Recently, I’ve been posting quite a bit about procrastination. The gist of my posts has been that procrastination has been given a bad rap. It actually serves some important purposes, like giving us time to think, generate ideas, come up with solutions, and simply rest.
Quite a few readers have emailed saying they like this fresh perspective. But others have offered a word of caution, pointing out that we shouldn’t slap too nice a coat of paint on the issue. Sometimes procrastination is part of the writing process. But sometimes, it’s just procrastination—and it can be a terrible interference with our writing.
Procrastination seems to be a little like cholesterol. There’s the good kind and the bad kind. It can be an essential break from our work to allow our subconscious minds to come up with things or a creative no-person’s-land that prevents our stories from reaching the page.
So what can you do if you find yourself procrastinating? How can you know whether you're just engaging in some creative free time or you're spinning your wheels? And what can you do when you discover you're getting nowhere? Here are some suggestions.
How Can You Tell the Difference?
When you find yourself staring out at the snow or drawing doodles of cats in top hats for long periods of time, how do you know whether you’re in good-procrastination or bad-procrastination mode? It isn’t always easy to tell, but I think there are some signs to look out for.
For one thing, do your procrastination spells eventually lead to writing—or do they just continue and continue? As I have observed my own writing life over the years, I’ve discovered that fallow spells are always followed by fertile ones. An hour, a day, even a period of weeks when I seem to be constantly distracted and daydreamy, will inevitably end in a burst of fertile creative activity. Realizing that has made me see that what feels like procrastination is actually part of my writing process.
But I’ve also coached writers for whom dry spells don’t end. Weeks pass, months pass, sometimes even years, and, despite brilliant ideas and a sincere desire to write, they can’t get themselves to the page. This is clearly a sign that something is wrong. This type of procrastination is not part of the creative process--it's what happens when the creative process isn't working.
Another thing to look for are missed deadlines. If you’ve promised an editor your copy by March 31st and don’t get it out until April 12th, you are definitely procrastinating in an unhealthy way that is not serving you or your writing career.
Or perhaps you do meet the deadline, but submit sloppy work because you’ve waited until the last minute. Again: bad procrastination
What Can You Do?
If procrastination is interfering with your writing in any of these ways, then you need some intervention. Fortunately, there are a number of steps you can take that can help you overcome procrastination.Here are five basic techniques I’ve used with clients. Used in combination, they have worked for every procrastinating writer I’ve ever worked with. And they’re all very simple.
1. Identify your feelings. One of the most important things to do when you are procrastinating is to clarify and acknowledge what you are feeling when you sit down to write. Most often, we procrastinate because of anxiety or fear. We are afraid of what dark memories or grief might come up in our writing. We are afraid our writing will suck. We’re terrified of exposing our innermost secrets. We’re anxious about putting ourselves out there, where others can read and judge our work.
If you are procrastinating, there is almost certainly some negative emotion that is preventing you from writing. Discovering what you’re feeling and bringing those feelings out in the open is immensely liberating. Whatever it is, allow yourself to feel it. Don’t tell yourself you shouldn’t be afraid or anxious. Accept the fact that you are. Explore your emotions through meditation, self-talk, or therapy. Learning the source of your procrastination is the first step in overcoming it.
2. Write anything. One of the things that makes us procrastinate is the thought that we have to write a beautiful poem, a perfectly crafted short story, or the beginning of a powerful novel every time we sit down to write. It would be wonderful if we could do that, but let’s be honest: Most of the time most of us write crap. It’s only through doing a lot of bad writing that we can eventually arrive at something really good.
An easy technique to try when you find yourself procrastinating is to just sit down and write anything. And by “anything,” I mean exactly that. Describe the way you feel right at this moment. Describe the back of your hand as you type. Write a reflection about the bottle of vitamin C tablets sitting next to your computer. Even write an email to a friend about what you ate for lunch that day. Literally, write anything.
Why is this worthwhile? Because it breaks through the block, it gets our butts in the chair—and it often opens us up to deeper, more significant work. We only write through writing. So, if you can’t write something brilliant, write something that isn’t.
3. Break long projects down.
So you are in the middle of a novel and you just can’t get yourself to sit down and work on it. A novel! Hundreds of pages! Scores of scenes, conversations, descriptions! Years of work! Tens of thousands of words! It’s all just so much.
Writers often begin to procrastinate when they’re facing a large project, one that requires a long-term commitment with little clarity about when the end will be reached.
If you’re looking forward to what seems like an overwhelming amount of work, the best thing you can do is to shift your focus to one small part of that work.
Think of it this way. You like chocolate, right? (Or, if not, you like vanilla or olives or bread or something). Whatever food you find scrumptious, try thinking of the amount of it you will eat over the next five years. Picture it. All that chocolate or olives or guacamole. Tons and tons and tons of it. There it is in front of you and you have to eat it all. Suddenly, the lusciousness of that food turns into something grotesque and daunting. Who would possibly want to eat all that?
Yet that is the way we tend to think of our long projects—as massive amounts of work we have looming in front of us.
To break through this, shift your focus to whatever sliver of the project needs to be done right now. When you eat a chocolate bar, you aren’t thinking of all the chocolate bars that lie ahead, you’re just focused on one bite at a time. Do the same thing for your writing. You don’t have to write your novel this afternoon. You just have to do one small thing. What is that one thing? A scene? A paragraph? A page? Focus on just writing that.
4. Write for tiny time periods.
When I don’t feel like working out—which is pretty much how I feel every day—I manage to do it anyway by telling myself I’m only going to work out for 5 minutes.
“I’m too tired,” I tell myself. “I’m not feeling up to par. And besides, I’m swamped with papers to grade. I can’t do a full workout, so I’ll just do 5 minutes to get the juices flowing.”
Unless I’m flat on my back with the flu, I can virtually always get myself to do 5 minutes of exercise. Then what happens? Most of the time, once I’ve gotten started, I keep going. Why not do 5 more minutes, I say to myself. Then 5 more after that. And before I know it, I’ve gone through a whole workout and I feel great.
Of course, there are times when 5 minutes is all I can manage. When I discover I really am too tired or that my headache is getting worse. Then, I stop. I promised myself I’d exercise for 5 minutes, and I kept that promise. And it’s better than if I hadn’t exercised at all.
The same technique works for writing. Telling yourself you have to sit down to write all day or for four straight hours may be enough to put you off writing a word. If that’s the case, pull back. Say, “I’m just going to write for 5 minutes.” Then be true to what you’re feeling after that 5. If you feel like going on, go for it. If those 5 minutes are all you can do right now, stop. You will have at least written for 5 minutes that day. Whole novels have been written in 5 minutes a day.
5. Write something you’ve always wanted to write.
I’m a big believer in not switching projects mid-stream, but if you’re procrastinating because you’re stuck on something you’re working on, try writing something else. In fact, try writing the thing you always wanted to write but never have. Always had this urge to pen a sex scene, nonsense verse, a sonnet, or a joke for Conan O’Brien? Go for it. You can never tell where it might lead—and at least you’re writing.
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