Writers, Stop Not Starting! Understanding and Beating Procrastination
I recently petitioned the writers and creators in my mailing list community to share their biggest creative pain point or challenge. Nearly everyone responded with some variety of “I don’t have enough time” or “I can’t shake procrastination.”
I commiserate. I’m plagued by a perceived time deficit and procrastination issues, too. I’ve been thinking about it a lot the last month or so. Again.
I think those complaints — “no time” and “procrastination” — are both all about procrastinating.
We all have the same amount of time each day, as the saying goes. It’s what we choose to do with it — the way we prioritize; the choices we make regarding the half hours and quarter hours and other slivers and slices and chunks of our waking hours — that separates those “with time” from those who think they have none.
If we really want to write, really want to create… but when presented with some time we choose instead to watch a movie, or play a game, or futz around on social networks… that’s a form of procrastination.
What Is Procrastination?
Even though there are variations on the definition, it’s pretty easy to agree that procrastination is not a positive character trait. It conjures up images of rushing about, slammed against a deadline, under terrible stress… and burdened with the anxious certainty the frenzied sense of dread could have been avoided.
We all understand what it is.
But why do we do it?
Some time ago, I came to a personal understanding of what lies at the root of procrastination… certainly for me, and probably for many other writers and creative folks:
We choose not to write — and again, yes, it is a choice — because we are afraid.
What Are We Afraid Of?
What’s so fearsome about writing that we put it off, even though we love it?
I’ll speak for myself. See if any of this rings true for you:
- Fear of rejection, no matter how much I’m told (and tell others) that we should write for ourselves and no one else.
- Fear of judgement — not necessarily from readers (that’s part of the previous point), but from loved ones, peers, colleagues, and perhaps society itself. I’ve got debts; I’ve got people counting on me; why would I spend time writing when there are more direct, reliable ways to meet my obligations and responsibilities?
- Fear of failure. I have complex, sophisticated (so they seem to me) literary aspirations. What if I’m not up to the task? This, of course, loops back, and is reinforced by, the previous two bullet points.
- Fear of change / success. This one’s truly fucked up, and I don’t have too firm an understanding of it, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do, ultimately, with fear of failure and rejection.
Maybe it comes down to this: I (we?), helplessly human, don’t want to stray too far from the comforting acceptance of the tribe. I don’t want to stray so far as to be an outsider or exile.
Thing is, creativity insists on isolation and some degree of ostracism. The artist is an observer, and, quantum physics aside, to observe is to disengage.
An exploration of the myth of the artist, the shaman, the celebrity, and the dichotomy of their influence and loneliness… that’s a bit beyond the scope of this post. If it’s something you’d like me to blog about, leave a comment to that effect.
For now, it’s enough to recognize that — whether it’s the fact that the act of writing itself is a solitary exercise, or the more abstract idea that “artist” is practically synonymous with “eccentric” (“off center”) — writing is scary!
No wonder it’s easier to play video games, consume things someone else created, or (and boy, we’re really good at this one, am I right?) discuss making things instead!
And Yet, We Cannot Not Create
Again, I speak for myself, but I know enough writers and creators to believe I’m not alone when I say I have to create. Or else.
When I don’t work on my own creative stuff, after a while I become… less than my best self. I get anxious. Neurotic. Depressed. Frustrated. Angry. Sullen. I act out. I make bad choices. I’m shitty.
So, for my own good, I have to face down the fear. I have to beat procrastination.
And so do you.
Let’s look at how.
My Plan To Beat Procrastination and Build A Balanced Creative Practice
What follows are all practices, tools, and techniques I’m going to engage with over the next ninety day period. For me, that starts April 1, 2017, and goes through the end of June. I like that, because at the end of that period, I’ll be two weeks away from my fiftieth birthday. Having some tangible results at hand and positive habits in place will be a nice birthday present to myself.
Why ninety days?
Three months is long enough to accomplish results, but not so long as to be difficult to imagine. It’s literally the foreseeable future.
It’s important to have the goal in sight, to have it close enough that the number of unknowns between Now and Then don’t have a chance to feel daunting.
So pick a start date one or two weeks in the future, and target an end date ninety days after that.
Don’t put your start date too far off. That’s just… procrastination! Don’t be scared.
Set Achievable Creative Goals
Self-sabotage is procrastination’s forward scout. When we set ourselves up for failure, the inclination to never start something is reinforced… and that keeps us safe in our cozy stagnation.
So be careful to not set your sights too high.
Here are my creative ninety-day goals:
- Create a broad outline of my Shaper’s World storyworld, including about six novels, a serial, and story bible / in-world historical stuff.
- Complete the outline for my fantasy thriller novel of the Shaper’s World, Light of the Outsider, such that I can begin writing the first draft in July through September (foreshadowing my next ninety day block!).
- Write at least six blog posts for Scribtotum, or, put another way, publish at least one post every two weeks.
- Exercise — specifically, high intensity interval training using body weight calisthenics — three times a week. Why is this a creative goal? Because physical exercise raises energy levels, focus, and mood, and aside from the fact that these are all good things, I’m going to need high energy, powerful focus, and an upbeat mood to succeed at the first three things!
Those goals are achievable while still providing a challenge. I won’t be able to coast through them… but they’re not crushingly difficult, either.
Beware Deceptive Progress
On the subject of self-sabotage, beware of doing work that feels like it contributes to your goals, but is actually a time-sucking detour.
Since my Shaper’s World storyworld is an original fantasy setting, I have to be careful not to slip into world-building mode more than absolutely necessary. I know myself well enough to understand that I can easily spend a weekend messing around with maps, weather, climate zones, and so on.
That deep-focus busy work is, unquestionably, a form of creativity, but it is secondary (even tertiary!) to the stated goals, and it will steal time away from the real work — and make it more difficult to accomplish the real work — if I let it.
Watch out for similar traps in your own process. For you, that might mean going too deep on a supporting character’s backstory, or getting lost down a progressively twisty hyperlink research rabbit hole.
Stay on target.
Have an Accountability Buddy
Don’t even think about doing this alone. When you’re in the weeds right around three to five weeks from now, you won’t be able to trust yourself.
Get a partner who will agree to set their own ninety day goals. Make sure you both have a clear and specific understanding of the other’s intentions.
Check in with each other regularly and mercilessly. Nag. But also, encourage, celebrate, and support one another.
You might need to set regular check-in days and times… maybe weekly; maybe twice a week. Whatever works… but make sure you both stick to it.
In addition to my accountability buddies (yep, you can have more than one!) I’ll be posting weekly progress reports in the comments of this post. That’s accountability and transparency — double plus good!
Set Up A Bonus Incentive
Some productivity and goal-setting gurus will recommend setting up some kind of negative consequence if you don’t meet your goals.
I don’t think I would want the extra anxiety.
However, a completion prize would be nifty, so talk with your accountability buddy and come up with something appropriate.
I’m putting ten bucks, into an envelope at the beginning of each week of the ninety day period. If my goals by the end, I’ll put the accumulated money toward something fun and nice.
If I fail… I don’t know, I guess I’ll put it toward groceries or bills or some other mundane thing.
That’s practical, but no damn fun.
So I’m going to work hard to achieve what I set out to do.
Create The Right Environment
Procrastination kicks in when it’s even just a little difficult to do the thing, or when it’s easier to do something — anything — else. That’s why last weekend I found myself cleaning and organizing my bookshelves instead of writing this post, after all.
Those other, frictionless, accessible tasks and distractions are all around, waiting to steal time away from that thing you should be writing.
Before you begin your three month adventure, plan to eliminate as many of those distractions as possible, and create a design for your life that both prioritizes your goal activities and makes it easy to slide into execution mode.
Here are some of the things I’m doing. I recommend them for you, too.
Make It Harder To Use Social Networks, Games, and Email
Social networks, especially Facebook, are very deliberately and expertly designed to capture your every spare moment. I mentioned the trap of doing anything that’s easier than writing… is there anything easier and more automatic than checking Facebook?
You get a little dopamine hit every time you do it. A tiny buzzy hit to the pleasure center of your brain. An empty happiness calorie, all sensation and no nutrition. And worse: the more you do it, the more you want to do it.
Even in creating this post, whenever I reached a moment in which the writing was more difficult, or I wasn’t sure exactly what I was writing next, I felt the urge to check Facebook. More often than not, I succumbed to that urge.
And I lost focus. And time.
There are studies that show interruptions, even small ones, rob us of our ability to focus and concentrate. It’s called context switching, and it’s cognitively devastating.
Social networking apps and websites are deliberately designed to reward us — temporarily and quickly — for context switching.
But every time we give in to it, especially while we should be writing, we’re telling our brain that it’s better than writing.
If you want to beat procrastination when it comes to your writing — indeed, in every aspect of your life — you must curtail your use of social networks.
For my part, I’m removing all social apps from my phone and blocking them on my laptop, where I do most of my creative writing. I’ll leave my desktop computer alone, because I use social networks in my work as a creative services provider, and all of my “day job” stuff is done on the desktop machine in my home office.
If you have so-called “casual games” like Two Dots or Candy Crush on your phone or tablet… understand that these games are also deliberately crafted to encourage addictive behavior. Uninstall them from your mobile devices and from your primary writing computer. I did.
And finally… if email is a big part of your life, take it off any device where it’s not absolutely essential. Check your email three times a day, maximum. Less often if possible. Turn off notifications. Make email something you engage with on your terms, not something you’re constantly reacting to. And for goodness sake, don’t just leave email running in Outlook or Mail, and don’t keep Gmail perpetually open in a browser tab.
Go On An Information Diet
As of this writing, I’m subscribed to about thirty blogs and nearly fifty podcasts, and I follow 550 people on Medium, though most of them don’t regularly publish.
For about a year, I’ve had this morning routine: over breakfast, I skim through my blog feeds and through Medium. Some stuff I bookmark (never to be seen again…), some stuff I share to social networks.
I’ve started nearly every day by filling my head with other people’s thoughts.
I’ve been missing an opportunity.
Our minds are more receptive, more flexible, and more inclined to free-associate in the time right after we’re awake. So rather than taking in external information, I should be using the time before I start my day to examine my own thoughts.
This is all about adjusting mindset and building positive habits. Our minds are in “responsive mode” before we’re fully awake and occupied by everyday responsibilities and stresses, so it’s especially effective at building the neural substrate associated with whatever we’re doing at that time.
It’s much easier to read, or listen to, information than it is to struggle through our own thoughts. Remember, your safety-seeking brain prefers to not be challenged. It wants to be safe, and it will do whatever it can to stay that way.
Since one method of defeating procrastination is to make writing / creativity easier and less psychologically threatening than less productive activities, spend that valuable, pliable morning time in creative mode, rather than information-absorption mode. Eventually, your brain will recognize creativity as something to be welcomed.
I’m uninstalling my RSS reader and Medium from my phone and tablet effective April first, 2017.
As for podcasts?
I think podcasts are procrastination fuel, too. Granted, you can’t really listen to a podcast while you’re writing, but you can opt to listen instead of thinking about your own work.
Similarly (I’ll speak for myself, here, but this might resonate with you), podcasts are a way to fill silence. The act of listening, of focusing on what’s coming through your earbuds at the exclusion of other stimuli, can’t help but put a layer of sensory separation between yourself and the world around you.
Are you subconsciously adverse to silence?
I think I might be.
So I’m including podcasts in my information diet for the next three months, too.
Ultimately, it comes down to eliminating sources of external, immediate, short-term reward and replacing those with greater awareness, mindfulness, and inward focus.
Plus, let’s face it… if you’ve been soaking up information sources like blogs and podcasts for a while now, you’ve probably taken in everything everyone has to offer.
Eventually, the sponge needs to scrub. No more absorbing. Time to act.
Assign Daily Themes And Focus Intention
Most days, especially weekdays, there are certain things, like showing up for work, that we simply know we have to do. For those of us with day jobs, having your work schedule takes the stress of indecision out of that part of your day: from time X to time Y, you’re at work. The theme of those days, at those times, is “work.”
Many productivity and efficiency experts (Mike Vardy and John Lee Dumas, for example), including those recognized for their legendary effectiveness (Jack Dorsey, Steve Jobs), endorse and embrace (well, endorsed and embraced, in the case of Jobs) the concept of assigning themes to specific days of the week.
Theme days combat procrastination by, again, reducing the friction and resistance between you and your writing / creative endeavors.
When you know a particular day is dedicated to a particular focus… and perhaps just as importantly, that other attention-grabbing foci have their own days… convenient distraction will have less power.
My daily themes:
- Sunday: Housekeeping and Planning — That’s literal housekeeping: sweeping, vacuuming, dusting, tidying, laundry, and so on. I’m not the neatest person, and I work from home, so clutter is a constant presence even though I know I work better and feel better when my space is neat and clean. In a sense, I’m setting up my environment for maximum success for the next six days. Planning is part of that, too. While I know what each day’s theme will be, Sunday is for putting some focus on how I’ll execute on each of those days.
- Monday: Promotion, Marketing, Content Creation — I’m a freelance creative services provider. Most of my income is from clients I help with a variety of challenges and projects. I’m also a writer and creator, of course, and, like most creators, my goal is for most of my income to flow from my own creative works. Monday is dedicated to promoting and marketing my books and short stories, and to creating content, tools, and resources for my community of friends and fans. That mean drawing attention to my existing works, and writing blog posts and newsletters, adding to my website, and so on.
- Tuesday and Wednesday: Client Work — The middle of the week is dedicated to existing client projects, as well as securing new work.
- Thursday: The On-Deck Writing Project — The focus for Thursday is the current, in-progress creative writing project.
- Friday: Loose Ends, Follow-Up, and Errands — This is a day for maintenance, both professionally, creatively, and personally. Checking in with clients, following up on people, and life-tasks like grocery shopping, haircuts, and the like.
- Saturday: Free Day — I find it difficult to allow myself to take an entire day off, especially from client work. So Saturday has one rule: no work on behalf of others. Other than that, I’m free to do whatever I want, including nothing. True rest is not a privilege. It’s required if we’re going to be able to give our best the rest of the week. We are obligated to rest. It’s our responsibility. Yes, I’m writing this for myself as much as for you.
Note that the theme of the day isn’t the only thing that happens on that day… it’s the primary focus of the day. For example, client work is how I make a living, so I’ll be doing stuff for clients on Monday, Thursday, and Friday. On Tuesday and Wednesday, while I’ll spend the bulk of my time on client stuff, some promotion, errands, and writing might happen, too.
Allow for the unforeseen to happen now and then. If circumstance causes a day to drift far from its intended theme, don’t beat yourself up. Let it go, and get back on track tomorrow.
And! Don’t use one derailment as cause to permanently decommission the train. You might be tempted. Remember: your brain wants to take the easy way out and will look for any excuse.
This technique is a tool, and tools serve you, not the other way around. The purpose of theming your days is to have a clear idea of each day’s objective, and to have a sense of permission to dedicate your day to that objective. It’s yet another way to reduce resistance and friction.
Given the “must-do” obligations and tasks of your week, to what themes can you assign, and commit, your days?
This is the best reason to beat procrastination. It’s also much, much scarier than all those reasons our subconscious doesn’t want us to write.
Every day that passes… every day spent clicking Likes on Facebook, every day spent re-reading the same advice (even this advice!), every day passively consuming the stories, television shows, movies, and games created by someone else… that’s a day that’s lost to you. Forever.
Tomorrow is not assumed, or earned, or promised.
Inevitably, tomorrow will be the day you die.
Every week, we hear of the death of a creator we love. Often, they seem too young to go.
Every time, I find myself reflecting on the work they were able to do… and the work they undoubtedly had planned to do, that now will never come to pass.
Have you written all the things you’ve ever wanted to write?
Have you written the things you don’t yet know you wanted to write?
That’s why we must beat procrastination. Why you must take the steps to build a practice wherein you actually… practice your art.
Whether you adopt the techniques and habits I’ve suggested in this post, or find your own way, you must put aside the things that keep you from writing.
Make A Commitment To Beat Procrastination and Build A Balanced Creative Practice
If you’re reading this, you are a writer who wants to write — to publish — more than you have, or more broadly, you’re a creator who spends more time planning to create than actually creating.
If you want a little extra help beating procrastination and staying on target, click or press here to get free bi-weekly encouragement messages from me. I’ll also send you additional productivity resources, tips, and links to the same… but in the spirit of the information diet, I won’t send those to you until ninety days after you first sign on!
Take action, and commit to it: leave a comment declaring you’re going to beat procrastination and build a balanced creative practice over the next ninety days. Tell me what you hope to accomplish, who your accountability partner will be, and what stakes you’re willing to put up.
Let’s do it!
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