Procrastinate too much and you’ll never get anything done. Result: self-doubt and guilt. If you can understand the reasons behind your procrastination – and usually it has nothing to do with laziness or inefficiency – then you might be more productive – and enjoy your writing more too!
So, what kind of procrastinator are you…?
1. The Planner
Do you spend so long planning or researching, that you never actually get round to writing? It’s good to plan and research, if your project calls for it but don’t let it take over. You can kid yourself that you’re working hard by spending hours in the library or surfing the net but until you convert some of that planning and research into writing, you haven’t even started. It’s time to stop thinking – and start doing!
2. The Adrenaline Junkie
Are you addicted to the ‘adrenaline rush’ of having to hit a deadline, for a course assignment, an editor or a writing competition? You may have convinced yourself that by waiting until the last minute, you’re saving yourself valuable time but actually you’re playing a dangerous game. A rushed piece of work is never going to be as good as something you’ve spent time on and you could easily miss something – not least, the deadline!
Thrill-seekers often underestimate how long tasks will take, so why not plan out your time and start the work earlier? You may be surprised by the results and your stress levels will certainly go down!
Butterflies have drawers full of half-finished stories or articles; they have initial bursts of enthusiasm for a project but then quickly lose interest. Recognise yourself? Butterflies flit from task to task and hardly ever finish anything. They enjoy juggling lots of projects because it makes them feel busy. But busy does not necessarily mean ‘productive’.
Writer Erica Jong admitted that she went for years not finishing anything because “when you finish something, you can be judged. I had pieces that were re-written so many times I suspect it was just a way of avoiding sending them out.”
Try making a list of all your half-finished projects and choose two that interest you most. Be strict with yourself and make a commitment to complete one of them – even if it’s just a first draft – before allowing yourself to move onto the next.
4. The Networker
Writing is hard work and it can be lonely, particularly if it’s your full-time occupation. It’s natural to crave some human interaction but if you’re a serial emailer or chatroom visitor, you’re merely putting off the moment when it’s time to write.
Prolific writer Stephen King says, in his seminal work ‘On Writing’, if you want to be a writer “you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” But I don’t think he means emails. So, if you can’t resist regularly flicking onto the internet, try writing away from the PC, or reward yourself with 10 or 15 minutes of internet ‘free time’ after every hour spent writing. Buy yourself a kitchen timer – and use it!
5. The Perfectionist
You’re a perfectionist and more likely than most to procrastinate. You expect so much from yourself that you worry about meeting your (often unrealistic) standards. It’s easy to convince yourself that you don’t have the right conditions or skills to write perfectly, so you end up doing nothing at all.
Novelist and poet Margaret Atwood said, “If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” You’ll very rarely have the luxury of those ‘perfect writing conditions’, so just concentrate on just getting something down. It won’t be perfect but there’ll be something in it that you can build on. Remember – it’s just the first draft!
6. The Commitment-Phobic
Sometimes we procrastinate because we haven’t really committed to the job in hand. Writing a novel, for example, is a huge commitment in time, energy and focus. If you’re doing it half-heartedly, you’ll keep putting it off. Ask yourself honestly if you’re prepared to commit to your current writing project. A novel needs to be worked on every day. If you really can’t commit, perhaps it’s the wrong writing project for you.
7. The Frightened Rabbit
A lot of procrastination is down to fear: fear of failure, fear (ironically) of success, fear of being alone, fear of losing control or of becoming a workaholic. Many writers are afraid that they don’t actually have anything to say and this fear is not limited to novice writers: when Nobel prize-winning writer Ernest Hemingway was asked what frightened him most, he replied, “A blank sheet of paper.” (Which was going to be the wonderfully witty title for this blog but someone beat me to it!)
Turn off your ‘internal critic’ (you know, the one that says, “You’re wasting your time!”). Remind yourself that writing is an art that needs to be practised, muscle that needs to be exercised and every time you write, you’re honing your skills. It’s also a good idea to have a ‘plan B’ for whatever you’re working on: an idea of what you’ll do with it next if it doesn’t succeed with your first chosen market.
If you’re daunted by the amount of work that lies ahead, break it down into manageable chunks. The thought of writing a 100,000 novel is scary. But split that into 20 chapters of 5,000 words each and suddenly it doesn’t seem so bad.
8. The Guilty Party
If you feel guilty about spending time writing when you should be hoovering or helping the kids with their homework, this can hold you back. We don’t all have the luxury of not doing “any housework for four years” (which is how J K Rowling initially found the time to write) but if you’re a happy partner or parent because you’re able to write – or it’s bringing in some extra income – that will actually benefit your family. So don’t be too hard on yourself: make sure you carve some time out for yourself and your writing.
Tips For Beating Procrastination:
1. If you’re facing a difficult task, such as phoning an editor or editing a piece of work, make sure it’s the first thing you do that day. By getting it out of the way – rather than putting it off – you’ll feel good about yourself and the rest of your ‘to-do’ list will seem easy.
2. Many procrastinators overestimate the difficulty of a task. If you actually knuckle down to do it, you’ll probably find it’s not as bad as you’d expected.
3. Write down the unpleasant consequences of not doing the work. Eg: ‘If I don’t finish this homework, I’ll have nothing to read out in class and I won’t benefit from everyone’s feedback. ‘ or ‘If I don’t get my competition entry in on time, I’ll have wasted money buying the magazine and I’ll have no chance of winning and seeing my story in print.’
4. Instead of writing, try taping yourself speaking aloud the ideas that you want to include in your story, article or poem.
5. Make a list of when you procrastinate – and how. Think of a writing project that you are currently putting off and write a list of all the reasons you’re telling yourself you can’t get started.
6. Be kind to yourself: reward yourself when you do settle down to write. (Chocolate?!)
A longer version of this article originally appeared in Words With Jam, October 2010 www.wordswithjam.co.uk