What To Write About When You Don’t Know What To Write About

I drafted this post on Tuesday afternoon at 2pm. I’m sitting in cafe in Saigon right now at around 10am Wednesday morning editing it.

I had plans to go clubbing with friends last night, but after reflecting a bit more on my last year, I decided to sleep in and get to work in the morning.

Whenever I take a vacation, I get the itch to do more meaningful work. The caveat to this is, I often feel stuck; the tasks to complete each day aren’t obvious and straightforward.

I feel more financially secure today that I have in the past, and perhaps as a result, I’m extremely optimistic about the future. In part because of where I am now (in a cafe, in Saigon, surrounded by friends), and in part because I’m fascinated by “what is to come” (futuristic is one of my core strengths).

I’m not just fascinated by technology — that is a large part of it. Rather, I’m fascinated by what people are capable of. I’m fascinated by what we, as individual human beings, can accomplish in our own lives.

The democratization of knowledge in the digital age has allowed everyone with access to the internet, rich or poor, to learn the necessary skills to improve their lives.

And fascinated as I may be, I’m not sure what’s going to happen. In part, I feel strongly that the world is getting better, while recognizing that human beings today fall victim to the same biases and behavior patterns as we did thousands of years ago.

One thing that seems to be recurring: a non-stop movement towards autonomy. Independence of mind and body are two ongoing trends that, though not new, appear to be more widely accepted than ever before.

We all love the idea of being ourselves, in control of our lives and our own destinies. But the move towards autonomy comes with new responsibilities. It means that we have to define our goals, desires, and strengths. It means we have to understand precisely what we’re doing, and more importantly, why we’re doing it.

It means cultivating a personal brand that is in alignment with those goals and strengths. One that helps move us forward in a way that creates more long-term freedom and fulfillment.

And that’s not an easy task.

What if you’ve never thought about those goals? What if you’ve never taken the time to notice or pay attention to your strengths?

Throughout my 20s, I found myself repeatedly asking: “What do I want?” It’s not an easy answer. At times, our motivation is comes from a lower-consciousness state of mind: survival and reproduction. Once our basic needs are met, we seek to fulfill “higher” consciousness needs: connection, contribution, and self-actualization.

A pattern common among my friends is this: we meet our basic needs, then immediately move to solve higher needs on Maslow’s ladder. Making $3000 per month? Great, time to start a blog about personal development.

Though many bloggers online dismiss this trend as people creating “just another lifestyle blog”, there is a much deeper movement happening, of which “lifestyle blogging” is just a small symptom.

That is, a general movement of the young millennials who have found a way to meet there needs: find financial security and make friends, while living a life on their terms. It’s no wonder they’ve decided to share their thoughts and experiences with others, to help them do the same.

But we’re torn between two parts: a nagging sense to pick a niche — after all, your writing must be monetized, else what’s the point?  — and an equal-and-opposing force that demands authenticity.

The result: lots of bloggers writing about things they’re sort of passionate about, including half-baked “me-too” listicles that serve no real purpose.

We know that writing is important, but we aren’t quite sure what to write about. 

…which is what I feel every day when I sit down to write.

I love writing. I love speaking even more. But I’m not exactly sure where I’m going.

My end game — if there is one — is just to keep writing.

That is my truth: if I put in the hours, I will develop my voice and skill as a writer, sufficient enough that I can make a living from prose.

Steven Pressfield, author and soldier in the War of Art, mentions this in a conversation with James Altucher:

Altucher: What have you sacrificed in exchange for your [becoming a writer]?

Pressfield: “Everything.”

It’s become apparent, in 3 years of working online, that I’m utterly incapable of doing anything that I don’t find 100% interesting.

Perhaps that was always the case, or perhaps I’ve burned out my ability to do uninteresting things. Whatever that may be, here I am: writing about personal development.

If you’ve made it this far, chances are you you’ve felt the same. The burning desire to write, to get ideas on paper… but, you’re not quite sure where to start.

If that’s the case, here are some simple exercises for getting the ball rolling. I’ve tried them, and they work for me.

In fact, these techniques were the “fuel” for some of the more popular posts on this site.

How to discover good ideas to write about

The answer to ‘What Do I Write About When I Have Nothing To Say?’

The best solution I’ve found so far is to have writing triggers. You could pound your head against the wall all day, waiting for inspiration, but it will never “just appear” if you don’t use triggers to get going.

Triggers are something you can use over and over to spark your creativity. They can be anything, and they are limitless (you can use the same trigger as many times as you want — and triggers tend to get stronger with use).

Triggers are like having habits that run themselves, without any willpower investment on your part. Once triggered, they lead to a predictable action.

Triggers are valuable because they remove uncertainty. The process of writing (and any other art) is a struggle against one’s own internal resistance. In confronting the resistance, we grapple with uncomfortable emotions like fear and uncertainty.

I’ve found that, by adding reliable triggers, I’m able to start writing something, even when I feel like I have nothing to write about.

Triggers that help me start writing

Music – There is power in music. Our mood tends to match the mood of the music we listen to. I default to rhythmic tunes with a good beat to get in a flow state — usually old school hip hop or uplifting trance playlists. I recommend this one for long writing sessions.

Books and Podcasts — to have great ideas, you need to be an infovore. I hate that word, but it accurately touches on who you need to be to continue to have great ideas. By putting myself at the digital intersection of interesting streams of information, I benefit from the serendipity of idea sex .

Coaching/Prompts — my businesses have been pretty sporadic. My friends and family probably think of me as someone who can’t make up his mind. There’s certainly an element of truth to that. One way I’ve added a bit of consistency to the growth of my business is by hiring coaches and mentors. For writing, in particular, I hired a coach on Coach.me. She sends me daily prompts and holds my feet to the fire, making sure I do the work every day.

Social Pressure / Fear — we often hear that, to increase the likelihood of sticking to a habit, we should make our goal public. With equal fervor, we hear the trope that sharing goals is not such a good thing, because it “diffuses their power”. I take a more pragmatic view: some sharing is effective, but ultimately success boils down to properly setting up incentives. A simple way to accomplish this is through strong disincentives — penalties for reneging on your word. Two penalties that have worked well for me in the past: 1) donating money to a charity or cause you loathe (the approach I used to start this blog), and 2) working in a group setting where there is a competitive edge toward success.

Conversations — there is no better way to vet an idea than try to explain it to someone else. Next time you have a great idea, explain it to a friend or colleague over lunch. Listen to their questions, as they will reveal holes in your logic. If you don’t have some to intellectually spar with, enter the conversation online: Twitter, Facebook, and Quora.

Model Others — modeling success is my first decision making principle. When I’m stuck, usually it’s because I’m trying to find some totally-original stroke of genius within myself. The fact is, successful people are not self made. Men like Anthony Robbins and Arnold Schwarnezzeger are vocal about the fact that they “stood on the shoulders of giants” to be where they are today. Great copywriters learn their skill by rewriting famous sales letters verbatim. So a little humility goes a long way: don’t be afraid to model others. (You may notice that the blog you’re reading is nearly-identical in structure to this one).

Still looking for writing ideas? Try one of these approaches:

  • Write about your biggest mistake.
  • Summarize and review a great book. (see: James Clear and Derek Sivers)
  • Write a counterpoint to another article.
  • Write about your insecurities (see: James Altucher)

Things that prevent me from writing

Distracting Work Environments – I don’t care how good the coffee is at your favorite cafe. If the people around you are talking too loud, or the music just plain sucks, move.

Lingering Anxieties – When I write well, it comes from a place of grounding. Centeredness. A moment when I’m calm and collected. If I’m anxious about something — usually, relationships or money — it’s very difficult to find the clarity and perspective I need to get my thoughts on paper. When that’s the case, I put the pen down and address the situation. Once I’ve reached some basic resolution, I’m

Lack of Discipline — stating the obvious? Perhaps. Yet, by now we all know the work habits that lead to maximum productivity: intense bursts of focused work, with proper breaks in between. Most entrepreneurs I know some variation of the Pomodoro Technique to get things done during the day. When I stick to Pomodoro sessions, writing comes easily. When I don’t, I either burn out or struggle for ideas. My preference is 27/5, but also do well with 45/10. It’s not always exact, but the principle is the same: focused work, followed by absent-minded, technology-free breaks.

Food — if you exercise a lot, you’re probably hungry at least most of the time. I write in the morning when will power is highest, and like many others, default to a 8/16/8 intermittent fasting schedule. When fasted, it’s easier to focus. If I eat breakfast, I feel hungrier throughout the morning, and food is always on my mind.

Triggers that are TBU (“True But Unhelpful”)

These are triggers that help me get the ball rolling, but stop there. The writing ends up being illogical, not so valuable to people other than myself.

Stream Of Consciousness Writing – I’ve spent hundreds of hours writing stream of consciousness. It’s great way to build emotional momentum at the start of a work day, which increases the likelihood of coming up with ideas. It’s a great way to “just get out of my own head”. Stream of consciousness writing is maintenance, something I need to do just to reach a sense of normalcy (what Rainn Wilson calls a “depression condom” h/t Tim Ferriss). Yet despite its benefits, stream-of-consciousness writing has never produced something of real value for other people. It’s an entirely-personal exercise.

Checking In – checking in means observing and writing about your immediate thoughts and emotions. It’s a quick and effective lifehack for bringing yourself into the present moment, thus lowering anxiety. From a place of calm, writing becomes easier. But the actual check in shouldn’t be used as a crutch for writing or idea generation. It’s a separate practice, the goal of which is just to cage the monkey mind. Much like stream-of-consciousness writing, checking in is true in the sense that it works, but best used as a warm-up exercise.

Drugs and Alcohol — it’s quite common for artists of all sorts to use drugs and alcohol to stimulate their creative juices. Admittedly, this does work for me… some time. Coffee and wine are great; the best sales copy I ever wrote was after microdosing LSD. Yet, it’s tough to control for these effects, so I don’t count drugs or alcohol as triggers. (But still enjoy using them, on occasion).

Caveats

1. Triggers can be anything. When developing a writing habit, there’s a temptation to go full-on Thoreau, holing up in a remote cabin and cutting yourself off from the world to get focused and increase productivity. And while that may be an effective strategy at some point, it’s not a good approach at the outset. You need to say yes to a lot of stuff first, before you adopt the Fuck yes or nah mindset. Try stuff, see what sticks, discard the rest.

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless and add what is specifically your own.” – Bruce Lee

2.  When you find a trigger that works, use it. The more often you cycle between trigger –> writing –> result, the deeper you’ll etch that neural pathway in your brain. Be mindful of when things actually work, especially when things work in ways you didn’t expect.

3. Stay flexible — What works one day may not work the next. Life comes up. Change is inevitable. View the change as a challenge and opportunity to learn something new, rather than an excuse to succumb to writer’s block.