A personal reflection about the motivations and obstacles of starting something new.·
This is my fifth attempt at writing a first blog post. Yes! My fifth attempt! Why is writing a first blog post so hard for me? I have wanted to write for a very long time now and getting actually started is probably the biggest burden. It's always hard to start something new, something you might not be good at. This is a personal reflection on how I want to make writing work for me. It might also help you to start writing or start something else you always wanted to do. Let's figure this out.
Why do I want to write?
Are you very knowledgable about a specific topic? Do you have a certain expertise that defines you in your work place? Then you have built a Circle of Competence, a thought pattern used by Warren Buffet in a shareholder letter in 1996. Each of us develops knowledge throughout our lives. There are areas we feel comfortable and knowledgable about and other areas where we admit that we just don't have all the answers yet.
In the last couple of years I have developed a Circle of Competence in the area of web accessibility. Accessible websites can be used by people with diverse abilities. They are optimized for assistive technologies such as screenreaders, screen magnification software or people who rely on keyboard interaction.
Accessibility is a broad subject and it's impossible to know everything about it. Through my work, I have noticed that I have gathered a lot of knowledge in different areas in this broad sphere. I have been able to raise awareness for the importance of the topic and advise co-workers on how to make websites more accessible. Software teams need to be mindful about the challenges people with disabilities face when browsing the web and develop a mindset to make everything they build accessible.
From my experience, my co-workers really love to learn about accessibility. They love to become better at what they do and include more users in the process. I predict that they will also really love my blog (shout-out to my co-workers ✌️).
After reflecting on the why in "why do I want to write", it's quite obvious to me that I am meant to be doing this. Writing a blog allows me to do 3 things:
- Share my knowledge of accessibility by raising awareness and allowing others to make their websites more accessible
- Extending my Circle of Competence by teaching myself on a sub-area in the broad accessibility spectrum (e.g. building websites for color-blind people or building accessible web forms)
- Write about other areas in the spectrum of User Experience Design that I'm enthusiastic about and how software in general has a significant impact on our lives, behaviours, habits and ways of thinking
I'm writing this blog to make others understand user experience design, accessibility and the role design plays in our lives better. As a user experience designer with a decade of experience in the software sphere, these are the topics that move me. These are the topics I'm most passionate about. I'm writing this blog to tell stories and finally: I'm writing this blog to make the world a little better.
I strive to remind myself by coming back to these reasons whenever I feel a lack of motivation.
What's stopping me?
It took me quite a lot of energy to get to this point. How come there have been four blog post attempts before I ended up with this one?
First and foremost: I'm my own worst critic. My high personal standards for my work have stopped me from doing what I always wanted to do. The first time I meant to start my blog was in 2016 on Medium. Back then I wrote a blog post about user feedback that I never ended up publishing. The reason being that I didn't even work as a UX Designer then. In my mind I was in no place to write about the topic with the lack of work experience or proper education in the field. I put off fulfilling my dreams by 7 years, just because I was so hard on myself.
These days, I feel definitely experienced and knowledge enough but find different reasons to procrastinate and put off my writing. Here is my best-of list:
- I don't like doing the research
- My writing is not good enough
- The blog post grows larger than expected
Since you are reading this blog post right now, it proves that I did eventually find strategies to tackle every one of those issues. Let's dig in.
I don't like doing the research
A decent blog posts needs proper research. Why is the topic relevant? Who has been involved in the topic before me and can contribute to my writing? Research is the necessary fuel for many blog posts.
While I believe all of that, I'm really struggling with this part of the writing process. I want to get into the execution part of writing as soon as possible. Sitting down to do boring old research really appears to slow me down. Same goes for my vacation planning by the way. I like the execution part (you know the part where you get to travel, lie on the beach and drink fancy cocktails) but hate the planning part. What to see, what to do, what to eat, how to get around. I hate it.
I think the main reason why I'm not very fond of the research is because it is usually right at the beginning of the process. And we all know how hard it is to start something new.
What has been helping me is just to grin and bear it. Getting rid of all distractions, setting a 25 minute timer and just digging into the topic. That's how I roll. As soon as the timer goes off, I take a short 5 minute break before I indulge in another 25 minute session. After a total of 3-4 sessions I take a longer break. This is what's called the Pomodoro Technique invented by Francesco Cirillo. It has been part of my work flow ever since I discovered it when I was working on my bachelor thesis in 2013. In order to track my sessions, I have been using a little producitivty app called Forest. It lets you plant in-game trees by being productive and working without distractions. After a while, you have created your very own productivity forest.
I've realized that once I'm finally in my work flow, it's hard to stop me.
My writing is not good enough
Another thing I'm very perfectionistic about is my writing style. In my everyday communication I try to be very clear about the messages I send into this world. Naturally, I expect the same from my writing.
Practice makes perfect. So it's asking quite much to expect perfectionism right from the get-go. I have gained some writing expericence over the years. Back in 2018, I started writing a Gratitude Journal. I developed a routine of writing down 3 things that I liked about my day. It might sound tough at first but once I got started, I realized how easy it is to think of just 3 things. Usually my diary entries have up to 5 or 6 things. Small things make the list such as "a warm evening stroll" or "being productive at the library". These entries are a summary of my day and writing them down helps me process what is happening in my life. They help me be more mindful and more connected to myself. Reading these entries even years later allows me to remember individual days and reflect on who I used to be.
A nice way to train your resilience and optimism in life, I can't recommend starting one enough.
Another factor that is giving me a sense of not-good-enough is social media. I feel measured by the high standards that this social media world asks of us. Over the years, I have noticed a tendency on Medium to optimize blog posts to the liking of social media. I'm not arguing that blogs benefit from catchy, shiny names for blog posts or optimizing for readablility. But I'm not writing this blog with the sole purpose to compete in this social media machinery or to promote click bait. I'm creating this blog first and foremost for me.
The blog post grows larger than expected
In my previous four first-blog-post-attempts, I have very soon reached the point where my blog post became larger than planned.
Originally, I really just wanted to announce to the world that I'm writing a blog by writing a blog post about writing a blog post (as one does). But very soon the whole thing escalated. Writing about writing turned into writing about how today's web is flawed and how social media but mostly advertising is responsible for it. And that turned into the whole question of whether blogging can save the web. It would have turned out to be an interesting blog post indeed, but you can imagine how crushed I felt to put all of this into a single blog post.
I have noticed that this concern (does this have a name? it probably should have) affects other writers too. In his blog, Thi clearly distinguishes between a blog post and a note. I can see that Thi asks himself similar questions such as who is his writing for and whether he's fine with providing content that is less polished. He even would accept errors in notes wheras blog posts would potentially contain fewer errors.
I haven't made up my mind entirely, yet I don't see any reasons not to write shorter blog posts every once in a while. What's so bad about it?
How to actually write a blog
Now, that I can clearly see the motivation behind my blog and have also found ways to overcome my obstacles I can simply sit down and write my blog, right? Well, no. Of course not. As soon as I sit down to actually write my blog, I fade out. It's hard to concentrate. It's hard to get started. Starring on a blank white page is killing me. How to overcome this last obstacle?
Cal Newport, associate professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University might have the solution to this problem. Deep work allows us to create the conditions necessary to commit to our work with sharpened focus and free of distractions. He explains that we need to change our habits of how we address work.
- Work deeply: Block time in your day, in which you want to work deeply. Hide your phone in a drawer, turn off email and your instant messaging clients (or put them to Do not Disturb). I try to work in focused 25 minute sessions using the Pomodoro Technique.
- Embrace Boredom: The smartphone era has drastically reduced our attention span. We forgot what it means to be bored and have lost our ability to concentrate as a consequence. Regain this ability by embracing boredom and resisting the temptation to pull out your smartphone at every occasion: at the bus stop, while waiting for your lunch date or while sitting on the toilet.
- Quit Social Media: Often we fill these "boring" occasions with brief and mindless interactions on social media. If we find ways to reduce social media altogether, we will regain precious time and brain capacity that can be used in different areas of our lives. I personally have quit Instagram half a year ago because I decided it had too much control over me and I found little value in it anymore.
- Drain the Shallows: Develop rituals in which you do what you set out to do. I'm trying to cultivate a habit of writing in my mornings before going to work. I started going on short walks in the morning, right afer I wake up (yes, even before having a cup of coffee!). After that, I'm digging into a 30 to 60 minute writing session.
It's incredible how much you can get done once you are in the deep work setting. It allowed me to finally do what I set out to do for such a long time. No more procrastination!
Follow your dreams
So this could be it. Your potential strategy to finally start something new that you have put off for way too long. For me, I have dreamt about being a blogger and launching a personal website for years. Even before I worked as a UX designer I tried myself out as a blogger on Medium but I allowed my high standards to get the better of me. These days are now over.
Here is my personal step-to-step guide that allowed me to follow my dreams (free to use on your own):
- Think about the motivation behind your pursuit. What is so great about it? How is it evolving you? How could it be benefitting others, if that's something you want?
- What are things you keep telling yourself that are stopping you to get started? Write them down and face them head on.
- Once you've convinced yourself that there is no good reason to continue putting off your dreams, do it. Get rid of distractions, set your timer to 25 minutes and dive into deep work mode. Pomodoro style. 🍅
I can recommend a book to my German readers out there that has introduced me to many of these productivity techniques: A little blue book called "Machen" (to do / to make / to create) (nomen est omen).
You can do it too! ✨