Expand Beyond Your Limits — How Podcasting Makes Me A Better Writer

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.
—George Bernard Shaw


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I wanted to start with the quote I used to end last week’s post about recognizing and shaping ideas. It reminds me that you create yourself through a process. You write posts and record podcasts through a process. You create through a process and sometimes you have to make changes to your process so you can grow.

We all place artificial boundaries around ourselves that limit where we can go and what we can do. At times we need to expand our limits and change our process. I’m always trying new things and trying to do them in different ways. You want to experiment a little to see what happens. That’s how you learn and grow.

When I was making notes for last week’s post about ideas and how to turn ideas into something finished, I came across some notes I’d made shortly after I started podcasting. I don’t remember exactly when, but I think it was shortly after I started recording my thoughts instead of writing them.

My notes were mostly thoughts about where I was struggling with recording audio instead of writing posts and then it turned into ideas I had for improving any podcasting skills I might have.

I didn’t think my notes were worth writing about and publishing when I first wrote them down. They sat for close to two years. I didn’t have a theme or point then, but now I see how my notes fit into a similar theme as last week’s post. Originally they were for me more than anything I’d publish.

The notes that become recording and post were about exploring something outside my regular process and comfort zone. The notes were there to push me to expand past the arbitrary limits I set for myself. That’s what I want to talk about today.

My Early Thoughts About Podcasting

When I first started recording it was not my comfort zone. I didn’t know the best equipment or software to use. I bought an ok combination microphone and headset that was recommended as better than my laptop’s mic. I had Garage Band and set out to learn and use it.

I didn’t know how to generate ideas that would work as a audio. I trusted I could turn ideas into something written, but I wasn’t so sure how that would translate to recording them.

I gave my process a try. I collected ideas and tried some as podcasts. I knew development posts would be hard because I didn’t think speaking the code would work well. Instead I tried other topics I hoped would work.

I recorded two episodes and then not another for the next four and a half months. Somewhere in between is when I wrote down some thoughts about podcasting.

Most of my thoughts contained the usual fears we all experience when we step out of the familiar and into the unknown. We have a tendency to focus on what might go wrong instead of just trying and seeing what happens.

We’re often afraid of that unknown (a survival mechanism, no doubt) and tend to put up artificial barriers so we don’t stray too far into what we can’t predetermine.

I placed barriers around what I thought a podcast should be and around my ability to record one. I was trying to stay in my safety zone of writing.

When I recently looked over the notes I had written, the first half were filled with thoughts about how difficult I was finding it to record a podcast. Here’s a sample.

  • Podcasting is not my comfort zone
  • I can’t edit recordings the way I can edit written posts
  • I need to get the recording right the first time
  • Why do I keep stumbling over my words?
  • I don’t stumble when having a conversation
  • I feel self conscious in a new medium

I can see now I was putting too much pressure on myself. I wondered if I’d ever figure out recording and learn to sound natural. I felt I was forcing the audio because it wasn’t natural for me to speak ideas. Writing was natural. Writing was my comfort zone.

Knowing how hard it was for me to start, gave me a greater appreciation for all those who make it seem so easy.

The first few times I recorded I couldn’t get through more than a minute or so without having to pause the recording and think about what to say next. I kept tripping over my words and would have to stop to gather myself. I was thrilled the first time I went five full minutes without reaching for the pause button.

Those early recordings were so difficult for me that I had to write the full post like I usually do and then I recorded myself reading what I wrote. I changed the wording here and there so it was more natural with the way I talk, which was an interesting lesson that I don’t quite write the way I speak.

I was setting limits on myself. I was convincing myself how difficult it was to record instead of trying to get better at recording. I told myself my ideas wouldn’t work in audio and that I wasn’t good at recording my voice. I placed arbitrary boundaries on myself that I was afraid to cross.

Fast forward a couple of years and I now have to work to not let the recordings get too long. I seem to be going 20–25 minutes lately and I almost never hit pause. On occasion I have to because of some noise outside or because my laptop is choking on all the apps I have open.

Self Imposed Limits

We tell ourselves we can’t do something, but we don’t really know. Maybe we’re afraid of the consequences of failure. Maybe it’s something else.

What we fear is rarely as bad as we think it will be. We can imagine things far worse than reality. There’s never a guarantee you can do something because you think you can, but there’s always a guarantee you can’t if you think you can’t.

With podcasting I didn’t think I could recognize ideas that would work as a recording. I didn’t know how to record my voice and told myself I might not be good at it. I let these self-imposed boundaries keep me from doing my best.

It would have been very easy to stop and go back to the safety net of writing and I almost did. Podcasting was not my comfort zone and I was afraid to leave my comfort zone for fear of embarrassing myself. I let the fear dictate.

My first recording was December 6, 2012. My second was a week later on December 13th. My third was more than four moths later on April 25, 2013.

Fortunately, despite the limits I set, I recognized what I was doing and the second half of my original notes were more positive. I could see potential solutions for some of my difficulties. I told myself I needed to experiment and that my experimenting would probably lead to some less than wonderful podcasts at first. I knew that the poor recordings were a necessary part of the process of getting better.

Expanding Beyond Your limits

I couldn’t see it then, but a large part of why I wrote down my thoughts was to help me push through my limits. In addition to notes like the ones I shared earlier, I had notes like these toward the end.

  • Sticking with the tried and true is easier
  • but it doesn’t let you grow or only lets you grow so far
  • You can improve. Then you plateau. Then you improve again

In time I realized the writing and recording processes weren’t that different. The recording process just needed a little tweaking of my writing process. Once again I trusted that if I continued to work at it, I would get where I wanted to go.

The basic process of ideas to notes to draft to editing to finished work was still a good process, but parts of it needed to change and adapt.

The recording replaces the draft in the process. Aside from throwing out a recording and starting again (something I have done a few times), I’m not going to change much of the recording in the written version. The final piece won’t veer as much from the audio as written post might from its draft.

It means I need to be more organized with my thoughts and notes going into the recording. It also led me to want to be more flexible with my notes because I wanted to be able to improvise more while recording. One reason I started podcasting was to help me be more spontaneous when creating.

It took a little practice until I figured out the best way to organize my notes to speak them. With practice I’ve also gotten better with the recordings (at least I think I have). I know a few recordings here and there didn’t turn out great in terms of the audio quality, but I think I’ve improved, since the first recoding.

As luck would have it, a new mic and pair of headphones I ordered arrived a few minutes before I started writing the post part of this podcast. This is probably the last recording with the old mic and headset.

How Podcasting Improved My Writing

One nice benefit to pushing past limits and stepping outside your comfort zone is you can bring a lot of what you learn back. I’ve figured out a lot about writing by recording the last couple of years. Recording helped me analyze and improve my process, because I needed to. I’ve since taken how I organize notes for a recording back to my notes for writing.

Like I said recording is like the draft in a written post. Not exactly, but similar. The big difference aside from speaking instead of writing is that I don’t change what I said as much. The draft is closer to the finished work when it’s a recording.

That means I had to put more work into what comes before. I had to spend more time with my notes, organizing and shaping them, and getting to know them well enough to talk about them without looking at them.

The change has led me to spend more time organizing my notes for written posts as well. The extra work before the draft helps me get through the rest of the process quicker. I save more time at the end by putting more into the start and it’s helping me be more productive.

I’ve also noticed that by pushing myself to improvise more while recording, I’m generally getting better at creating on the fly. I improvise a lot on the recordings. Trying to follow my notes too exactly when recording didn’t work well. I found it better to have more freedom to say what comes to mind as I’m saying it.

The spontaneity is finding it’s way into my writing, even though I begin with notes that are more finished. I’m allowing myself more room to have the freedom to not write from my notes and go with something as it comes to me. Sometimes it comes out as me adding more notes while working on the draft.

Spending more time with my notes is about me spending more time understanding the topic. It’s helping me get into flow more often and sooner.

If I put more into the pre-draft phase of my process, I don’t have to spend as much time after. It helps me sooner recognize ideas I can turn into something and keeps me from sticking with an idea I can’t for too long. I’d rather discover that when working on notes so I can spend less time on an idea going nowhere.

Break Out of Your Comfort Zone

Leaving your comfort zone forces you to take on new challenges, which helps you add new skills and understanding. It helps you see things from another point of view and it opens your thinking to new ideas and new ways of doing things.

Once you do something once, you know you can do it again. It doesn’t mean it will be easy, but it will be easier than the first time. If you can do something once, you know what to expect, making it less unknown the second time around.

Picture yourself in the center of a circle with a fence around the perimeter. The fence is the limits you’ve set. The area inside is your comfort zone. Now move the fence further out around a larger circle. By increase the radius of your circle (your limits) the area inside the circle grows giving you more area to explore.

It gives you more room to play. It expands the area of your playground. Some areas are still unknown as you haven’t explored them yet, but they aren’t as scary, since they’re inside the fence line. Once you get to know these new areas, you move the fence further away and explore again.

When I started podcasting I couldn’t get past a minute of recording and then I did and knew I could do it again. Then two minutes was difficult until I moved past it and on to five minutes. Then it was 10 and 15 minutes. I’m getting close to recording a half hour straight without pausing.

Think about those limits. Why one minute and not 59 seconds or one minute and one second. One minute is a nice even amount, which is a good indication, the number is arbitrary. It helps to remove a limit when you realize how arbitrary it is.

Look to the accomplishments of others too. For a long time no one thought a human being could break the 4-minute mile. Then Roger Bannister did. Now a 4-minute mile would be ho hum in competition.

Once Roger Bannister ran a mile in under 4 minutes it didn’t just show he could do it again. He showed that human beings in general could break the 4-minute mile, which led to others doing the same.

It’s not just what you do that sets the limits. It’s what others do too. If they can do it, you have it within you to do it too. Take inspiration from what others can do and how much further away their limits are.

Closing Thoughts

The next time you feel stuck at anything, try doing whatever has you stuck in a different way. Don’t give up. Try and then try again.

Write about a topic you know nothing about and research it first. If you usually start with research, find something to write about that comes from your experience and requires no research. Try writing about a completely new topic or moving your posts to a new medium. Give audio or video a try.

Whatever you do, don’t give up. Try something different and try it again, and again until you see improvement. Push past your limits. Break out of your comfort zone. Force yourself to do things a different way. See what happens. That’s how you learn and grow.

I don’t consider myself a great podcaster by any means. I have no idea if anyone is even listening. I do know I’m better now than I was a couple years ago. I can say that objectively. I’ve also taken things I’ve learned from podcasting and brought them back to improve my writing.

I listen to my favorite podcasts and I can tell how much better they are than what I’m capable of doing at the moment, but instead of letting that get me down, I use it as motivation to get better. If they can do it, I can too.

When I looked back on the notes I made while I was struggling, I noticed a pattern. My notes started with me talking about my limits and what I could’t do. They moved to me trying to understand why those limits existed and then into thinking of ways to get better to exceed my limits.

I started thinking how I could break down the barriers I’d built and what I could do to improve as a podcaster. Toward the end of my notes I was mostly positive that I would expand past my limits and I had a plan for how to do it.

Push past your limits. When you look at the barriers that hold you back, you’ll often find many are self imposed and arbitrary. You decided you couldn’t do something so you can’t do it. You can change your mind. Decide you can do something and then prove you’re right.

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