I will thank the Lord with all my heart as I meet with his godly people. How amazing are the deeds of the Lord! All who delight in him should ponder them. Psalm 111:1-2 NLT

Friday, January 27, 2012

Procrastination & the Writing Life: There's Always Tomorrow...

The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. (Mary Heaton Vorse)


At 12:00:01 on January 1, 2012, I promised myself this year was going to be different. I would get organized and be on time. I would meet every deadline, write at least 2000 words every day, and save hundreds of dollars a month on groceries by clipping coupons. All while keeping the house clean and the laundry baskets empty, effectively homeschooling my children, and having dinner on the table at a respectable time. I had high hopes for the coming year and I told myself I would succeed; I just needed to buckle down and be responsible.

Sigh. Here I am, 27 days into the New Year, and I’m already failing. I’m no more organized than I was in 2011, I have yet to write a single word toward my WIP, and I can’t even find half of my coupons because my house is such a mess. 

How did this happen? I bought not one, but two planners. I made a trip to Staples for pens and paper, a dry erase board with a rainbow of dry erase pens, and a giant desk calendar for keeping all of our activities straight. I even downloaded several goal-achieving and list-making apps on my iPod touch. And yet, here I am, falling behind. Why?

Am I lazy? Do I just not care enough about my family, my colleagues, and my writing to get my work done? Am I completely lacking in self control?

My name is Heidi, and I am a Procrastinator. And from the online searches I did today, it appears I’m not alone. There are hundreds of “You Can Beat Procrastination and Be a Super Awesome Parent, Spouse, Writer, Colleague, and Friend in Five Easy Lessons” type books on the market right now, and in this country, this problem goes back at least as far as Ben Franklin who warned us not to put off until tomorrow what can be done today.

We all procrastinate, in varying degrees and for various reasons. Some of us procrastinate because we are afraid; maybe of failure, maybe success. That last one sounds crazy, but I’ll admit that somewhere in the back of my mind, I know if I successfully write and publish one book, I will have to come up with more. And that terrifies me. 

Some of us procrastinate because we are perfectionists. We expect so much of ourselves that we worry we won’t measure up. Putting off doing a task means we still have the chance to do it perfectly. Writers, I think, are especially vulnerable to this mindset, especially when we know we will have to look over those first (and wildly imperfect) drafts.

There are many ways to procrastinate; sometimes on purpose, other times by accident. There are times when we simply under-estimate how much time or how difficult a task will be. For instance, last night I wanted to make a pot roast for dinner. According to the directions it needed to cook it for a total of 2 ½ hours. I figured if I started at 3:30, it would be done in plenty of time for dinner. I got caught up watching Dr. Phil, and decided I could wait to start until 4 and still have dinner on the table by 6:30. Unfortunately, I underestimated the amount of time it would take me to actually prep the roast and get it into the oven. We didn’t sit down for dinner until almost 8 pm!

Other times we tell ourselves that something else is actually more important than the task we are avoiding. I can sit down at my desk with every intention of writing but my desktop and drawers are so messy I can’t find that one pencil I absolutely have to have. Two hours later, I’ve completely reorganized my desk but all my writing time is gone.

Or, we tell ourselves we’ve earned a short break. Television or Facebook for 30 minutes, we tell ourselves. The next thing we know, we’re half asleep in bed when we’re suddenly struck with the horrible realization that we never finished writing the blog post that was due three hours ago.  (Yes, true story. Last night.)

So how do we fix it?

First we have to recognize we are procrastinators. I read one writer’s checklist for the things we tell ourselves to avoid writing, and I’ve said every single one of them. In the past week!

  • “I cannot write until my desk/room/house is completely clean.”
  • “I haven’t done enough research/planning/prewriting.”
  • “I do my best work under pressure.”
  • “I need two/three/five/eight uninterrupted hours to write.”
  • “Every word has to be perfect, even in my first draft.”

After spending a great deal of time researching the topic of procrastination (translation: putting off actually writing this post) I found several helpful suggestions I am going to try.

  1. Find a procrastination accountability partner.
  2. Stop making excuses for, or justifying procrastination.
  3. Avoid distractions/temptations.
  4. PRIORITIZE! 
  5. Be more realistic about how long tasks actually take.
  6. Break larger projects into smaller tasks.
  7. Set reasonable goals with sensible deadlines. 
  8. Reward yourself for completing a task with time to spare.

Those of us who procrastinate are not going to change overnight, but we have to make every effort to improve if we are going to be happy and successful, and maintain our sanity. 

After all: “There are a million ways to lose a work day, but not even a single way to get one back.”Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, software engineers)


Which, if any, of the above excuses have you used to avoid writing? Which suggestion do you think would help you most?

26 comments:

  1. How did you get into my head???? I am such a procrastinator, and I truly believe it is due to fear. I have been planning and plotting a new WIP and can't seem to make myself start.

    So...you've given me courage. I am starting this weekend! I will write and not fear anymore.

    Thank you for the words I so desperately needed.

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  2. I was going to leave a comment here and answer your question, but then I figured I'd do it later...

    Hehehe, just kidding. One of my bigger procrastination excuses is, "I can't write now because I'm exhausted/hungry/flustered/moody/etc so it wouldn't be good writing anyway." I think all your suggestions are great! What has worked the best for me is getting very specific with tasks. I'm not just going to sit down tonight and write - I'm going to re-write Chapter 13, Scene 2 and raise the tension. I'm less likely to procrastinate if I've got a clear course of action.

    It also helps me to sit down on Sunday and look at the coming week, what tasks must get done - and then I break down my week and decide what I'll do when. Yeah, sometimes I'm forced to veer from the plan, 'cause life happens, but at least I have something to shoot for.

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  3. Great post, Heidi. I have a lot on my plate and tend to procrastinate those unpleasant tasks, then they snowball and before I know it, I have an avalanche of paperwork. If I spent 15 minutes a day keeping up on it, then I wouldn't have to spend several hours to wade through all of it.

    As for my house, I allowed perfectionism to be an evil voice in my head. Then my friend got me hooked on FlyLady (www.flylady.net) who believes you can do anything in 15 minutes. I applied her principles to my writing too, and that really helped me to find focus.

    For my writing, I need to have my character work and plot laid out before I can write. Otherwise I feel like I'm heading down a darkened street with no headlights.

    I have yet to meet a single person who doesn't procrastinate in some way or another, so you're definitely in good company. But there is hope!

    After reading your post, I felt your expectations were too high. I think maybe you need to narrow your focus a little and maybe make a list of 3-5 small things you wish to accomplish that day. Then you can find the satisfaction in crossing those off without beating yourself up. Baby steps, my friend. And no matter what, we still love you!!

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  4. Sherrinda~

    I'm SO glad you found courage! You can do it! I'm like you; I have a lot of the planning/plotting done, but no writing. I have a billion excuses as to why I haven't started writing, but very few of them are actually valid. I am waiting for something...just not sure what. But I think I am tired of waiting. And tired of falling behind.

    NO FEAR! You GO Girl!! =)

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  5. Melissa~
    GREAT suggestions! I love the idea of sitting down on Sunday to see what the week has in store. I think that's brilliant, and I'm totally stealing it.

    As for writing when exhausted/hungry/flustered/moody/etc., I remember someone (Susie?) telling us to write when a particular emotion is high in order to capture it...to then use later when our characters are in similar moods. I've never actually done it, but it seems like it would be a good idea.

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  6. Wow! I have been pondering on the topic of procrastination for a week now! I realized last week that I am procrastinating, and I wondered why. I tend to fall under the "need to make sure I have done enough research and organizing" category when it comes to writing. Everything household? "I can do it tomorrow. I don't have a deadline, so it will get done when I get it done." Yeah. I know what you mean! Thanks for the encouragement to quit procrastinating and get something done!

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  7. Lisa~
    I'm the opposite of you; I figure because something would only take me 15 minutes, I will save it until a little more has accumulated and then do it all together. NOT a good way to go about it- your way is much, much smarter!

    Perfectionism is one of my foes as well. I used to do Flylady (before the accident) but somewhere along the line I stopped...although I still use the 15 minute thing ALL THE TIME. What a great concept: you can do anything for 15 minutes! I actually wrote a whole paragraph about the timer (and how if you focus, you can write 500-750 words in just 15 minutes) under the “I need two/three/five/eight uninterrupted hours to write" part of my blog. I ended up cutting it since I was up around 2000 words, lol!

    And you are absolutely right- plotting and researching are incredibly important, but there comes a time when the procrastinator must stop using it as an excuse to put off writing. It's a fine line. =)

    Thank you for your encouragement. I should clarify, I didn't set out with all those expectations for every day starting January 1st. It was more something I wanted to begin working toward. Unfortunately, if I can't do something perfectly right away, I resist even trying. THAT is the main thing I have to overcome. I used to be obsessed with making lists, and when I could multitask, I got an amazing amount of work done. Unfortunately, I lost the list-making/multitasking part of my brain in the accident. It was replaced with a short attention span, a spotty memory, and being easily (SQUIRREL!!) distracted. I start something, get sidetracked by another task, and then completely forget that I was working on that first thing, i.e. today's blog! I think that is probably wherein my real frustration comes lies.

    I love knowing that no matter what, my Ponderers love me. =)

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  8. Alycia!

    You hit on it: deadline. If I don't have a deadline, it won't ever get done. If I have a deadline, it will get done minutes before. I think subconsciously I know that once I finish/publish a book, the deadlines will start coming, and that is just too scary to ponder! I know I have to get this procrastination under control before it gets to that, or my whole family and I will lose our minds!

    As far as researching goes, I have decided that if I have the plot line skeleton and enough research to write chapter one, I need to do it. If I come across something that needs more research, I can do it as needed. This might save time, since I'm only doing the research I need.

    Good luck...let me know how it goes!

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  9. If I wait to write until my house is clean, I will never write!! I need blinders, so I don't see/get distracted by all the stuff that needs to be done! Does anyone have any tricks for ignoring the distractions?

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  10. Heidi, this is a great post. I've dealt with, and still struggle with procrastination. Incoporating writing into daily living has challenged my ability to keep everything in balance. I'm learning to let things around the house go.

    My biggest procrastinator thing from you list was making every word perfect, even on my rough draft. Doin NaNo for the first time this past November really helped me see the beauty of just getting the story down on the page. My characters came to life, too, which was fun.

    Of your tips of changes, I need to have a realistic understanding of how long tasks will take.I tend to underestimate how long it will take me to do something, too. :) I have also done the laaaate supper due to not leavig myself enough time. That's the one I'm gonna work on.

    Thanks for sharing of yourself today, Heidi!

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  11. Not that you struck a chord with anyone, Heidi ...
    A most encouraging post.
    Honest and helpful.
    Thanks, friend.
    Your procrastination paid off!
    ;o)

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  12. I think distractions hit me the hardest. But thanks for bringing this to the forefront!

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  13. I'm not a proscrastinator in general. I'm super organized. I plan and plan. But then, when it comes time to write, I just. don't. feel. like. it. Isn't that awful? I feel like my self-discipline is waning. I like the idea of having an accountability partner to cheer you on and make sure you get your word counts in when you should!

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  14. Heidi, As a former homeschooling mom of seven when I began writing, what helped the most was to set realistic goals--about the housework, schooling, mealtimes, writing, whatever. Right now, I'm still discovering what my new normal is, and I'm trying to be realistic about my energy level and what I've got to do each day. Great post.

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  15. Because I don't work well under pressure, I don't usually procrastinate. Having a deadline keeps me on task. Like when I have a blog post due, I set a deadline for having it written two weeks prior to the posting date. Because life happens, I don't always meet that deadline, and it ain't a pretty picture. lol
    Great post, Heidi! Great list of suggestions.

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  16. Jeanne~

    I think artistic people are especially prone to procrastination. I've heard many writers say we must treat our art like a job. When I had a "real" job, I got up every day and went to my workplace. Most of us would not put off showing up to the workplace until whenever we felt like it. And if we did, we wouldn't keep our jobs for long! It makes sense, then, that if we truly thought of our writing as a job/profession (instead of a hobby) we would be more likely to show up every day. I found this blog (http://davincidilemma.com/2010/04/resistance-is-futile-procrastination-for-artists-and-writers/)and the writer suggests choosing the time you will work each day, just like a work schedule. Have a definite start time, a set amount of time you will work each day, and write it down. Author Patti Hill gives away a prize (on Facebook) any day she is not at her desk (in her house) by her set start time. Genius!

    Underestimating times is probably my biggest issue. I especially underestimate how long it will take me to get out of the house and into the car. If it takes 15 minutes to get somewhere, I leave the house 15 minutes before I have to be there. Unfortunately, it takes me at least 5 minutes, sometimes 10, to get myself out the door. I don't think I fully realized this until I wrote this blog. I am hopeful that understanding this issue will help me conquer it!

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  17. Beth~

    I figured I was the only one who ever struggled with procrastination. ;)

    I just wish I wasn't so easily distracted! If I was the only one affected by my procrastination, it wouldn't matter; but it affects everyone around me. It's not good when people are counting on me to get something done and I don't.

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  18. Teri~

    I hear that!! Distractions are the worst! And when we also struggle with short-term memory issues, simple distractions can be disastrous! I think I probably need a system for keeping track of what I'm doing on any given day. =)

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  19. Lindsay~

    I used to be like that. I was so organized and I had reams of lists to help keep me on task. But I had the same problem...I knew what I *should* be doing, but sometimes I just didn't want to. My major excuse was that I worked better under pressure.

    Now, I still struggle with that lack of motivation, but now it is compounded by disorganization, and mental/physical hurdles. It is so frustrating, but like you, I really love the idea of a procrastination partner. We have prayer partners and accountability partners for other issues, why not procrastination?

    What do you do to try to motivate yourself when you just don't feel like it?

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  20. Roxanne~

    Writing this blog and reading the responses has me realizing that while I am great at goal setting, I don't think I'm writing enough of my goals down. Which means I'm forgetting the goals I've set. That doesn't help me succeed. So I see that as an area to improve. Five years after our accident, I am still trying to get a handle on my "new" norm. My lack of energy certainly doesn't help! Thanks you for sharing your ideas!

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  21. Pat~

    I am soooooooo jealous!! Every month when I am up all night, feverishly writing my blog post, I kick myself for not writing them weeks in advance. Every month I tell myself I will not wait until the last minute next time. I have yet to succeed. And this month, I even had an extra week from my usually date and fully planned to write my blog early. It didn't happen. And I still don't have an emergency post!

    My 2011 ACFW scholarship application is a perfect example of what procrastination costs me. I knew the deadline, and had the actual application completely finished at least month before. All I needed was my written essay. I knew I had plenty of time, and I wanted it to be perfect. {As I wrote above, perfectionism keeps some of us from doing something because as long as it isn't done, we still have a chance to do it perfectly.} The deadline approached and my in-laws came to town. I was slammed trying to prepare for their arrival, but I figured I still had plenty of time. One night we were sitting around the living room just chatting and watching TV, and suddenly it hit me. I still hadn't written the essay, and the deadline was in less than 30 minutes. I ended up having to throw some words down on the page and emailing it all in, with mere seconds to spare. Needless to say, I didn't get a scholarship. I know it is because my written essay was lame. If I had just taken the necessary time to do my best on the essay, I may have been at the conference. Instead, I stayed home, knowing what my procrastination had cost me.

    We have our clocks set about five minutes fast to try and "fool" ourselves into being on time. Maybe what I need to do is set my calendar ahead by a week to fool myself into being on time meeting deadlines.

    Thank you, Pat, for inspiring me to try and get ahead of my deadlines. =)

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  22. I'm so good at this. I'm definitly not a perfectionist, but there are so many other things that cause procrastination. I seem to have developed a tendancy to several of them. At least I have tried some new things to help me...like clearing out a room where I can go it I need NO distractions. I have turned off the TV for the most part. It's a start. Great post.
    Blessings.
    Jan

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  23. Heidi, I'm late in reading and commenting, but always love the puckish humor you tuck into your writing. And the realistic appraisals and solid (in this case 8-step) solutions. I'm glad I got to be in your home. Keep it up. And here's to you making ACFW & all of us reuniting.

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  24. Heidi, I will be praying for you to set deadlines and keep them! You are such a good writer, and I love to ready your posts.

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  25. Totally relate.

    I finally had to give it all to God and ask him to help me prioritize... and help me to NOT procrastinate.

    I like the suggestion of getting a partner to hold you accountable. Of course with my personality, I would eventually want to shoot them in the butt with a paintball gun. Just sayin'
    ;)

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  26. Ouch, ouch, ouch! :-) You've got me! And if you need a procrastinating accountability partner, I'm your girl. (Notice how late I'm leaving a comment on this...) Can totally relate, Heidi. Love the tips!

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