue with time and practice.

2.   Talk about it.

While no one loves talking about problems they are having, especially at work or school for fear of looking weak, one study showed up to 82% of participants [2] dealt with imposter syndrome. Once you openly talk about it, you will find that many others you

trust and respect also deal with it. They can both empathize and support you in your efforts to move past it.

3.   Keep notes.

If your main imposterism hang up is that you feel that everyone’s feedback is disingenuous━like they are “going easy” on you and your work━keep a list of statistics that remind you this is false. Record things like admissions statistics, class rank, or even what percentage of grant/scholarship applicants were funded, as they pertain to your work.

If you only seem to remember the negative feedback, reviews, or bad grades, keep a list of the feedback and other achievements you’re most proud of so that you can ground yourself in that. Your brain can fixate on the few bad teaching reviews out of thirty, or the one bad grade in a quarter, skewing your view of your accomplishments even if only a small percentage was negative.

If, when things go wrong, you always seem to find a way to blame yourself, write down the actual cause of the problem once you find it. Equipment failures and other such issues might, at the surface, seem to be your fault, but as I found in my PhD, if someone bumps into an experimental setup, or if a piece of tubing rated for high temperature fails prematurely, there’s nothing I could do about it. Blaming myself for these types of issues didn’t change the fact that I had to re-do it. It just made me feel worse during the process.

These ideas are easy in theory but take time to put into practice because, on some level, you have to retrain your brain. You have to change the negative internal monologue you have about your skills, potential, and work ethic.

Procrastination as a Writing Roadblock

Procrastination can be a very potent writing roadblock that can persist for long periods and severely hinder progress. It’s extremely frustrating to encounter because, if given the choice, you would actively opt to make progress and get your work done well before your deadlines, instead of procrastinating. Not being able to stop procrastinating can make you feel helpless and stressed about the growing mountain of work in your queue.

Procrastination is not doing what needs to be done and, instead, deciding, whether fully consciously or not, to do it at a later time.

Garfield is lazy. You are not. You want more than lasagna. (Source: garfield.com)

When you have assignments or tasks that need to be completed, but you don’t feel like working on them, or, for whatever reason, feel as though you actually cannot work on them at that moment, there is a choice.

Procrastinating isn’t always an intentional choice, but when trying to force yourself to write or start a project, it’s easy to get distracted. Then, once you’re already doing something else, if you realize you’re procrastinating, it’s hard to choose to get out of that loop. Of course, at other times, you sit down to write and find yourself not making progress, so you make the conscious choice to procrastinate.

Procrastination can manifest itself as:

  1. Feeling mentally blocked and lacking ideas and clarity
  2. Choosing to do a less important task than the pressing one
  3. Feeling stuck or weighed down by the task
  4. Worrying that your work won’t meet the standard, with anxiety over the outcome
  5. Being overwhelmed by the task, and not knowing where to start

None of these feel great, which is why it’s so easy to choose to put your writing or task off until “later.”

However, “later” is a nebulous concept, and when there are deadlines, the stress of not having worked on a task that needs to be finished soon creates its own negative feedback loop within your workflow.

Procrastination vs. Laziness

Image of a bear laying on a tree branch, bemoaning procrastination.
At least you're doing...something? (Source: memegenerator)

There is an important distinction between procrastination and laziness. Laziness is not caring to work toward something━it’s apathetic, lacking drive and commitment. Procrastination, on the other hand, is about not feeling able, “on,” or “in the flow” when you need to be executing on a task, and instead choosing to put it off or work on something else.

Since it isn’t beneficial to call yourself lazy in your internal monologue if the real issue is procrastination, here’s a simple question to ask yourself to help find the distinction:

If I could choose to “feel” empowered to work on this task now, would I?

If yes, then it’s procrastination.

If no, then it’s laziness.

How to Overcome Procrastination

Procrastination is a difficult issue to tackle because it feels counterintuitive to push yourself when you are already at a point where you feel you can’t or won’t do your best work, even if you try your hardest. It is an easier roadblock to identify and call out in yourself, but that doesn’t stop the helpless feeling you have when you’re dealing with it.

Here are some ideas to try for combating procrastination:

  1. Recognize you are procrastinating, and be intentional about trying options to break free. Don’t beat yourself up about it━do something about it.
  2. Reflect on why you are procrastinating. If you are anxious about the assignment, overwhelmed with life as a whole, or are worried about failing, articulating it can help you make a more effective plan.
  3. Take huge tasks and break them into very small pieces that can be accomplished in a morning or afternoon or less. Having a ladder with a lot of closely spaced rungs is much more helpful than a ladder with a few rungs spaced far apart. This is an easy way to empower yourself to make constant progress and keep from getting stuck, and you can do it at any point in a project, not just at the start.
  4. Make a list of ONLY 1-3 finite tasks to complete for the following day. Do this at night so that you can begin immediately in the morning. You will feel better when you accomplish these tasks, and that confidence could help you find a writing/working flow state.
  5. Do activities like exercising and meditation━these boost your energy, give you a sense of accomplishment, sharpen your overall focus, and fuel you in your drive to succeed.
  6. Be offline, away from distractions, and mitigate issues like a messy desk that take your focus from the task at hand.
Comic depicting two ladders. Rungs close together lead person to the top. Rungs spaced apart leaves person on ground.
It's all about the sectioning. (Source: unknown)

Waiting to “feel like it” is not the answer to procrastination unless you have no deadlines and endless time to wait. Intentional action and finding remedies that work for you are the keys to ending procrastination.

Some of these will work well for you, and others won’t. You may even find that in different seasons of life or stress levels, some work better than others. The important thing is to make the choice to try something different, rather than just browsing on your phone for hours.

Conclusion

Writing roadblocks are progress barriers, but with a little self-awareness, intention, and experimentation, you can learn to mitigate and overcome them.

In our upcoming series, The Unproductive Feedback Loop, we will take a deeper dive into how all three of the major writing roadblocks we’ve discussed in this series can contribute to a deeper-rooted, longer-lasting feeling of being stuck. We’ll discuss the loop itself, as well as how to get out of it, get unstuck, and build a workflow that helps you better negotiate these issues so that you don’t get stuck making little progress for long periods of time ever again.

References

[1] Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, research & practice, 15(3), 241.

[2] Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., Nelson, R. S., Cokley, K. O., & Hagg, H. K. (2020). Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review. Journal of general internal medicine, 35(4), 1252–1275. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-019-05364-1

How to overcome writing roadblocks graphic.
Our handy-dandy chart, once again. 




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Emily Perry, PhD

Emily Perry is a PhD, educator, and BD Specialist who loves all things science, education, and art. When she's not creating, you can find her outside doing something fun with her dog, Cass.

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