How to Overcome Procrastination When Writing
Procrastination – the act of delaying an event – is a universal human habit. Authors fall victim to it just like everyone else. Despite claiming writing is our passion, many of us will do almost anything to distract ourselves from putting words on the page. That’s fine in short periods. It becomes a problem, though, when you let it happen so often you hardly ever write. Millions of passionate writers have killed their careers by allowing this sickness to possess them. A monstrous seagull of a mental state, procrastination picks off fledgeling writers like turtle hatchlings on a beach, and even pecks at experienced authors to stop them slipping back into the water.
To be clear, procrastination can be a symptom of burnout, but it isn’t burnout itself. Yes, you might feel tired of writing, but those who suffer from burnout haven’t been slacking off, avoiding it for weeks, months or years; they’ve hustled relentlessly and injured themselves from overwork. It you’re burnt out then only rest will help you. If, however, you suspect you’re not injured from overwork but paralysed every day by the seagull of procrastination in your mind, you’re in a good position to escape that seagull and get back into the flow.
As you will find out in today’s blog post, while procrastination never goes away completely, you can manage it. Yes, the seagull will appear on occasion but, unlike turtles, we can learn survival tactics. We can create and carry mindset tools to protect ourselves and internalise strategies to live in a way that helps us avoid the beast altogether. Killing procrastination for good is impossible but, by educating ourselves and changing our habits, we can clip its wings and tame it. This article will show you how.
Those who give advice on how to write more often start with time management tips. The problem, though, is that procrastinating writers often have spare time and know how they should spend it. Their issue isn’t availability or knowledge; it’s friction. James Clear, author of the habit guide Atomic Habits, explains it clearly when she says, “The greater the obstacle — that is, the more difficult the habit — the more friction there is between you and your desired end state.” Writing isn’t hard but it is a daunting obstacle and, to procrastinating authors, other activities seem easier by comparison. As a result, many of us follow the path of least resistance.
Eliminate those easier paths from your life, however, and your writing will seem like less of an obstacle. You could, for instance, clean and tidy your workspace the night before a writing session to ensure you’re not tempted when you should be writing. Or you could turn off the internet before you begin. Having your writing pad, laptop, voice recorder — whatever you use — set in your workspace will also help, removing the friction of having to carry them from elsewhere. Outline what you plan to write in your next session at the end of your current one, too. That makes starting the next day less daunting as you’ll know how to begin.
Block Out Time
We’ve all told ourselves that we’ll do something “later” only to reach the end of the day and realise it’s too late to start so we’ll have to “do it tomorrow.” The issue is that if you keep kicking the proverbial can down the road, 30 years pass and that can eventually becomes a cannot. If you actually want to beat procrastination and make progress then you must make time for it every day until it’s done. For you, that might mean blocking out time for which you can only work on your book, as you would block out a dentist’s appointment. Give your writing importance and make it non-negotiable, otherwise you will let other people derail it forever.
According to a 1997 study cited in Fast Company, morning people tend to excel at nurturing good habits and staving off bad habits. Plus, they tend to procrastinate less. One explanation why is that they execute early in the day when they have more energy, and before the people in their life divert their attention. Not everyone is a morning person, but you can produce similar results by copying the habits of morning people. For example, if you struggle to block out time to write, or you find yourself unable to focus late at night, try going to bed earlier and setting an earlier alarm. In doing so, you’ll create a distraction free time block where nobody expects anything from you as you’re normally asleep. That way, you can execute on your writing before the day begins.
Lower the Bar
“It doesn’t really matter much if on a particular day I write beautiful and brilliant prose that will stick in the minds of my readers forever, because there’s a 90 percent chance I’m just gonna delete whatever I write anyway. I find this hugely liberating.”
That quote comes from mega-bestselling teen fiction author John Green. It’s interesting because his work is both critically acclaimed and wildly commercial. He acknowledges that his first drafts are bad and that, for him, the initial writing process is simply about getting words on the page. This means his editing process is the magic that turns a delete-able first draft into an acclaimed bestseller.
Consider this when tackling your own procrastination. Don’t focus on investing too much emotional energy into writing a perfect first draft. Instead, lower the bar to remove the expectations that paralyse you from writing. Once you’ve done that, you can write without fear of consequence, knowing all you’re doing is filling the page. Worry about editing it later. This approach can work in relation to quality and quantity. Afraid you can’t write your first draft like polished Hemingway prose? Neither could Hemingway! Make peace with writing badly. Daunted by a 2,000-word target? Drop the minimum goal to 100 words and trust that getting over that initial hurdle will kickstart your flow state. Lower every bar and you will start writing more consistently.
Learn Just in Time
It’s impressive when you watch a seasoned self-published author at work. They can effortlessly hop from one task to another; writing solid prose, formatting like an artist, managing designers, crafting efficient blurbs, collating effective metadata and building strong marketing campaigns. When we hear about these people, we want to learn their ways — to become publishing polymaths ourselves — and we want it now. Hence, many of us stop writing so we can consume every blog post, podcast and YouTube video we can find just in case we need the information. Then, after some time, we realise:
- We’ve learned a lot but haven’t written in ages.
- We probably won’t need most of what we’ve learned.
- We’ll have to re-learn a lot by the time we need it.
This is the trap of just-in-case learning. It feels productive but it’s actually a form of procrastination — more edutainment than education. When we do this, we don’t need or remember most of the knowledge we encounter. To work efficiently and make progress like the pros, what you really need is to not learn just in case, but just in time. This means searching for any knowledge you need at the moment you need it. Will this lead to you making mistakes through ignorance? Yes, but the time it takes to correct those mistakes is often far shorter than the time you would have spent becoming a walking publishing encyclopaedia, full of mis-remembered information.
Facebook has a motto: “Move fast and break things.” It endorses the idea of taking frequent action to make swift progress, even if the product you launch isn’t perfect. This idea has served Facebook well because it teaches employees to launch imperfect products rather than keep tweaking forever. It suggests they will never have enough information to achieve perfection so might as well release a product as soon as it’s passable. By their logic, it’s only by releasing a product and receiving feedback that you can learn how to improve it. Authors who spend years writing their debut novel could benefit from this mentality. By releasing a good but imperfect book, they would learn more from the experience than they ever would revising an unfinished manuscript.
Set a deadline to publish often and you too can overcome this form of tweaker’s procrastination. Putting time limits on projects forces you to create on a regular basis. As prolific author, blogger and entrepreneur Seth Godin has said when discussing his secret to writing success:
“If you know you have to write a blog post tomorrow, something in writing, something that will be around 6 months from now, about something in the world, you will start looking for something in the world to write about.”
This is true for the creation of ideas and words. A deadline makes writers’ block irrelevant. When you know you have to publish something next week, you will choose ideas and find words. Will the work meet your idea of perfection? No, but you’ll learn more from a complete project than an unfinished one. Hence, if you keep getting bogged down by aiming for perfection, publish often — somewhere public to keep yourself accountable.
Beating procrastination isn’t easy. It takes time to eradicate bad habits and form new neural pathways to solidify good ones. Follow the tips outlined in this blog, however, and you will procrastinate less and write more often. The seagull will turn up some days, but it won’t stick around long if you keep working to minimise its influence. Push through any blips and writing will eventually become your way of life.
Grab Your SPF Freebies!
Sign up to receive your SPF starter package, which includes a free 3 part video series on getting started with FB ads, and inspirational and educational weekly emails.