Updated: Apr 7, 2019
I've been wanting to write a blog post about procrastination for a while now but I've kept putting it off.
That's not entirely a joke.
Procrastination; to procrastinate; to defer or delay - from the Latin, procrastinus; pro - 'forward' and crastinus - 'belonging to tomorrow'. That's the exact definition (otherwise known as just an excuse to use Latin because I am a complete and utter dork).
"Just call me Cattus Dorkius."
Except we all already know what the word means, don't we? Especially if we happen to be writers. It basically means, 'I will find any excuse, no matter how random or meaningless, to avoid doing what it is I am supposed to be doing, which is writing.' Most writers I know are well acquainted with the Procrastination Monster, after all he is the annoying and stinky room-mate of our other 'friend', the Self-Doubt Monster. The two are like Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dumber, where one goes, the other undoubtedly follows.
What we also know is that procrastination means death to productivity.
However, even knowing this, I am a master at it. In fact, I am procrastinating RIGHT NOW. This very second. Writing this blog post about procrastination is allowing me to avoid working on the tricky middle bit of the first draft of my novel. How's that for irony?
You see, for someone who really loves writing... sometimes I really hate writing. When the muse visits, it's bliss. Fingers fly across the keyboard, words and ideas flow, characters take on lives of their own. But when the muse decides to take a hike and visit the writer down the road, presumably because that writer has better snacks, the writing becomes like pulling teeth - teeth that are so deeply rooted they're going to need a giant industrial strength jackhammer and a crowbar to get them out on to the page. Yes, it's THAT freaking hard.
And I know I'm not alone. Writers at every stage of their careers, from the novice to the best-selling author, confess to battling procrastination (and/or self-doubt) at some stage or another. Even Mark Twain said, "why put off until tomorrow what can be done the day after tomorrow just as well."
So, why do we procrastinate? If we love writing so much and want to be successful at it, why do we play the avoidance game? Why aren't we sitting down easily every day and banging out several thousand fabulous words? I can't speak for everyone or every writer but I can share my experiences, feeling certain many of you will recognise some of these feelings.
FEAR The big one. And it's fear of a number of things. Fear of failure, fear of success (again, weird, I know), fear of inadequacy, of finishing (what do I do then?), of me not being good enough, of my work not being good enough.What if I can't do it?
"What if people find out Kitty is a fraud and not the next JK Rowling?"
OVERLOAD Sometimes there are so many things to do, a seemingly endless list, and simply not enough time to get them all done. And if you can't get all of them done, what's the point in doing any of them? Warped logic, I know but hey, I didn't say I was going to make sense.
OVERWHELMED The not so distant cousin of 'overload'. When the task at hand seems SO huge, it's daunting, insurmountable even. (As a side bar, you can be overwhelmed and you can be underwhelmed... can you ever just be whelmed? Just a thought. Anyone?)
NO DEADLINE I know that if I work without a clear target or time frame, I will wander off and count my Hello Kitty sock collection rather than write.
BECAUSE IT'S HARD Writing, that is. It's hard. Sometimes it's not, but a lot of the time, it is. And anyone who says differently has never sat and stared at a blank page, willing the words to come. Writing consistently. Writing well. Continuing to write. It is hard. Alphabetising your record collection is easier.
I've been known to employ many forms of procrastination over the years in my quest to not write. Here's some of my favourites/most often employed.
1. CLEANING Despite the fact that I generally hate cleaning, when I hit a tricky part in my writing, cleaning out the saucepan cupboard, or cleaning the fridge, scrubbing bathroom grout, rearranging my bookcases (ok that one's actually fun), suddenly become absolutely imperative.
2. SNACKING I can't possibly focus on writing if my stomach is grumbling, can I? A hungry brain is not a creative brain. Snacking often leads to emergency grocery shopping because I've suddenly realised we desperately need organic vanilla pods or a particular type of obscure lentil and we need it right this second. Note: snacking can also lead back to aforementioned fridge cleaning.
3. LIST-MAKING Procrastination? What madness is this? I hear you gasp. And yes, at first glance, this particular item seems more the mark of a highly organised, efficient person. But, I realised that my procrastination was getting out of hand the day I wrote, 'Write New To-Do List' on my to-do list. Enough said.
4. SOCIAL MEDIA SLASH INTERNET RESEARCH Yes, we can claim the argument that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn (for the record does anyone really know how that site works and actually use it?) are great tools for 'networking' and promotion and yes, some of the time spent on social networks is really used for that, if we're smart. But let's face it, 90% of the rest of the time is spent checking out the holiday photos of some girl you went to school with and haven't seen in ten years, thinking up witty status updates, changing your profile picture and and clicking like on 'inspirational' memes or pictures of cats.
As for research, of course it needs to be done. Good writing is strengthened by good research. But, how many of us have started out by Googling 'New Orleans streets, 1920s' and then been sucked into a vortex of one hundred year old photos of bootleggers, voodoo queens, flappers and the Mardi Gras for four whole hours until suddenly, precious writing time has evaporated and it's time for dinner? Nobody? Oh. Just me then. (Liars!)
And of course there are other ways to procrastinate. You might recognise some of these...
SIDETRACKING Working on something brand new and shiny and exciting because the current project has gotten boring, or difficult, and despite the fact the current project is due like, TOMORROW, this exciting new short story (which can be entered into a competition that closes in three months time) absolutely must be written now.
NAPPING Needs no explanation.
RUNNING When you can't possibly write until you go for a run to clear your head ready to write. A double edged sword, as this can then turn into post-run snacking and then possibly even into napping.
WATCHING Here's a tip. Watching an episode of Buffy for 'inspiration' before you write is not inspiration. Unbelievably excellent though the writing is, you're watching it to avoid writing. Also, you are not Joss Whedon. Don't try.
PERPETUATING This is when you realise that you were going to start writing an hour ago but now the day is getting on, if you started writing now you'd only have to stop to make dinner and then after dinner it'll get late and really you've wasted the day now so you might as well start again tomorrow. (Note: This is the writer's version of 'oh crap I blew my diet today by eating that chocolate bar so I might as well write today off and start again tomorrow and in the meantime inhale the entire contents of my pantry.')
For writer-specific procrastination tools, see the following...
- Reading writing blogs
- Tidying your desk ready to write
- Buying more writing books
- Spending time with other writers, talking about writing
While all of these activities are valid and can be useful and have their place, all of these are also NOT WRITING!
So, how do you banish the stinky procrastination monster? Again, all I can do is share what works for me. These tips may not work for you, you might have to find your own way to kick yourself up the arse.
MEDITATE I know this sounds airy-fairy, but it works. Just ten minutes at the beginning of every day, before I write. It clears my head, centres me, and sometimes even triggers my creativity. If nothing else, it is a clear, uninterrupted moment to sit and say 'ok, now it's my time.' Here's a great blog post on how you can tackle self doubt (although be careful your meditation doesn't turn into impromptu napping).
WRITE OR DIE This timed writing tool gets you writing (and your heart pumping as your time dwindles). It's a good kick-starter and kills writers block dead.
SCHEDULE TIME It's easy to put writing off until you're not busy. Waiting for the optimum time to write though is a free pass to not writing at all. There will always be something that has the potential to get in the way. So make an appointment with your laptop. And stick to it, like you would any other important appointment.
EXERCISE I really do need to keep active to keep my brain firing. If I don't run or do yoga most days, I get restless and jittery and unfocused. This is not to be confused with avoidance running. Bonus side-effect - I also find, if I run without music, I can process scenes and ideas and characters while I am 'in the zone'. WIN!
"This posture helps to free up kitty's fiction chakra."
LEAVE THE HOUSE Physically changing location can stop you getting distracted with day to day things. Personally, on writing days, I head straight for the library, where I set up my work space and I stay until they kick me out. There is no laundry to do, no TV to watch, no dog to play with, napping is frowned upon (I speak from personal experience). Nothing to do but work.
TURN OFF THE INTERNET If you have no willpower and cannot resist Facebook or Candy Crush Saga, turn off your internet. Or download the FREEDOM PROGRAM, which blocks the internet for you. Of course you can always turn it back on or deactivate the program if you like but in order to do that you need to reboot your whole computer, which takes time. It's a hassle, so you are less likely to cheat and more likely to be productive.
BREAK IT UP If you are overwhelmed, break your project up into bite-sized pieces. Outline scenes or chapters and focus on them one by one. It's much less daunting to sit down and write 'the scene where they meet' than it is to stare at your computer thinking 'how on earth do I write a WHOLE NOVEL?'
BE POSITIVE Stop the negative self-talk. When you are feeling down about your writing or ability (which happens to us all), try to focus on your achievements, or something nice somebody has said about your work, or the way it felt when you wrote something you were proud of. Also, don't be afraid to write something that sucks at first. Rewriting something that needs work is far better than having an empty page. Check out THIS fantastic article at Mamamia about focusing on the positive and filling up your 'Boost Bank', it's about life in general but is certainly relevant to writers filled with self-loathing.
"Smile. You rock!"
And while all this advice and discussion is good, as writers we do need to remember something. We CHOOSE to write, it's not forced upon us. If you truly don't want to write, DON'T. Be an accountant, or a fisherman or take up lingerie football. But if you love storytelling and want to write, if you want writing to be your profession, YOU. MUST. WRITE. Sometimes it will be wonderful and creative and heartbreakingly magical, and in the end it will always be gratifying, but it's not always like that. Sometimes it is freaking hard and scary. It's work. It's a job. You have to be disciplined. If you know you procrastinate, be honest about it and find ways to combat it. But when you love the written word, when you love the worlds we create and the characters we bring to life, when you are blessed with stories in your head that HAVE to be told, even when it's hard and scary - no, ESPECIALLY when it's hard and scary - sometimes you simply have to grab yourself by the scruff of the neck, kick yourself up the arse, sit yourself down, and make yourself do it.
At the end of the day, you can't call yourself a writer if you don't write.
Now that I've got all of that off my chest and have done my procrastinating for today, I'm off to meditate, go for a run and then kick my own arse into buckling down and tackling my current WIP. See you on the flipside.
So, how do you procrastinate? How do you beat it?
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