Most days as a writer, I wake up excited to tackle everything on my to-do list. My big plans always include ROCKING my daily writing session. I’m always like, “Today is the day I’m going to write 5,000 words in one sitting! Rawr!”
Then writing time rolls around. And… I’m still futzing around the house, weeding the garden, finishing my shower, getting my snack ready. So I’m usually about fifteen minutes late. Then I sit there. And I fiddle with that one button on my keyboard that’s always falling off. Or I decide I need I need to go clip that hangnail on my thumb. Or I pop open a research file to check something—and get sucked in to reading it for thirty minutes.
In short, figuring out how to get stuff done as a writer is sometimes the single hardest part of the job. We all have personal weaknesses that sucker us into wasting time over and over again. As an INTJ in the Myers-Briggs personality typing system, I’m aware that my type is notorious for getting sucked into “analysis paralysis.”
Two weeks ago, I talked about how writers of any personality type can optimize all four of the primary cognitive functions (Intuition, Sensing, Thinking, and Feeling) to enhance our writing capabilities. In the post, I quoted a question I’d received long ago on Twitter from Victoria Nelson (@ledinvictory), who wrote:
Hi! I believe that you’ve mentioned that you’re an INTJ (as am I). Do you ever find yourself caught in a perpetual Ni [Introverted Intuition] phase—the joy of planning/outlining? (I can build bigger and bigger plots & fantasy worlds forever!) And if so, how do you force yourself out and into a Te [Extroverted Thinking] space? This might make an interesting article if you think it would be widely interesting enough for others… Otherwise, I’m always trying to balance the two, not so successfully.
Some of you expressed interest in a full-blown Extroverted Thinking (Te) post. So here it is! For those who aren’t INTJs (and for those who have no idea or care what that is), don’t worry—all the tips I’m going to talk about later in the post can be used by writers of any type to get stuff done. But for those who are INTJs or otherwise interested, here’s the technical intro…
Why INTJ Writers Must Leverage Te to Get Stuff Done
C.G. Jung’s theory on cognitive functions assigns all people four functions—two introverted and two extroverted. These functions are then “stacked” in an alternating order.
If your top function is introverted, then you are considered an Introvert in this system, and vice versa.
If your Judging function (Thinking or Feeling) is extroverted, you are designated a Judger. If your Judging function is introverted, you are designated a Perceiver.
Hence, an INTJ’s functional stack looks like this:
- Introverted Intuition (Ni)
- Extroverted Thinking (Te)
- Introverted Feeling (Fi)
- Extroverted Sensing (Se)
All types feel most at home in the “attitude” (Extroversion or Introversion) of their dominant function. This means that even though our secondary function is more cognitively developed than the tertiary function, we sometimes find it more comfortable to drop down into the less mature tertiary function—since it always operates from the same attitude as our dominant function. (You’ll note the secondary and tertiary functions are always part of the same polarity—making them both either Judging or Perceiving functions.)
This isn’t always problematic, since all the functions are important and offer important capabilities. However, when we consistently bypass our secondary function and its opposite attitude, we end up in what is called a “loop”—endlessly chasing our own tails, stuck in either our Introversion or our Extroversion (depending on which is dominant). This loop inevitably creates problems. For Introverted types, such as the INTJ, the problem is that we get trapped inside our own heads—looping endlessly between Ni and Fi.
This is the “perpetual Ni phase—the joy of planning/outlining” that Victoria was talking about. This is where analysis paralysis can get all too real because however great our ideas, we never get anything done.
For INTJs, part of the difficulty is that we tend to view life and all its problems as a giant chess game—and we don’t like to make even the first move until we’ve played the game out in our heads and know how it’s going to end. As writers, this can lend itself to powerful planning and outlining skills, which in turn (sometimes) help us avoid major rewrites and revisions. But when dealing with something as monumentally complex as a novel, this proclivity to endless planning can also mean we’re never satisfied enough with our planning to actually start writing.
I doubt it surprises anyone who frequents this blog to know I’m an avid outliner, spending roughly a year on the planning process and ending up with completed outlines that can be almost half the word count of the first draft itself. And it works—most of the time. Most of the time, this is a process that allows me to fully leverage my planning proclivity as my greatest strength. It allows me to create solid outlines that, when everything’s truly humming, mean I can write first drafts that require very little editing. It’s also an approach that has saved me from pouring time and energy into stories that were never going to work because I was able to play out the mental chess game all way through to the end without actually having to put in the time and effort of writing a first draft.
However, there are times when the planning gets out of hand. I’ve been at work on my current outline for over a year now, continually circling some major plot difficulties, trying to plan my way out of them so I can finish my fantasy trilogy. At this moment, I still believe I’m going to find the solution, but I also know I may just be stuck in analysis paralysis and that a writer of a different personality type might have pulled the plug long ago.
4 Ways Writers Can Leverage Their Extroverted Thinking
So now you may be wondering, how do you get out of this “loop”? The answer is learning how to consciously strengthen and leverage your secondary function—Extroverted Thinking, in this particular case.
Whatever your type, the loop stops the moment you bring your secondary function back online. However, depending on how comfy you’ve been in your loop and how deep a habitual rut you’ve created, this can take some doing. Developing your secondary function often requires doing some serious self-work, examining your own resistance (e.g., INTJs often have a lot of resistance to moving out of the planning phase, even when they really do want to finish the book), and even acting in certain ways that may feel uncomfortable or scary (e.g., Introverts often find it scary to “extrovert” enough to put a book out there in the world, just as Extroverts can initially find it uncomfortable to practice deep introspection).
But it’s worth it. When your secondary function is operating at full strength, your full skill set really comes online. Your work becomes more dimensional. And if you’re an INTJ—you get stuff done.
Here are some simple strategies that have made a huge different in my ability to develop my Te, use it to balance my need for analysis and planning, and access it to move the needle on my goals.
1. Trust Your Intuition to Know When It’s Time to Move Forward
People often ask me, “How do you know when to stop outlining and start writing?” The simple answer is, “When the outline is done.”
But knowing when that is requires the ability to accurately judge yourself, your motivations, your resistances, and your work. Turn that gift of analysis back onto yourself. Why are you resistant to moving on to the first draft? The reason could legitimately be that there is more work to be done in the outline. But it could also be that outlining is more fun, so you’d just rather stay right there.
To know when you’ve reached the end of an outline’s usefulness, focus on specific questions you have about your story. For me, the early brainstorming part of outlining is essentially a game of filling in the blanks. I start out with a few known points about a story and start asking questions about the dark spaces in between—until there are no quantifiable dark spaces left. When there are no more legitimate questions standing between me and a functional plot, then I know it’s time to move on.
An understanding of story structure can also prove helpful in knowing when the story is “finished.” The major structural beats can function as a checklist. Once you’ve created a solid structural spine, then you know you have your story. Structure is always specific, not vague, which is a massively helpful tool for INTJs to leverage in moving past their tendency for abstract thought.
2. Focus More on Short-Term Goals
INTJs like to play the long game. We don’t live in the present; we’re always minutes, days, weeks, even years into the future. And once we imagine what will be, it often already feels like it’s done. This means we sometimes lose incentive to actually do the thing. (Ah, the irony of being an amazing planner and a so-so doer.)
For this reason, it is often more helpful to put our focus into short-term goals rather than long-term goals. If you know your long-term goal is to “finish the book,” just hold that loosely in your mind. Use your planning skills to envision the steps necessary to get there, then focus all your energy on the one right in front of you.
3. Move Into Your Fear—Every Day
Much of the reason INTJs get stuck in the analysis paralysis of their introverted loop is because, as folks who prefer the Introverted attitude, its much easier to think about things than to enact the much more difficult and sometimes scary business of impacting the external world. This is especially true if we feel we haven’t properly thought things through (aka, considered every systemic and causal possibility that might occur from now to the day the sun explodes).
By its very nature, Te is about pulling the trigger and acting. INTJs who learn to develop this powerful function will find a wealth of resources right at their fingertips. But first you gotta get into the habit of actually pulling that trigger. Take risks. Trust that your intuition actually improves when you let your Te test your theories.
To this end, it can be helpful to make it a goal to do one small thing every day that moves you into your resistances and fears. This might be as simple as letting someone else read your story for the first time. One of the biggest first steps I took as a young writer was joining a writing forum and offering up my story for critique.
4. Fill Your Think Tank Daily, But Don’t Go Down the Brain Drain
INTJs are information connoisseurs. We can’t get enough. Our dominant function, Introverted Intuition, is a perceiving function, which means we’re most at home just sucking in information. But this, too, is part of analysis paralysis. It’s super-easy to bury ourselves in the “work” of research, always believing we need just a little more information before we’re ready to write the book or share the idea.
It’s important for INTJs to feed their Intuition on a regular basis. But I find it’s best to limit the time I spend reading and learning. I put it on my daily to-do list like everything else so I get a little of what I need every day, and then I move on to the tasks where I can put that information to use (or, rather, where I can eventually put it to use—because, let’s be honest, it takes INTJs a looooong time to process information).
Intuition is a deep well, but it must be regularly topped off if it’s to provide the necessary resources for Te to get stuff done in the outer world. This may sound obvious, but I can attest that if you get too enthusiastic about using Te, you can run the well dry. The key is finding the balance between feeding your brain on a daily basis without letting it glut.
Sooner or later, procrastination is a stumbling block for most of us. Each of us must figure out how to get stuff done as a writer. Whatever your type, the fact that you’re drawn to storytelling means you may have a tendency to prefer living in your head to actually doing the writing. Learning how to activate all your skills and harmonize them into a powerful team of opposites can help you create a holistic writing process that takes advantage of all your gifts.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What are your top tricks to get stuff done as a writer? What have been some of the major challenges you’ve overcome? Tell me in the comments!
Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).