You’re going to write today. This is the day. It starts now. You write it in your planner (because that makes it official) and you start thinking about how the story will begin.
You wish you could start now, but unfortunately the dishes have to be cleaned and it’s been a few days since the laundry has been done. You promised yourself you’d exercise this week—a walk would probably clear your head. Dinner has to be made and that new season of your favorite show just released on Netflix. One episode won’t hurt.
You check the time. Seven p.m. You’re pretty tired. It might be nice just to relax, watch a few more episodes, start the writing tomorrow… After all, your idea isn’t really concrete yet. It’s not ready, probably. You need to brainstorm more. Let the premise marinate.
If procrastination were a train station, there would be a lot of us milling about. What we do while we wait for a train to whisk us away to better, more productive writing lives usually falls into one of two categories.
Not to be confused with nosey people like Mrs. Dursley, this group of procrastinators will do something—anything--to avoid the job that really needs to be done. Any physical task is a go. Maybe you’re a tidier. You can’t work if your space is messy, so suddenly you’re doing chores. Maybe you decide to finally make those cinnamon rolls or text that friend you haven’t talked to in a few weeks. You take the dog out to the bathroom or run back to the office for the cheesecake you forgot in the fridge. Better go check the thermostat, it’s a little toasty in here—don’t forget to check the news on the way back.
Whether you take out the trash or go to dinner with friends, if your procrastination method involves physically walking away from your writing, you’re a Busy Body.
Unlike Busy Bodies, Busy Minds mentally leave their workspace. Although there may be physical movement involved (you walked away from your desk and now you’re in hour two of a gaming session), Busy Minds are, more often than not, subtle. Sure, your word document is open and you’re poised and ready to write… but first you’re going to open three more tabs so you can see if you have any messages, if that sweater is on sale yet, and whether or not it’s going to rain in Glasgow next weekend. You pick up your phone a dozen times to check the time. You find yourself entrenched in a Twitter debate and suddenly you’re searching for a 1940s fashion pattern to make a point.
You pick up your phone the thirteenth time and realize that an hour has slipped away. If you find yourself mentally distracted or unfocused, you’re a Busy Mind.
It’s quite possible to be a Busy Body on Monday and a Busy Mind on Tuesday, but generally we fall into one category more often than the other. Look at your behavior the next time you’re putting off a task. How are you filling that time? Knowing how you procrastinate can help you get to the root of why you procrastinate.
How did we get here?
So you’ve realized that you’re reorganizing your bookshelves instead of writing. You thought the cleaning thing was just a habit, but now you can’t help but wonder: why aren’t you writing instead?
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that. Each of us has a unique set of circumstances and experiences that may influence our behavior. Self-reflection is required in order to find an honest, personal answer. To get you started, below are just a few of the reasons that I procrastinate.
“I’ll do it tomorrow.”
I think I say these words most when I’m tired.
Let’s face it, we lead busy lives and we don’t sleep enough. It’s hard to be creative when you just want to slip into your pajamas, reread Harry Potter for the nineteenth time, and doze off for the afternoon…
What was I saying? Right. Reduce your work or social responsibilities where possible so you have time for the things that matter. Go to bed earlier. Take a nap. Take care of your body so that you can take care of your dreams.
Ah, lack of discipline. My old friend.
The sister of fatigue, laziness is a leader in the procrastination world. When faced with two choices, it’s easy to choose the one that takes less effort. Writing is hard. Scrolling through Pinterest is not. My outline isn’t working. Twitter is. It’s why we eat out instead of making dinner and decide to watch another episode instead of washing the dishes.
Laziness is a habit. If you have time to get to level 900 on the game on your phone, you have time to write a few awkward sentences into a notebook. Make a different choice enough times and you’ll create a new habit: writing.
I won’t be good enough. Other people will judge me, and it won’t match the idealized picture I’ve created in my mind. What if someone finds my scribbled ideas—my first draft—in a notebook after my death? What if no agents want to work with me?
Creating a work of art—be it a novel, a performance, a painting—requires a certain level of vulnerability. There is risk involved. And for those of us that are worriers or control-freaks, it can be scary territory to traverse. Fear is usually rooted in something specific—it is important to figure out precisely what causes your fear. Is it fear of failure? Is it fear that you’ll lose friends? Fear that your teacher will read it and realize it’s a thinly veiled retelling of the traumatic French class you took?
Should I be working on that other story idea instead? Is this too cliche? What if I have the wrong main character? Or maybe it’s not even the right genre.
Questioning your novel and the choices you make in your writing is healthy—to an extent. But when those questions compel you to stop writing rather than to keep going, you might have gone too far. Doubt is the whisper in your ear at night that makes you wonder if you should chuck the whole thing in the bin and try again next year. It often comes out to play with Fear.
Doubt loves inactivity and indecision. So make a choice. Start writing from Fiona’s point of view. If it doesn’t work, you can always switch to Donkey.
A teacher, student, or respected person made fun of your efforts. They mocked you—perhaps in public. You’ve been querying your magical dream book for three years. No one wants to publish it. Someone laughed at your work. Your sibling judges you because you need to get a real job and ‘obviously this isn’t working for you.’
Creative wounds are not something we talk about often, but it’s important to acknowledge their existence in our lives. It doesn’t matter if it was an offhand comment in a coffee shop seventeen years ago or an event that everyone brings up at family reunions (forcing you to relive the pain). If you have a memory that may be causing you to stifle your creativity, to feel blocked, you need to address it. It may be something serious, something that requires counseling, or it may be a deep shame you didn’t know you carried on your shoulders. It might be a flippant remark on a tenth grade essay. If it bothers you, it doesn’t matter if your wound is a scratch or a gash. It needs attention.
There are many exercises to overcome creative wounds—writing letters (PLEASE do not send them) to people that have hurt your feelings, reciting affirmations, etc. If you’re not sure where to start, I cannot recommend The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron highly enough. The book provides weekly exercises and insights and is worth every penny. I also highly recommend her book, The Right to Write. If nothing else, I encourage you to begin morning pages: writing three pages longhand every morning. Get all your fears, doubts, complaints, and grudges out on the page. It frees both your mind and your spirit.
This is not an exhaustive list. Much of my procrastination is rooted in perfectionism and pride—issues I will address in Part 2 and Part 3 of this series. Take a moment to make a list of the reasons you procrastinate. They might be similar or wildly different from mine. Simply identifying the reasons you struggle to create can reduce the power procrastination has over you—and it’s a necessary step if you want to find a solution.
Do you procrastinate in ways not listed here? Share below—it may help others!
Determine what type of procrastinator you are—do you busy your mind or your body when you are avoiding your work?
Get to the root. Are you afraid that your work won’t be good enough? Are you trying to force yourself to write a young adult novel because that’s what’s “in”, but really you’d love to write a Hallmark romance? Do some self reflection. Examine the issues behind your procrastination, but be gentle with yourself.
Write yourself a prescription. Once you’ve identified the reason(s) you are choosing procrastination over productivity, you can cultivate different habits. For instance, if you find yourself on social media during your writing time, you can use website blockers to stay focused. If you’re struggling with time management, you may need to reduce the number of activities in your schedule or reassess your timeline—perhaps writing a novel in thirty days is too ambitious for you. Try six months instead.
Accept that you’re not going to be perfect. You’re going to have bad days when you don’t want to get out of bed let alone write. That’s okay. Rather than aiming for a completely different routine, start noticing your habits more. Look for triggers. Are there certain times of day that you are more likely to procrastinate? Do you need to make your coffee ten minutes earlier so it doesn’t interfere with work time? When you’re faced with a choice between writing and working on something else, why do you choose the way you do?
Recognize that some procrastination is good procrastination. If you are always chained to your desk, you’re not living or experiencing anything new. Allow yourself to daydream, to go for those walks, to sign up for that photography class. In your heart you know the difference between wasting time and filling it with things that matter.
First, if there was a simple answer to overcoming procrastination, we would all be millionaires. Probably. There is no one-size-fits-all fix and the battle is, unfortunately, ongoing. But if you can become more aware of your behavior, you have the power to change your habits.
Second, give yourself permission to write. More than that, give yourself permission to write the way that works for you—not the way a famous author or pedagogue thinks things should be done.
And finally, there is room for everyone at the finish line, so take heart. (And the good news is, you’re only racing against yourself).
Photo by Markus Spiske