Every writer has experienced procrastination. I’ve also seen many clients drag their feet when it comes to establishing a business or marketing plan and following through. Why do we do this?
Sometimes we even procrastinate when it is likely to cause us harm. We are like moths flying to the flame. But I know how to overcome it–especially if you are a writer.
Why do we procrastinate?
It doesn’t happen to me often when I’m working on client projects, but when procrastination does rear its ugly head to me, it gives me a very strange feeling, like I’m watching myself fall down a hill and not doing anything to help myself get back up. Fascination of the horrible!
Many people have written about the phenomenon of procrastination, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on it. But I can share some of the things I learned with a little Googling. I’ll just choose one good one. Psychology Today magazine says there are three types of procrastinators (https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200507/why-we-procrastinate, accessed July 13, 2015):
1. People who wait until the last minute for the euphoric rush of adrenaline.
2. People who have a fear of failure or success and would rather have people believe they lack effort than ability.
3. People who can’t make decisions because it absolves them of responsibility for the outcome.
Do you recognize yourself in any of these? I’d have to say I probably see more of the third type in me. The little girl in me is sometimes afraid what I do for my clients won’t be good enough. Are you shocked I admitted it? The truth is that all of us experience these feelings at one time or another. It’s very human. There’s some peace and freedom in expressing it and moving on. The key is to not let it get out of hand.
Take up your sword and fight procrastination
So, what can you do to fight procrastination? The Psychology Today article seems to imply that only way to overcome it is to go through rigorous cognitive therapy. Lol! I disagree. Here are are some more practical ideas:
- Approach your task one bite at a time. Don’t think about the entire project or even the outcome. Shut down that part of your brain while you are working and focus on the first tiny step. This should reduce the intimidation factor enough to get you started. Then let the momentum carry you forward to the next little bite.
- Focus on the euphoric rush of getting something done instead of the rush of panic. Let yourself imagine the feeling of positive self-esteem you enjoy when you receive kudos on your work, and don’t be shy about going after that. In fact, teach yourself to be hungry for it. It’s very powerful.
- If you have a fear of failure or success, it might be because you don’t spend enough time thinking about what you’ve accomplished. Everyone has had good days. Think about them and give yourself credit. You deserve to be successful as much as the next guy.
- If you believe your procrastination is a result of something serious, such as growing up in an abusive family, the cognitive therapy might not be a bad thing. Sometimes people procrastinate because it’s the one thing they believe they have control over.
- Get your brain into a different groove. There is an informal method of cognitive therapy that can help. I learned this from a book called Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by Dr. David D. Burns. You can learn more about it at feelinggood.com in the Books tab. A counselor shared this with me after divorce.
Here’s what I remember:
1. Draw a line vertically down the middle of a paper.
2. On the left side, write the things you feel that are destructive, such as “Everybody hates me.” Allow your real, deep-down feelings to come out.
3. On the right side, write a logical response to your feeling: “My mom loves me.”
4. Repeat many times as you work through your feelings and help your brain calm down and retrain itself to think more realistically about the destructive “ruts” you’ve gotten into.
How writers can overcome procrastination
Okay, now let’s talk about specific ways writers can overcome procrastination. We writers have an advantage, because we are trained to communicate. Many of us just don’t do it that often for ourselves, because we are busy doing it for others.
Here are a few things I do to fend off procrastination, in addition to the occasional split-page technique above:
- Get into “state” physically. I have a small stair stepper in my office that I use to get my heart pumping. You might not know this about me, but I’ve walked on fire with Tony Robbins (I have the souvenir charcoal to prove it), and that is one of the secrets.
- Write a small list of things to do today. I used to slap everything I could think of onto my list to make sure I didn’t forget it. Now I dump all of that into Asana (asana.com–it’s free). Then I write a small, unintimidating list of about three things to do on my Gmail calendar. Sometimes, I write the list on a sticky note, so all I have to do is glance up at it to keep me on track.
- Choose a quote that, to you, means “I’m fine just the way I am, and I can do this.” One of my favorites is “May my heart be kind, my mind fierce and my spirit brave.” Not sure who said that. I got it from Facebook.
- Write a list of the things you’ve accomplished–even little things. This gratitude-type list reminds you that you ARE capable of doing things well and slaps down the naysayer in you. If you are stuck on a project, feeling panicky and useless, just stop what you’re doing and write this list. I guarantee you’ll begin to relax and feel like working again.
- Create a ritual to get you in the zone. I turn on all the lights, step on the stairstepper for a few minutes, get a glass of lemon water, quietly play Mozart and shut down my browser (until I need it for research). I first sit and think about my project without writing anything, just letting my mind wander. When I can’t stand not writing anymore, then I start writing. What’s your ritual? Don’t have one? Maybe it’s time you created one. If you can, do it the same way every time. Your brain will learn to get into state faster and more purely with time.
- Focus on what you love about writing and the topics you are writing about. You may laugh, but ask yourself why you became a writer in the first place. I’ll bet you simply love language. You love the “puzzle” of putting words together that mean something important. You love the creativity of choosing just the right words. And you love looking at a piece and saying to yourself, “I did that.” If you don’t love the kind of writing you’re doing now in general, consider changing it. You get to choose, and you can make a living doing any of it.
- Remind yourself how what you are doing is helping people. I know so many people who seem okay with failing themselves, but they don’t want to fail their family, friends or clients. So settle in for a few minutes and think about how much they need this thing you are making for them. You have wonderful qualities that will help them achieve what they were destined for. Your role is important. Focus on that, and let it spur you on.
- Talk with other writers. Writing is hard, and many times writers have a love/hate relationship with their work. It helps to commiserate with others who face the same challenge. This warrants a lunch here and there–or even joining a writers group.
- Keep it simple. Sometimes procrastination happens because we are letting things get too complicated. There is a lot going on in the world, and it can be difficult to set boundaries. When you are working on a task, name it–even write it down–to define what your current goal is. Then, remind yourself there is nothing else you need to be doing, nowhere else you need to be right now.
- Keep it zen. Procrastination can be the result of thinking we have to control things. Why not let things happen naturally? Quietly. Simply.
I hope this has helped you understand procrastination a little better and put a few tools in your toolbox to fix it when it happens. Remember it happens to everybody and you can overcome it. What you want instead is “fascination of the wonderful!”