“When I’m on a deadline, my brain freezes and I can’t write,” my client Mary said.

It reminded me of all the times, both as a reporter and as a ghostwriter, that I despaired of making a deadline and decided I’d better apply to plumbing school.

We all get BFUD (Brain Freeze Under Deadline) occasionally, and it’s befuddling. Here’s how to fix it and be creative on demand:

1. UNDERSTAND BRAIN FREEZE. The negative chatter in our brains takes over. All the mean inner voices start yelling at the same time:

  •       “You’ll never think or write fast enough.”
  •       “Quick! Quick! What’s the perfect thing to say?”
  •       “C’mon! Out with it!”

The voices can be overwhelming and cumulative. They come from all directions, and they are all frightening. Our brains decide that maybe it’s best just to go unconscious. The creative spark within us sputters. We stare into space, horrified that we’re not producing anything. Meanwhile, time is flying by. We become paralyzed and can barely answer that 2 + 2 = 4.

Brain Freeze Under Deadline is nothing more than negative mental chatter gone wild. The solution is to take a deep breath, and to remember that they are just monkey mind and not reality. Stop the runaway monkeys. Clear your mind. Read an inspiring paragraph. Stand up and stretch. Say a prayer. Walk around the block. Break the pattern somehow.

2. GET CLEAR. When we have to drive somewhere quickly, it’s best to choose the fastest, most direct route. Take a minute before you start to plan the writing journey. What exactly do you want to say?  How long will the piece be? What is the best tone, style, or voice in which to tell this story? Who is the audience? What is the best way to organize the material?

3. FIND THE NEXT ACTION. What is the next best action? Do you need more research? Have all your questions from #2 been answered, or do you need to ask someone about length, style, or scope? Do you need statistics, pictures, or other resources? What is the next best action to take right now? Take it.

4. WRITE SOMETHING. ANYTHING! Get something down on paper. Then all you have to do is edit it. When I was writing Chasing Grace: A Novel of Odd Redemption, I sometimes spent days writing stuff I knew wasn’t great, but that I could edit later. It save me from paralysis, beating myself up, or stopping completely.

5. FIND YOUR WRITING ZONE. What puts you in that sparkling state of focused flow in which time disappears and you are complete absorbed in what you are doing? Take yourself there and let it rip!

6. MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE DEADLINE. It gives you a framework, certainty, and a definite time when the job will be over.  When is the deadline? How many hours can you realistically write each day? (It’s probably not 24, or even 12…or 8!) How much needs to be written? Divide the writing into small increments with small deadlines. How much do you need to get done each day (or hour) in order to complete the job on time? Let your deadline serve as a bookend, a guidepost for how much time and energy you can realistically put into the project, and a finish line where you will break the tape in triumph.

7. REMEMBER THAT NEITHER YOU NOR YOUR WRITING HAS TO BE PERFECT. Nothing is. Your job is only to do the best you can, in the time you have, while treating yourself in a kind, humane manner. Beating yourself up and/or going crazy only makes it worse.

Take a deep breath and begin. You can do it.