Brain Pen

A blog about productivity and mental health for writers

Why Writers Have Trouble Starting

How do I go from scrolling on social media to typing away on a draft? Why is it that some writers would rather do their taxes than start writing for the day, despite writing being the most fulfilling thing in the world?


Bear with an anecdote for a sec.

Last week, I went to write at my favorite coffee shop. My roommate was having friends over that evening, so I’d spent the morning cleaning with my roommate so we wouldn’t embarrass ourselves with overflowing trash cans and cat-hair tumbleweeds. It was about noon when I got to the shop, and after the usual pause to chat with baristas, I went upstairs and snagged a seat by the front window.

This shop is great—all warm wood tones and exposed brick, the scent of freshly-ground coffee and the occasional thunderous vibration from the train tracks out front. Third places are crucial to me—if I find the right one, I know I can live in a city. It’s what made me love Shimokitazawa in Tokyo, and what made me dislike living in rural NC, where the only places to go were the Starbucks (where I worked) and an Olive Garden (where they side-eye you for eating alone).

Recently, though, I’ve had trouble working. That day, despite being at my ideal third place, I fiddled around on social media, chatted with the baker who brought me my sandwich, and watched a motivational YouTube video. I reread my previous scene to procrastinate. Despite prizing my own time, it took me forever to finally get started using it effectively. I’m talking two hours from door to draft.

It hasn’t always been this way. I remember in college and in Japan I would run to my third place between classes. No sooner would my butt hit the chair than I was scribbling. Even now, once I’m writing, I don’t usually have trouble continuing to write (except for RSIs, but that’s a separate issue). Occasionally, I can tap back into that instant connection—I did it with UNMAKE, the second book in the Spellhounds series. I had an inkling of what it was—familiar characters and world, exciting conflicts, a return to something established. I wrote so fast and hard I had to ice my arms.

But then I finished,and when I wrote something else, I couldn’t get back in the same groove. It was so much harder to just GET STARTED on anything.

This problem of getting started was buried at the back of my mind, unaddressed, until I came upon the concept in Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before. She said something I found at once profound and intensely recognizable: every action has an ignition cost.

Ignition cost. That phrase captured me. “Ignition” calls up the words “ignite” and “fire”, words we often use to describe creativity and momentum. The word “cost” was a total revelation. I always thought of beginning something as requiring effort, but I had always thought of it in terms of giving. I exert effort to begin a thing. I’ve never thought of it in terms of beginnings having a cost, though it seems obvious. I pay for a sweater. Which means the sweater costs money.

So looking at the idea of ignition cost, I could see why it took me so much fiddling to begin work on my drafts. It costs far more energy to ignite a flame than it does to keep it going, because combustion, just like creativity, creates a self-sustaining energy. The blaze might be our goal, but it’s that initial spark, the friction of a match head on grit, that requires the most effort.

That’s where we need to focus if we want to get stuff done: starting.


How, though?

“Triggers” are a term I came across a few years ago, when I was first having trouble with this. That word has come to have a negative association in terms of mental health, but the origin remains true—a trigger is something that activates a certain thought or behavior. We all have these. I get in the car, which triggers me putting on my seatbelt, without fail or question. There was a time when the first action after opening my laptop was clicking on Google Chrome, no matter what I had grabbed my computer to do.

The advice I read at the time was to establish a work trigger. I’m not sure the term works in 2019, not in a way that sounds healthy, and not in association with the greater world of routines and habits. Also, thinking of creating a trigger also means you have to decide to start the trigger. You have to decide to put in the headphones and bring up your word processor.

I have some things that are designed to be triggers. I make playlists for every property or genre I write in, and they’re a good touchstone—I’ve so often written to these playlists that I’m conditioned to writing when I hear them, or at least dreaming about the world as I drive.

Rubin identified something similar to triggers, except instead of it being a single Pavlovian response, it was a sequence of actions—a transition between one task, like dropping kids off at school, to the next, like working out at the gym. The actions between (getting a coffee at a drive through) can serve as a sort of mental prep, and the more ingrained in to routine they are, the more effective they will be. As a sequence, they are the catalyst for getting started.

Catalyst. There’s a 2019-appropriate replacement word for trigger.


I would like to establish a more routine writing habit. I don’t write every day, and I don’t know that writing every single day is physically healthy when I work 10-hour shifts doing repetitive work, bookended by 45-minute drives. I sometimes write in my down-time at work, but flow-state is impossible when zoning out could mean someone doesn’t get a necessary test.

This just means it’s even more necessary for me to use my weekends or mornings well and dive right into writing. I can’t faff around for two hours first. I need a transition.

How do I figure out my transition?

With ALGEBRA. Oh no.

A + x = B

If B is writing, X is my transition. But what task is my A, the thing to which I tie my transition? The whole formula hinges on the existence of an A. This might be my fundamental issue—I have no idea what a consistent A could be. It has to be something I can immediately tie to this task.

Getting out of the car? No. I get out of the car at home and at the grocery store and at work.

Walking in the coffee shop door? This seems a bit more like a transition, as do the actions of putting in my headphones and starting my playlist.

I need a task. What can I do on my days off, right before I drive to the coffee shop to get writing done?

The idea that comes to mind is yoga. I try to do it every day, which would disqualify it, but maybe if I use a particular yoga sequence and set an intention with it, that will work. There is a particular yoga sequence I like that is a wrist and hand care.

I’m going to try this for a while and see if it starts to help me. Even simply knowing that it’s ignition cost stopping me and not some personal deficiency has helped. Whenever I’ve failed in the last, I’ve beaten myself up. In the spirit of the gentler approach to creativity (and myself) I’ve taken this year, understanding that I might not have the energy to pay the ignition cost has been valuable—not least because it sometimes spurs me to strike the match, just to be contrary.

Do you use catalysts and transitions to write? If yes, what are they? If no, can you think of how you might establish one? What will you try?