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When Disciplining Yourself to Write Doesn’t Work

For years Deb Norton tried to discipline herself to write. She tried writing in the same spot at the same time every single day. She tried yelling at herself. She tried rewarding herself. She tried meditating. She tried isolating herself, seeking writing refuge everywhere from the woods to the desert.

But nothing seemed to work. In fact, it often backfired.

As she writes in her inspiring, idea-filled book, Part Wild: A Writer’s Guide to Harnessing The Creative Power of Resistance“Discipline didn’t bloom in me. It was a mortifying cycle; the more I tightened down on the discipline, the less I wrote.”

Maybe you’re in a similar situation: You’ve tried willing yourself to write. You’ve tried berating yourself. You’ve tried emulating the different routines of super successful writers. You’ve tried coffee. You’ve tried harder. You’ve tried seemingly everything. And you’re still not writing.

And here’s the most frustrating thing: You yearn to write. You like to write. And yet, rather than writing, you frequently find yourself scrubbing toilets (i.e., doing anything and everything but writing, even tasks you normally don’t want to do).

According to Norton, a seasoned writing coach, this actually makes absolute sense. For one, writing takes us to some potentially tough places, and to some potentially tough emotions. There’s a lot of uncertainty: “You don’t know where the writing is going, when or if you’ll be finished, or what dark corner of your own psyche it might draw you into.”

So what do you do?

You get curious.

“Saying you can’t write if you’re not disciplined is like saying you can’t climb a mountain if you’re not a goat. If you’re not a naturally disciplined person and you’re not likely to become one anytime soon, that’s fine,” Norton notes. “Get curious about what’s on top of the mountain, and you’ll find a way to get up there.”

In Part Wild, Norton includes a prompt that capitalizes on our curiosity, which consists of four parts:

  • “Everything I Know About You.” Pick a person you don’t know who piques your curiosity. For instance, if you’re working in a coffee shop or library, simply pick someone who’s in your line of sight. Jot down everything you know about this person—such as their physical appearance and mannerisms. Write for 6 minutes.
  • “Everything I Don’t Know About You.” Next write all the things you don’t know about this person—such as what kind of job they have and whether or not they have kids. Forget trying to write something interesting. Instead “get curious and write whatever comes up.” Again, write for 6 minutes.
  • “Everything I Don’t Know About My Project.” Write about what you don’t know about your personal project. Maybe you write about how you have no clue how your story will end or why you care so much about the subject in the first place. Maybe you write about one of the characters in your novel. “Why does she use such big words? What is her middle name? How come she won’t eat what her husband cooks? How come she always wears blue?” Write for another 6 minutes.
  • Follow Your Curiosity. Read what you wrote in the previous step, and underline anything you’d like to know more about. This helps you to reconnect to the energy that first sparked your project. For instance, if you’re curious about how your story ends, make a list of possible endings. Ask your story, How do you want to end?

You don’t need discipline or willpower to write. You don’t need to bash yourself until you wilt, admit your supposed wrongdoing, and drag yourself back to your desk.

But what can help is to follow your curiosity, even if it’s a mere whisper that says, hmmm, I wonder, hmmm, what if? hmmm, why not? 

Photo by Lê Tân on Unsplash

When Disciplining Yourself to Write Doesn’t Work

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

Margarita is an associate editor at She writes about everything from taking compassionate care of yourself at any weight, shape, and size, to coping healthfully with difficult emotions. Her goal is to give readers practical, empowering tips to better their lives, and to remind you that whatever you're struggling with, you're never, ever alone.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). When Disciplining Yourself to Write Doesn’t Work. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 13, 2020, from


Last updated: 17 Aug 2018
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