Write or Do Nothing – a Recipe for Writing by Neil Gaiman

If you follow my work you know that I’m someone who collects writing advice and reads a lot of books on writing and productivity, but finding a truly revolutionary advice, the one that can shift your view in 180 degrees comes as often as Halley’s comet; some see it once in their life, some see it twice, and the unfortunate ones never see it.

Yes, I’ve learned a lot from various sources but I‘ve often had to tweak things around to suit my purpose. There wasn‘t a holy grail; a secret formula, a carved in stone principle. And, that’s something entirely normal, that’s how we humans work; we build upon the thing which others have built before us.

As Carl Sagan once said:

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

Meaning, that if you want to take credit for the whole thing, you need to invent all its parts.

For quite some time, I was searching for the anti-procrastination pill; something that will help me stay in the chair and write, instead of binging on something useless or not as important as fiction writing for someone who likes to call himself a fiction writer.

Writers are an odd species; we like to write; we enjoy creating worlds and telling stories, but when we sit down to do the work, it slips from our fingers like a squid and we end up doing something entirely absurd, like learning how to draw a human face using the famous Loomis method.

Not that I have something against artists or the Loomis method, but that’s not what I intend to do when I wake up early in the morning, brew a cup of coffee and sit in front of my laptop screen to write and sometimes I end up doing exactly that.

I’ve tried blocking certain apps using a software like Cold Turkey or Focus, but I would still find something useful to read on the internet and distract me from work, so I had to block the entire internet during my writing sessions, and my writing block starts at 4:30 in the morning and it ends at 7:00 am, when my daughter usually wakes up. And, that‘s plenty of time to waste.

Right now, during my writing blocks I can only access Google Docs or Trello from my laptop, and my iPhone is a common brick until 8:00 am when my scheduled downtime finishes. Even for that, my wife needed to put a password on my Screen Time, or I would just tap ‘ignore for 15 minutes’ because 15 minutes is nothing and I would still waste a lot of time doing a couple of 15 minutes sessions of ‘let me see what’s new in the world’.

Even with my ‘no internet policy’, I still find certain ways to procrastinate offline; lik arranging my books by the alphabet and genre, arranging files on my computer, exercising when it‘s not time for an exercise, learning the perfect posture for running, reorganizing my daily schedule, becoming faster at solving the rubic’s cube and other similar useful stuff.

These things happen once or twice per week, and it might not seem as much, but it is way too much when all you‘ve got is 2 or 3 hours per day when you‘re alone and you’re able to write without interruptions.

During my recent procrastination episode, I decided to call my writing session ‘The Motivational Day’ and I listened to a marathon length Neil Gaiman’s interview at Tim Ferris’s Show.

Although I’ve seen a lot of Gaiman’s interviews and speeches, and I’ve also seen the Master Class, I enjoyed this particular interview very much.

There were things which I already knew, like his beginnings and some of his writing principals; there were parts about his relationship with Terry Pratchett which were a novelty for me, and there was one writing advice, that ,I must admit, changed my life.

Tim asked Neil about his writing routine, and at one point Neil said he had a single rule which has been working for him since the beginning of his writing career, and the rule is simple and that’s what makes it brilliant, revolutionary, and life-changing.

The rule goes something like this:

When Neil goes to his little cabin to write, he can do two things there, either write or do nothing at all.

That just blew up my mind.

It’s so brutal. All these boundaries which I put on myself are restricting my freedom. We humans, we like to be free and whenever someone builds a wall around us we demolish it, even if it will cost us our lives or something less significant than a life, like our writing careers.

But, when you have an option to do something instead of the thing you are supposed to do, although that something is actually nothing, the freedom of choice you‘re given becomes liberating.

The real brilliance in this method lies in the fact that doing nothing is boring. The boredom is the reason we humans create art. We are equipped with this powerful brain and we must always use it, or we go nuts. The most natural things we do is to try to find meaning; we try to do something with the limited time we’ve given to spend on this planet and we ask ourselves – What‘s it all about?.

The whole thing freed me from myself.

During the past week, I‘ve been more productive than ever and writing has never been more enjoyable. Because, when it gets hard I don‘t scroll through my twitter or Instagram, I do nothing instead. And, after a while, I go back, and I feel fresh and it‘s easy. It’s simple.

If you struggle with procrastination, I highly advise you to see this amazing interview and I’m sure you will take a valuable lesson and some positive energy which will help you carry on with your projects.