How often do you surf the net for “research purposes” instead of actually writing that chapter you’ve been meaning to write?
How guilty do you feel at the end of the day when you think about the things you should’ve done but haven’t?
What is the task that’s been occupying your mind the longest? Was it really worth waiting so long to implement it?
If you think these questions resonate with you on any level, you’re likely to be a procrastinator. But don’t worry: there is a cure. It isn’t a magic pill, or a secret recipe; just a simple, doable cure.
“Says who?” you may ask. Well, I’m not proud to admit it, but I’ve been suffering from procrastination for a while now. In fact, I had the idea for this article back in February 2015, but couldn’t put the words on paper until November.
What happened in between? I procrastinated.
This meaning puzzled me at the beginning. If something belonged to tomorrow what was it doing in my head today? But seeing that particular tomorrow never arrive, it made perfect sense.
I’m still not at peace with the word “procrastination”. It sounds alien, like an incurable medical syndrome. So I prefer to call it an “inefficient habit”:
Habit—because procrastination is a pattern.
Inefficient—because it drives us and everyone around us mad without getting anything done.
Seeing procrastination as a habit is an important step, because there’s so much research put into the study of habits, and countless methods out there to form or quit habits. For instance, habits are known to have parts:
1. Cue: In other words, a simple trigger. It could be a text message, an alarm, a location, a reaction or a feeling.
2. Reaction: this is your reaction to a particular cue. What do you do when your morning alarm goes off? Do you snooze, or do you jump out of bed? How do you feel when you sit at your desk to write? What do you say when you catch yourself checking Twitter instead of working on your story?
3. Reward: every habit—good or bad—has a rewarding side to it. Smoking, Facebook, biting your nails…they may be bad habits but they are also rewards. Maybe you smoke to deal with stress, or check Facebook instead of facing your writer’s block. Understanding why you do what you do is crucial. Just ask yourself this question: “What am I trying to achieve with this habit?” and you’ll find the hidden reward. The question is, is that reward what you really want? It goes like this: Why am I browsing the internet? Well, I can’t write, so I’m looking for inspiration. Is this a useful strategy? Has it served me well so far?
Be aware of our inherent bias of preferring smaller, more achievable rewards over larger rewards that hang in the distance. It’s in our very nature; but being aware of such moments can help you tame it and make it work to your advantage.
4. Belief: habits feed from beliefs and beliefs turn into habits. They have a symbiotic relationship. If you find yourself thinking, “I could never change this habit,” it will become true, because you’ll be feeding that habit with your negative belief. But why not try feeding it with a positive one for a while and see what happens?
Now that we’ve dissected all the components of a habit, how can we deal with an inefficient habit (aka procrastination)?
Very simple. Here are three options for you:
1. The universal formula to change any habit is: to change your reaction to its cue.
If you’re short of words when trying to write (cue), don’t start browsing the internet or castigating yourself (negative reactions). Just be proud that you managed to catch yourself (positive reaction) and go back to your story (positive habit).
2. Bring out the child within.
Have you ever watched children draw? When they draw, they just draw. They don’t plan what or how to draw; they don’t even worry about how good the outcome will be. They simply draw one picture after another, just because they enjoy it.
This quality still lies within each of us, and it’s the optimum creation tool. We just need to remember to activate it, so that the judge in us (often the editor in writers) doesn’t sabotage our creative flow.
Research shows that non-procrastinators are better at putting negative feelings aside. They, too, question their capabilities from time to time, but they’re good at saying, “Quit wasting time and get on with it. Once you get going, you’ll feel better about it.”
3. Remain process oriented—not product oriented.
Yes, the product is the goal. You can’t sell a book if it’s not written. If you don’t know how much time and effort goes into a (good) book, you’re very likely to start and then drop out. Even if you do know it, you’re very likely to lose your motivation every now and then—I think it’s just the nature of the business.
It’s very hard to say, “I’m going commit the next two years of my life to write a fiction piece without getting any professional support or feedback or knowing if it would ever be published” because it focuses on the ultimate goal. However, if you could focus on the process, then you’d say, “I’m just going to write half an hour every day.” Do you see the difference?
The beauty of the second statement is: the more you enjoy the process, the higher quality the product will be. Eventually you’ll get better at what you do, and the process will become more enjoyable.
I hope these points help you question the nature of procrastination. Remember it’s not some innate, unfixable trait. It’s just an inefficient habit that needs a dose of common sense and effort to cure it.
Finally, check out these tools to help you get going:
1. Try the Pomodoro technique: set an alarm to split your writing time into bite-sized (often 25 min) slots and take mini breaks (usually 5 minutes). These breaks improve your focus. Also having bite-sized slots mean you can’t waste too much time even if you lose focus—because the alarm will bring you back.
2. Use Trello or Todoist to keep track of your progress. Whether you are writing a story, a novella or a novel, treat it like a project. Use Trello to follow your progress. As you move more items under the DONE section, your confidence will grow. And don’t underestimate the power of to-do lists. If used correctly, a simple tool like Todoist can become a pool of inspiration. Take notes throughout the day, so by the time you sit at your desk, your head is buzzing with ideas.
3. Plan your day the night before: whether you use an app or a simple notepad, plan what part of your book you’re going to work on just before bed. Your brain is likely to toy with the idea while you sleep.
4. Stop writing before you’re drained (sometimes called the Hemingway method): in Conversations with Ernest Hemingway edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, it’s stated that Hemingway worked to a strict schedule and wrote an average of 500 to 1,000 words a day. “I start in at seven in the morning,” Hemingway said, “and I always quit when I’m going good, so that I’ll be able to pick right up again the next day.” Sound like something you’d like to try?
5. Give yourself a daily deadline/quitting time: most of us complain that we don’t have enough time but every now and then we meet people who juggle ten things at a time and never drop a ball. What’s their secret? Practice, being organized, patience, motivation, and more. But there’s one thing that many people overlook: having only a little time can make you more productive. In fact, even if you have all day to do something, you may benefit from giving yourself a quitting time, saying, “I’ll finish at 5pm.” Try it and see how you react to it. Research suggests you’ll be more productive.
6. Do the most important tasks first: if you haven’t read The One Thing by Gary Keller yet, purchase it now. It’s full of gems. Even this question alone will change the way you see things: “What’s the one thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”
7. Set small challenges: Lao Tzu says, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” But we can add: “it also ends with one step; in fact, there are single steps all the way to the finish line.” In fact, it’s so obvious that we tend to forget.
8. Commit to a routine: decide the best time you can write. Is it first thing in the morning? Or after everyone goes to sleep? Once you’ve worked it out, add it to your calendar and treat it like a business meeting. Do not let things get in your way unless they’re emergencies.
9. Take a moment to enjoy your triumph every day: most importantly, when you accomplish your daily goal, don’t forget to give yourself a “well done” or enjoy a small treat to top-up your motivation and willpower.
10. Have a back-up plan: in case things don’t work out in the end, you should have a back-up plan. There’s no shame in having one; it doesn’t mean you’ve admitted defeat already. It’s just good sense.
I’ve listed many options above, but it doesn’t mean you’ve got to do everything in one go. That would disturb your productivity. Just experiment with one or two compatible options at a time, and don’t be intimidated by trying out different tools. If life is a journey of discovery, so is your writing life. It will take time to figure out what works for you, because you’re unique and you need a unique formula to fulfil your potential.
Author: S.E. Sever