How Interesting! Gaining Distance from Difficult Thoughts and Emotions

I want to explain the “How interesting!” technique I referred to in yesterday’s post:

“Things I learned from my horse trainers #42: practice saying, ‘Hmmmm… how interesting.’ Say it when you’re frustrated. Say it when you’re mad. Most importantly, say it before you say or do anything else (including hit the “send” or “post” button). It should be the first thing out of your mouth when things go wrong–or don’t meet your expectations…” ~ Kathy Sierra

Lisa on Horse
Lisa on a big horse (1 year old)

This tiny bit of wisdom from the world of horse training can be applied to all sorts of challenging situations and can be used to avoid impulsive reactions that we later regret. Parents can use it when they open the bathroom door to see their toddler has stuffed half a roll of toilet paper down the toilet, or when teens do or say something that pushes our buttons. We can say it to ourselves when we feel the “itch” that we don’t want to scratch, such as polishing off the rest of the ice-cream, or reaching for the cigarette or other temptation we are trying to give up. We can keep it in mind when someone says something “mean” or unthinking that would usually send us directly into a spiral of negative thoughts.

“With horses, the main goal of the ‘how interesting’ technique is to keep you from losing patience and blaming the horse. If you say ‘how interesting,’ it helps you explore reasons, including what your own role in this might be. It makes problems feel more like puzzles.” ~ Kathy Sierra

The next time you feel self-doubt or panic or fear or any other difficult emotion regarding your writing, take a mental step back and say to yourself (or even aloud) “How interesting!” It really does work wonders to gain some perspective and to avoid losing patience with ourselves.

Handle Yourself With Care

“[W]hen we apply the instruction to be soft and non-judgmental to whatever we see at this very moment, the embarrassing reflection in the mirror becomes our friend. We soften further and lighten up more, because we know it’s the only way we can continue to work with others and be of any benefit in the world. This is the beginning of growing up.” ~ Pema Chödrön, Comfortable with Uncertainty (pp. 123-24)

Photo by Gary Scott
Photo by Gary Scott (

I am convinced that one way we can begin to write more and with more joy is to begin to pay attention to the extent to which we are hard and judgmental toward ourselves, to how often we cringe from or lash out at the “embarrassing reflection in the mirror.”

I stayed in bed too long after the alarm went off. I feel like skipping my writing time today—I’m so lazy. I should have listened to my children more yesterday rather than be so wrapped up in myself. I need to relax. I’m a bad friend. I can’t believe I’ve let myself go. I’ve failed yet again. I am so stupid…

Even if we don’t consciously think the words, the cloud of judgment often follows us from morning until night.

If we try to change those ingrained, habitual thoughts through sheer will power, we probably will feel even worse and will be right back where we started: not writing. A better first step is simply to attend to—to notice—the thoughts without judging ourselves yet again or making the thoughts “sticky.”

We don’t even have to label them as negative. We can adopt an attitude of curiosity about ourselves, a non-judgmental “how interesting!” response. We can observe ourselves as a new friend we are just beginning to know, with affection and with the certainty that the friendship will endure.

Assignment for this weekend: Watch the “Handle with Care” video by the Traveling Wilburys, below. Listen to the words, and imagine that the person you are handling with care and learning to lean on is yourself. How does doing so change your relationship with your writing?

The Slow Writer

Photo by Dave Huth
Photo by Dave Huth (CC BY 2.0)

Do you write slowly? Read slowly? Take forever to flesh out an idea? Do you enjoy the satisfaction of deep rather than fast exploration? Do you take pleasure in having the time to revisit and revise? While many gifted and creative people have lightning quick minds, other equally brilliant thinkers make connections at a much slower, more deliberate pace. Consider Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win mathematics’ highest honor, the coveted Fields Medal:

“Mirzakhani likes to describe herself as slow. Unlike some mathematicians who solve problems with quicksilver brilliance, she gravitates toward deep problems that she can chew on for years. ‘Months or years later, you see very different aspects’ of a problem, she said. There are problems she has been thinking about for more than a decade. ‘And still there’s not much I can do about them,’ she said.

Mirzakhani doesn’t feel intimidated by mathematicians who knock down one problem after another. ‘I don’t get easily disappointed,’ she said. ‘I’m quite confident, in some sense.'” Read More

There is that word that has popped up so often in my posts recently: confident. The point isn’t that fast or slow is better, but that we give ourselves permission to be confident in our authentic approach, regardless of whether it is in vogue or understood or even appreciated by others.

See Also

Are you a slow writer? If so, are you confident in your slowness?

Breaking Free From Procrastination

“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” William James

Procrastinate: To defer action, delay; to be dilatory. Often with the sense of deferring through indecision, when early action would have been preferable. ~ OED

Self Portrait - Ticking Away by MattysFlicks
Self Portrait – Ticking Away by MattysFlicks (CC BY 2.0)

This isn’t going to be one of those “I have conquered my faults and now do everything I set out to do in the order in which I should do it” kind of posts. I still procrastinate. Am dilatory. Dawdle. Defer. Drag my feet. Hesitate. Let slide. Linger. Loiter. Play the waiting game. Postpone. Prolong. Protract. Stall. Tarry. And, my favorite, shilly shally.

But I no longer think of myself as a procrastinator.

Why? Because I’ve learned that thinking of myself as a procrastinator doesn’t help me to get things done, a realization supported by the work of psychologist and procrastination expert Dr. Timothy Pychyl:

“[T]he most recent paper we’ve got out for review is about forgiveness. And in fact, it plays in women’s favor. We found a gender difference here, that women who self-forgive, who forgive themselves for procrastinating, are more likely to procrastinate less in the same task the next time. And the rationale there is that when you don’t forgive, there’s a lot of negative emotions associated with that, so you want to avoid it. But if you forgive yourself and then you get a second chance. So absolutely, self-forgiveness, particularly for women, seems to make a difference.” ~ Read more or listen to the podcast, How To Be a Productive Procrastinator, on NRP

As is often the case, dealing with procrastination comes down in part to paying attention to my feelings. Asking myself the question “How do I want to feel tomorrow?” is a good way for me to know whether what I am putting off really should be done now, or if it’s not that big a deal. I will feel bad tomorrow if I don’t work on a short story today that I want to submit by the end of the month. I really won’t lose any sleep over not dusting the tops of the door frames.

Also, I’m noticing that I procrastinate for different reasons, depending on the task. Emails often go unanswered because of perfectionism: I think I should write a long, thoughtful, grammatically perfect response when the other person would probably be happier with a shorter, imperfect reply that at least gets sent. For larger tasks, I often delay simply because I haven’t figured out or taken the time for the very first step: gathering notes for an article in a folder, downloading photos into one file on my computer for sorting, or putting the ironing board and iron in a room where they are easy to use. An object at rest…

This advice from Psychology Today’s Ten Top Tips to End Writer’s Block Procrastination rings true for me and frames the problem more as a simple skill to be learned rather than a character flaw to bemoan:

Decide when to start, and commit to that time. You won’t get far unless you start. That’s obvious. State the “obvious” to yourself and this can help put the matter into perspective. Before that, commit five-minutes to create a plan: What you do first, second, third, and so forth. Include a schedule where you carve out time for each phase of your self-management writing plan. By pushing yourself to start on time, you may avoid the last minute rush and stresses that typically come at the end of a procrastination cycle.

Slate has a special issue devoted entirely to procrastination, in which one article explores the difference between writer’s block and procrastination:

[G]iven that procrastination carries the stigma of sloth and disorganization, it may seem uncharitable to ascribe the dithering disease to the blocked but feverishly ambitious writer—surely, if he weren’t truly stuck, he wouldn’t be finding new Facebook groups to join instead of composing his chef-d’oeuvre? On the other hand, creative-writing instructors often start class with a five-minute automatic-writing exercise for a good reason: There is always something to be written.

Finally, I’ve found it useful to think about times and activities for which I don’t dawdle, and ask myself why. I shop for groceries on time, every week because it’s something my husband and I do together on Sundays (habit and routine). I get the oil changed in our car every four months because the dealership puts a date and mileage sticker on our windshield (written reminders). I more or less keep up with blog posts because I don’t want to be seen as, well, a procrastinator (accountability).

Like Anne Greenawalt at, my top procrastination activity is often social media, and I’m still learning to tell when I am using social media as a professional tool (good), as a way to connect with others in a very real way (also good), as a way to relax (still good), or as a way to shilly shally (not so good).

How would your writing or your self-concept change if you stopped labeling yourself a procrastinator?

See Also

Note: This post is updated from a version first published in here in 2011.

Writers Who Think Too Much

“You can write your way into thinking, but you cannot think your way into writing.” Peter Weller, in an interview with Rebecca Peabody, author of The Unruly PhD

In Thought... by John
In Thought… by John (CC BY 2.0)

I recently had the good fortune to read a pre-publication copy of The Unruly PhD: Doubts, Detours, Departures, and Other Success Stories, by Rebecca Peabody, Head of Research Projects and Programs at the Getty Research Institute. The book is a fascinating look, through first-person accounts and interviews, at the process of obtaining a PhD (or not, in some cases) and the many paths that people take after entering a doctoral program.

Because dissertations and professional publications are such a big part of academia, the book also offers valuable perspectives on writing, such as the following thoughts from actor and director Peter Weller (yes, the RoboCop Peter Weller, also an art history PhD student):

“Every writer I’ve ever talked to says it—Gore Vidal, Saul Bellow. Make writing a priority. Hit it in the morning before the detours of daily living get in your way. Even if you have writer’s block, write garbage. Sit your ass in the chair because you can’t save it for a rainy day. I’m a procrastinator; as much as I get done in a day I’d still rather play with my kid, play golf, hang out—do anything else. So you’ve got to do it first. You can write your way into thinking, but you cannot think your way into writing.” ~ Peter Weller

Learn more about The Unruly PhD at the book’s website.

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