Why is it so much easier to focus on what we don’t want than what we do? It’s far simpler to think about failing, never being a good writer, never getting published, never making it big, than it is to imagine being successful and having the writing life we’ve always dreamed of.
Why is that? In part, it’s the way most of us were raised. Parents unintentionally instill a fear-based attitude on their children. We tell our kids, “Don’t run!”, “Don’t interrupt!”, “Don’t get wet!” Our parents did this to us and we do it to our own kids. It’s all done with good intention…we aren’t trying to scar them for life.
But, what this conditioning does is tend to make us fear negative outcomes rather than anticipate positive outcomes.
What that means to us as writers is that it comes more naturally to us to think about what we don’t want (I don’t want to fail! I don’t want to get rejected! I don’t want to work this day job forever!) than it does to hope for what we do want and move confidently toward our bright futures.
Unfortunately, the tendency is also there for our future thoughts to follow our current thoughts.
It’s like riding a bike down a steep hill. Once we’ve got the momentum going of habitually thinking of what we don’t want to have happen, it’s easier for similar thoughts to continue than it is to turn that bicycle around and pedal back up the hill our thoughts toward thinking about what we do want instead.
It’s actually a biological reaction. According to Laura Goodrich in Seeing Red Cars: Driving Yourself, Your Team, and Your Organization to a Positive Future:
“Whichever direction our prominent thoughts lean—either positively or negatively—our brains produce chemical reactions that attract more of those outcomes.”
Goodrich, who works from the principle that if you start looking for red cars, you will see red cars everywhere, says the same applies to our thoughts. If we notice negative thoughts, we will just naturally notice more negative thoughts.
According to Goodrich, there are 9 primary reasons changing our thought patterns is so difficult. I’m only going to mention the 8 that I think really apply to us writers:
1) Ruts in the brain: The path of least resistance is the one we’ve been traveling. Getting out of that rut takes effort.
2) Unproductive Repetitive Behavior: It’s the repetitive nature of our thoughts and actions that creates ruts. They become habits and we are reassured by knowing what’s going to happen.
3) Comfort Zone: It doesn’t matter that we know these thoughts are unproductive or harmful. We develop a familiarity that is difficult to break free from.
4) Lack of Neuropathways: It’s like there’s only one road in and out of our brains. Without other options of highways to travel, we take the same pathway we always take. We need to build alternative routes to our negative habits.
5) Fear: Every one of us has fears. We have to acknowledge them to move past them.
6) Lack of Clarity: Having only a vague sense of the direction you want to go leaves you unable to take the steps to get there. Only by knowing exactly what you want can you focus on the right thoughts to get you there.
7) Lack of Agility: When we haven’t been exercising right thought patterns, we get lazy. Our thought muscles go slack and make it harder to break free of our bad habits.
8) Unproductive Relationship Habits: We often find ourselves in relationships with people who reinforce our bad habits. When our friends and fellow writers have the same negative thought patterns we do, it makes positivity more difficult.
It’s becoming even more difficult to change our negative patterns of thought these days because of the vastly changing landscape of publishing. With e-books taking off and traditional publishing houses changing the way they do business, writers have even more uncertain futures. The fear of the unknown drives us to the relative “comfort” of our old thoughts, no matter how negative they are.
Fortunately, though it’s harder to turn that bike around and start the trek back up the hill, it’s not impossible. It’s also not impossible to turn our thought patterns around and to start to think more about what we do want than what we don’t want.
We just need to retrain ourselves to think more about what we do want, which will just naturally begin to lead us more in that direction.
Goodrich says to:
“Drive your actions toward positive outcomes by purposefully focusing on what you want instead of on what you are afraid of and trying to avoid. You get more of whatever you focus on.”
It can be scary to focus on what we want, because at the same time we need to make sure we aren’t making ourselves unhappy about the fact that we aren’t there yet. We need to keep the destination in sight while enjoying the journey.
Here are some of the ways we can begin to focus on what we want from our writing careers, paraphrasing ideas Goodrich presents in Seeing Red Cars:
1) Get out of the Ruts: Diligently start thinking new thoughts. Reframe how you see things as negative to positive. Tell yourself how you want things to be and where you want to go. Finding a new way of thinking is the first step to changing your thought patterns.
2) Create New Behaviors: Once you come up with some new ways of thinking, practice them. The more often you follow those new positive ways of thinking, the more they will be integrated into your regular thought patterns.
3) Take Baby Steps out of your Comfort Zone: You’re going to find it easier to ease your way into new thought patterns than to try to change all at once. Practice working on thinking about what you want from each of your writing sessions, for example, until it becomes more comfortable to you.
4) Creating New Neuropathways: Every tiny step you take out of your comfort zone and into your new positive way of thinking helps build new neuropathways. Soon you’ll think of more and more ways to creatively imagine what you want from your writing career.
5) Overcome Your Fears with Action: Once you’ve identified what you’re afraid of, you can analyze them better and determine what steps you can take to conquer your fears.
6) Be Clear About What You Want: Get the specifics down on paper of what you do want. Ask yourself questions like, What does success look like for me? What projects do I want to work on? What other activities will I take part in to enhance my creative life?
7) Become More Agile: Flex those positive creativity muscles by taking that clarity you now have about what you want and imagine the outcome as if it had already happened. Imagine you’ve written a successful chapter (instead of thinking only about how difficult you think it might be), and talk about or write down what happened during its writing. How did you bring about a successful writing session? You will more easily accomplish the positive outcome if you’ve already played it out in your mind.
8) Hang With Positive People: Gravitate more toward people who make you smile and think positively about their writing careers. Their positivity will be catchy and help you keep the momentum of thinking about what you do want rather than what you don’t.
Once you’ve begun shifting those negative “don’t wants” to more positive “do wants” you might find that things begin to magically get better for you.
Do you have difficulty remembering to focus on what you do want rather than what you don’t? How do you think it affects your writing? What steps do you plan on taking to change your negative thought patterns to positives?
[Note: The book, Seeing Red Cars, that I mentioned in this post, is a book I read for review and really enjoyed. It’s meant for team-building for businesses, but has some really fabulous worksheet for discovering what you want in every area of your life and how to take steps to get there by concentrating on what you do want instead of what you don’t.]