Three years ago, I hit a major wall in my career. I was working at a job I hated. I dreaded going to the office every day, I was legitimately terrified of my boss, and—to top it all off—I was barely making ends meet. I was in a slump.
I knew—for the sake of my sanity and my wallet—that I needed to make a change. But I had no idea what, exactly, that change should be.
So I started writing—freewriting, to be exact. Over the course of a few months, I asked myself some important questions, wrote pages and pages of answers, and discovered there were two things I wanted to do with my life—travel and write. I left the job that was making me miserable and launched my freelance writing business—while backpacking through four countries in Southeast Asia.
That was two and half years ago, and today, I couldn’t be happier. I look forward to doing my work every day and I spend a good chunk of my time traveling (next stop, hiking in Zion National Park!). Not only that, but my business is thriving and I’m more financially successful than I ever was in corporate America. And it’s all thanks to freewriting.
Freewriting changed my career—and, in many ways, my life. If you want it to do the same for you, keep reading.
Before we dive into how to use freewriting to pull yourself out of a career slump, let’s talk about what, exactly, freewriting is.
Well, it’s pretty much what it sounds like… writing, freely. Instead of thinking about what you’re going to write (and how it might look to other people), it’s letting your raw, uncensored thoughts flow straight from your head to the page.
“The normal rules of writing say that your writing… needs to make sense, [be] coherent and linear and logical,” Mark Levy told me. He’s the author of Accidental Genius: Revolutionizing Your Thinking Through Private Writing—the book that introduced me to freewriting. “But free writing is really a way of taking your mind and dropping it on to the paper and watching yourself think.”
Freewriting is so effective because it allows you to process your thoughts in a completely different way. When you sit down and try to think your way out of a problem—like what to do about your career—your mind is just going to give you the same answers it always has.
But like the old saying goes, if you want something different, you need to do something different. Since freewriting gives you a new framework for processing your thoughts, it can lead to the new idea or insight you need.
Freewriting “forces your mind to be more honest,” Levy says. Because “your internal editor can't keep giving you these polished thoughts over and over again.”
What if I’m Not a Writer? (Not a Problem!)
Now if you’re thinking “Me? Write? No way…I’m a terrible writer!” I totally hear you. But guess what? You don’t need to be a great writer to make freewriting work for you. In fact, it doesn’t matter if you can barely string two sentences together, because guess what? No one is ever going to see your freewriting but you.
The point of freewriting isn’t to become the next Shakespeare. No one’s going to go through looking for spelling and punctuation errors. It’s an exercise for you to process your thoughts and come up with new ideas. And it’s for you, no one else—so there’s no need to be critical and no expectations to live up to.
Pretty liberating, huh?
How Do I Start?
To get started, find a quiet place free of distractions (no cell phones!) and set a timer for 10 to 15 minutes (you can use an egg timer, but if the ticking gets on your nerves, try using the kitchen timer on your microwave). You can either use a pen and paper or open up a Google or Word doc.
Then, it’s time to start writing.
Some of the most effective freewriting happens when you just sit down and write—no prompts, no plan, no constraints—just putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and seeing what comes out.
What Writing Prompts Can I Use?
If freewriting without a goal or plan makes you feel overwhelmed and anxious (I know it did for me!), here are four of my favorite writing prompts from Accidental Genius to get the creative juices flowing:
“If I didn’t have to work, I’d...” This’ll give you insight into how you’d spend your time if given the choice—and once you have that information, you can try to find a job that aligns with those passions. (Fun fact: This is the prompt that sent me off backpacking through Southeast Asia!)
“If I were guaranteed success, the project I’d take on would be…” Sometimes fear of failure can prevent you from pursuing your dream. By writing about what you’d do if you knew you couldn’t fail, you might figure out where you’re holding yourself back.
“The three things my boss could do to make my job better/the three things I could do to make my job better are…” Getting out of a career slump doesn’t always mean switching jobs—sometimes, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to make your current job better. This exercise will help you identify what you can do (and what you can ask your boss to do) to make your current gig feel like a better fit.
“If I were giving advice to recent college graduates about starting their careers, I’d tell them…” You might be great at giving advice to other people, but it’s harder when you’re thinking about your own life and career. This prompt allows you to write out your best career advice—and then identify the nuggets of wisdom you can use for yourself.
In the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, “When you’re in a Slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done.” It’s true, getting yourself out of a career slump isn’t easy, but it’s certainly possible. And freewriting might be your first step—rhymes not required.
Photo of person writing in a notebook courtesy of Astrakan Images/Getty Images.
Deanna deBara is a freelance writer living in Portland, OR. When she's not busy building her business or typing away at her keyboard, she enjoys spending time hiking in the Pacific Northwest, traveling with her soon-to-be husband, or doting on her dog, Bennett. You can follow her on Twitter (she's a newbie!) at @Deanna_deBara.More from this Author