What to Do if You Have a Procrastination Problem or Block
Adapted from an article on hillaryrettig.com, where you’ll find many other productivity-related articles and resources.
The work of becoming a prolific writer – someone who writes easily and quickly, and has fun while doing it – is the work of managing your moment-by-moment experience of your writing.
Writing is one of those activities that looks easy, but really isn’t. Besides the basic intellectual challenge, writing is also an act of self-exposure, and often to critical or harsh audiences.
Add to that the fact that people bring their own conflicts, ambivalence and baggage to their writing. Most of us have absorbed messages from parents, teachers, bosses or others that they are failures or have no business expressing themselves. (“Who do you think you are?” is a common refrain.)
All this, combined with perfectionism, overidentification with one’s work, and other dysfunctional attitudes, results in a whopping case of fear of failure, which should more properly be called terror of failure. We procrastinate not just to avoid the terrifying possibility of failure (if you don’t finish, you won’t be judged, after all), but to escape the fear and anxiety surrounding the act of writing itself.
The wrong way to handle all this is to try to bully yourself to write through the terror, a la: “What’s wrong with you? Writing is easy! This project is easy! You’ve got a new computer! [Or, new office / babysitter / etc.] So get to it! Why are you so lazy? Where’s your commitment? Frank finished his novel in a eight months, and here it is three years and you’re still at it…” This approach is doomed to failure because it misdiagnoses the problem as laziness and lack of commitment, when it’s really fear. It also undermines you, and exacerbates your procrastination problem by creating more fear.
The right way to boost your writing productivity is to: (a) minimize your fears by moderating or eliminating their causes, and (b) build your capacity to cope with the remaining fears and anxieties, moment by moment, as you write. Here’s how:
1) Minimizing the causes of fear
Journal them out. Take a few hours, or a few days – however long you need – and really write out all your fears, concerns and anxieties around writing in general, and your current writing project in particular. Do this via free-writing, without paying attention to spelling, grammar, etc.: just get it all out in as much detail and depth as possible. Don’t leave anything out, even if it seems small (it probably isn’t), and (especially) don’t censor.
You will probably come up with a surprisingly long list of barriers to productivity, including:
*conflicts about yourself as a writer
*conflicts over the project
*conflicts over your school or workplace (including teacher / boss)
*resource deficiencies (inadequate time, energy, privacy, information, infrastructure or support)
*distractions (by personal, family or global problems). Of course, you can also be distracted by good stuff: love; school; activism; a day job you enjoy. Time management is essential for helping you balance all these.
*unresolved core issues (illness, depression, anxiety, depression or relationship or personal problems)
Wow! So many things that can interfere with our ability to write! When compiling your list, don’t settle for generalities: get as specific and concrete as possible about your particular obstacle or barrier. It’s in the specifics that we’ll find solutions. If you look at your list objectively and without reflexive self-blame or shame, you will probably notice that every cause on it is reasonable. The causes of procrastination are always logical and reasonable, even if procrastination itself is a suboptimal response to them.
The great news is that simply writing out the list will probably help alleviate some of the fears, since naming a fear is often enough to alleviate it. In other cases, the problem, once examined in the absence of shame, will solve itself:
“Not enough privacy? Hmmm. I guess I’ll take over the guest bedroom for my writing room. That room just sits there empty most of the time anyway.”
“Not enough time? Hmmm. I guess I’ll call up some friends and see if we can trade some babysitting time, or if they can take the kids to school.” Or, “I’ll hire help or ask the family to pitch in more around the house.”
Other problems won’t be so easily solved, but you’ll be a whole lot closer to solving them after having characterized them so minutely. Now you can call in help: not just from family and friends, but other writers, mentors), and professionals such as therapists or coaches.
2) Building your coping capacity, and writing endurance
Having “exorcised” at least some of your fears, and made plans for addressing the remainder, it’s time to practice writing fearlessly. Get a timer – such as, http://www.online-stopwatch.com/large-stopwatch/ or any kitchen timer – and set it for 5 minutes.
To be clear: you are writing on your desired project but in a “free-writing” kind of way. Your goal is not for any specific result – and especially not to “write something good” – but to simply put in your time: write uninterruptedly without getting derailed by fear or distraction.
You work on the “low-hanging fruit” – the easiest or most accessible part of the project. It’s also okay to do some notetaking, organizing or outlining related to the project. No research, though: you need to be writing, not reading, during this time. And absolutely no self-abuse: no writing, “What’s wrong with me? This is easy! I’m so lazy, etc. etc.” Don’t make the mistake of thinking that perfectionist self-abuse has any corrective or redeeming quality, when it will do nothing but hold you back.
When the timer dings, you stop, stand up for a good stretch, and give yourself rewards. (If you don’t make it through the entire five minutes, try again later at two minutes.) A reward can be an actual physical reward – a cookie, bubble bath, or promise to yourself to buy that new DVD. But the most important part of the reward is a sustained feeling of honest pride and self-satisfaction, two emotions that don’t come naturally to perfectionists. So open yourself up to those feelings and savor them for at least a few seconds every time you hit your target.
The perfectionist in you might say, “Five minutes! That’s trivial. And you think you deserve a reward? Give me a break. How are you ever going to finish writing five minutes a day! And what you wrote was crap!” Etc. etc. That is the voice of your fears, and it’s telling you these things in a desperate effort to get you to stop writing.
Never listen to that voice. (And the desperation, by the way, is a sign you’re making progress – so congratulations!) If you want, you can dialog with it compassionately via journaling, reassuring the frightened part of yourself that it will all be okay. Eventually, as you learn to stop burdening your work with unreasonable expectations, the voice will go away.
Only when you are completed rested and relaxed should you reset the timer and start over. You probably in fact, want to wait for tomorrow. Never push your productivity, because doing so will only increase the pressure and consequent fear, which is obviously counterproductive. Remember: the thing you’re writing might be intellectually and emotionally challenging, but the act of putting words on paper or screen should never in itself be emotionally difficult.
After you can securely handle five minutes of non-fearful, non-judgmental writing, you can increase the timer to eight or ten minutes. And then fifteen, twenty, thirty, an hour, three hours. As you progress, watch out for, and learn to accept, the inevitable plateaus and backsliding. If you find yourself struggling, set the timer for fewer minutes.
What I’ve described in this article is the process of becoming prolific, which is really the process of getting rid of barriers and blocks so you can reclaim the fulfillment and joy you once felt, perhaps in childhood, when writing. Back then, the product (i.e., what you wrote) didn’t matter so much, and it shouldn’t now.
Prolificness is sublime, and I wish you good luck in getting there.