3 Steps to a Problem-Solving Mindset

Forgetful. Lazy. Wasting your time. Those are a few of the “name-calling” labels that came up in Monday’s post on the dangers of labels. You could probably continue the list with labels of your own–you know, the things your inner critic starts chanting whenever you don’t measure up as a writer or a person.

Labels are death to creativity.


Labels send the insidious message that you that you can’t change your situation. They keep you stuck.

Fortunately, you can fight back against those negative labels–by taking these steps toward a problem-solving mindset.

Step 1. Become Aware

Before you can banish damaging labels from your self-talk, you have to notice when and where they crop up. I gave some examples of negative labels in Monday’s post. Sounds easy enough to identify your inner name-calling, right?  In the heat of the moment, though, it’s easy to accept whatever your inner critic throws your way without stopping to question it.

Here are a few clues that you’re dealing with a “label problem”:

  • You feel stuck
  • You feel powerless to change a situation
  • You feel judged or worthless

These feelings are a signal that subconsciously, you’ve identified some problem as beyond your control. And although some situations will be beyond your ability to affect, most aren’t. Start having a conversation with yourself. Find out what’s making you feel stuck. Make a list. Get every problem, barrier, and obstacle down on paper.

Step 2. Replace Simplistic Labels With Compassionate Truth

Do you have your list of problems, barriers, and obstacles? You next step is to question them. Every one.

  • First, is the label/obstacle/barrier actually true? Is it possible you’ve accepted a label that exaggerates the situation?
  • Second, is the problem caused by this label/obstacle/barrier really insurmountable?

Labels tend to judge, globalize, and oversimplify. As a result, they often rule out any possibility of change. You need to replace the labels with a more realistic understanding of your situation.

Here’s what this process might look like inside my brain (enter at your own risk…):

The Label, Obstacle, or Problem

I’m so unproductive! I’ve gotten nothing done all week.

The Challenge

Seriously? What about that midnight brainstorming session on the new novel?Well, okay, I did come up with some cool ideas. But I should have gotten a lot more accomplished!Let’s take a look at this past week before labeling you “unproductive.” Your kiddo was home sick Tuesday, which took out most of that day’s writing time. You also spent several unplanned hours troubleshooting problems with your website. You got a lot done, just not the things you wanted to get done.

Tip: Telling yourself the truth isn’t the same as positive thinking. Make sure that you don’t replace an oversimplified negative label with an oversimplified positive one!

Step 3. Start Searching for Solutions

Once you’ve identified the truth in your situation–the actual problem–you can start brainstorming solutions. Continuing the inner dialogue I began above…

Brainstorming Solutions

 Okay, I really didn’t get as much accomplished as I wanted to–not because I was lazy, but because I chose to spend my time on other important things. The real problem is that I feel like I’m letting my creative writing come after everything else. What would make me feel more connected to my creative project? Maybe I could take half an hour to myself on those days when my schedule is upended, to make sure I’m still thinking about the story. I can usually spare an hour even when I’m crazy busy…the trick is to make sure that I do it BEFORE nonessentials.

What things are nonessentials? Hmm…let me think about what I might cut out of my routine on this kind of day….

It’s hard to change the habit of assigning judgmental and critical labels to ourselves when we don’t measure up…but in the words of  psychologist Randy Paterson, we have a trump card in the attempt to change our thinking:

Our typical negative thoughts have a trump card: We have rehearsed them so long they have become instinctive. The truth has a trump card of its own: Reality will confirm it over time.”
–Randy Paterson


Check the Label–and Avoid These Common Creativity Zappers!

Check the label! 

You probably do this without a second thought when you’re shopping. You check to see that foods contain healthy ingredients, to make sure cleaning products are nontoxic. Maybe you check labels to see where something was made, or whether it contains the kind of wool that makes Aunt Ethel itchy.

But how often do you notice the labels YOU put on things? Specifically, the labels you apply–probably without thinking–to yourself, your writing, your needs and desires?


We humans are hard-wired to name things, to give them labels. Unfortunately, our brains are also hard-wired to pay more attention to negative information–which means that those negative labels are often on the tip of our mental tongues.

Have trouble getting started on that next chapter? Your inner critic slaps on labels like lazy or  not very creative. Skip writing for a few days or weeks? That inner critic labels you “not serious about writing.” 

What labels do you apply to yourself or your writing? They might be getting in your way!


There are three common types of labels that can block creativity, reinforce self-doubts, and even paralyze our ability to imagine. 

Name-Calling Labels

My writing coach once asked me if I would talk to a friend the way I talked to myself. This question is a good way to gauge whether you’re engaging in some unhelpful name-calling, putting down your muse, yourself, or your work. Labels like lazy, stupid, slow, scattered, and blocked don’t spur your creative side; they shut it down.

If you wouldn’t use a label to describe a good friend, don’t apply it to yourself or your writing, either!

Common “Name-Calling Labels”

For Themselves…

For Their Writing…

Not good enough
Not a “real” writer


Excuse-Making Labels

Labels don’t have to be obviously negative to get in your way. All they have to do is turn your attention away from solving a problem. Common excuse-making labels include too busy and too stressed. 

Excuse-making labels often begin with the words “I can’t write/create/brainstorm right now because…”

Excuse-making labels often focus on placing blame for the problem on someone or something outside of yourself.

Are you “too busy” to write? Maybe. I often am! But if you accept “too busy” as a label, it’s easy to let it define you. It’s easy to forget that we usually have some control over how busy or stressed or overwhelmed we are.

Grandiose Labels

You might be surprised to hear that seemingly good labels can be just as harmful as obviously negative labels. Think about it, though: what happens when you tell yourself that your latest book/story/essay concept is

The Best Idea Ever!

Does the thought help your words to flow effortlessly from your pen? If so, more power to you!

For the rest of us, though, labels like greatest and best and breakout create an enormous amount of pressure. Suddenly you face a daunting standard when you sit down to write. If the idea is so great, your writing better measure up to it!

Grandiose labels create stress, and stress is the enemy of creativity.

Chuck those labels–good and bad! Just focus on doing the work.



So what labels sneak into your writing process?

The good news? Once you’re on the lookout for them, harmful labels are pretty easy to spot. Once spotted, you can replace them with labels that reinforce your creative journey rather than hinder it. I’d love to hear what labels you’ve had to eliminate from your vocabulary as a writer! Please share your examples and insights in the comments.

I also hope you’ll come back on Thursday, when we’ll dig deeper into how to replace those negative labels with a problem-solving mindset!

Getting Practical: 3 Ways Writers Can Use Sketchnotes

Based on comments from y’all–not to mention which posts get the most traffic on this blog–I’ve made a cool discovery: Although you seem to appreciate posts on theory, what you REALLY like are posts that dig into specific examples.


 Photos: Jaro LarnosSheltie Boy, State Library of South Aus, & Woodleywonderworks

Practice a Concept–OWN the Concept

Makes sense to me! I don’t really understand a concept until I try it out six ways from Sunday and make it my own, if you know what I mean :).

So I thought I’d try an experiment. On Mondays, I’ll continue to bring you information and tips about writing, creativity, and novel ways to connect with readers. Thursdays, we’ll dive into specifics–specific examples, specific applications, specific challenges, and so on, that have to do with the week’s topic. Starting with (drumroll, please…) sketchnoting!

Sketchnoting is a powerful tool for writers & other creatives–I dare you to give it a try!


Add Sketchnotes to Your Creative Process: 3 Ideas

Idea 1: Use sketchnotes to create a “mind map” of conference sessions, lectures, or other presentations.

How? Simply apply basic sketchnoting principles as described by sketchnoting authority Mike Rohde in the Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking.
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Finding the “Why” in What You Do


Photo from BK, Flickr Creative Commons

You may have noticed that things have been a little quiet here on the blog lately. Don’t worry–I promise not to bore you with some “sorry-I-haven’t-been-posting-but-let-me-tell-you-all-the-reasons-why” post. Suffice it to say that I ran smack into one of those crisis moments that narrows your view to the basics: family, friends, and whatever immediate demands the next moment brings.

I like to live in quiet denial that bad stuff happens. In my little fantasy world, my parents never age, my kids are never hurt, all dogs live forever, and natural disasters always keep a respectful distance.

It’s not that I really think any of this…it’s more that if I think too hard about loss and grief, I can work myself into an agony of worry over things that haven’t yet occurred. I find it helpful to give just enough attention to the possibility of pain that it helps me to appreciate what I have. Does that make sense? Acknowledge that life isn’t actually all lollipops and roses, because that can help you savor the good moments; but don’t live in terror of the day you’re going to lose something or–worse–someone important.

Not that I’m a fan of crises, but sometimes they bring a gift.

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