When I fall out of my writing habit, most often it’s because I can’t decide what to write about. Choosing an article topic can be paralyzing. Here’s an exercise I use to come up with new topics. Afterward, the issue is not that I have too little to write about, but too much.
When coding, you don’t let “not knowing what to code about” stop you, do you?
No, you have a process to turn bug reports and feature requests into code. Having a process for problem-solving, like design thinking, get’s you unstuck and gets you moving forward.(For more on solving coding problem deliberately, check out this post from Justin Fuller: How to understand any programming task.)
Writing can be the same. And it’s important to keep up, It’s been one of the best skills I’ve leveraged to improve my career.
There’s plenty of places to look for initial topic ideas:
Once you have a topic, run it through the format gauntlet, and voila! Several new starting points for posts. Let’s take “refactoring a react components” because that’s one I pulled out of “recent challenges from work.” Your topics might look something like this:
“My topic doesn’t mesh well with one or more of the formats.”
No worries. Skip it and continue moving forward. You’re going to come up with more potential topics then you could write so don’t sweat it.
Write “X” instead. You don’t have to know the exact count until the end.
“I started writing, and it went off the rails.”
You don’t have to commit to these ideas. Sometimes I end up starting one article and finishing another.
“This topic is too long; I’ll never finish this!”
“Writing about technical stuff is boring.”
Articles don’t have to be technical. Plenty of developers also like reading about topics like soft skills and career tips.
“I’m not trying to be a guru here. Why am I acting like I’m the expert?”
Your goal should be above all else, to be helpful. You aren’t writing for yourself; you are creating a small thing that can help someone else in the world. And isn’t that something we all enjoy doing?
“I Don’t know which topic to pick.”
Short answer, whichever one you can write, finish and publish. You can’t help anyone if you don’t ship. The whole goal here is to get over the paralysis of not knowing what to write about. Just take some inventory, sketch out some ideas, and get started! The more you write, the more you’ll find you have to say. Writing is a marathon, and you can switch lanes at any point.
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Looking for ways to spend less time doing parts of your job that you hate? You have three options:
I’m a minimalist. I like to take a Marie Kondo approach in business and life. Tasks get on out plate more quickly than they get off, and we don’t always stop to reflect and ask: “Does this work provide value? should we do it at all?”
Let’s assume for this article that the task has passed the sniff test. You can’t eliminate it. Then move on to the next two options: If a computer can do it automate, else we delegate the task to someone else.
There’s an important step before you can productively do either: document your process. Documenting your processes is something that you should be doing at any stage of your business, for a company of any size. I was documenting new processes on day 1 of my one-man shop.
Everyone has systems in their heads, whether they realize it or not. Do you have a morning routine? A strategy for handling your inbox? These are almost a process. However, I’m a firm believer that:
Ideas in your head are fuzzy and abstract. Getting a system out of your head and out into the real world has several benefits:
Many people get hung up here. Don’t. It can be anything that lays out how the job gets done. Some common examples:
You don’t have to pick one, choose the one that makes the most sense for the process at hand. Don’t try to force too much uniformity or rigidity. It also doesn’t have to be just one of these; it can be a mix.
Recently I had to consider the following facts:
So the conclusion was obvious. I shouldn’t be doing outreach; I should be building the outreach system. So I decided to tackle the problem in that way. The process is broken down into three parts.
By creating a process, I turned outreach into something fun instead of being a chore. Now I’m not just sending emails; I’m testing and iterating on parts of the process. I was able to shrink down the amount of time I spend doing the outreach so that I can spend more time doing work I enjoy.
Try documenting one of your systems today. It shouldn’t take you more than 20 minutes. Pop open a Google Doc, and write down the steps or create a template for just one task. See how much easier that task feels the next time you go to tackle it. How much more confidence you have. See how many minutes you save. Once you get over the hump and get started working on processes and see the benefits, it’s almost addicting.