To Do or Not to Do? The Art of Avoiding Procrastination
January 21, 2021
I have taught and mentored many students over the years, and what I can say in all honesty is that each one, at some point, suffered from procrastination. Suffering from procrastination might sound rather harsh, but when a student is sitting in front of you, despairing about not being able to write, it seems appropriate.
Defining procrastination is hard, particularly as we all procrastinate in different ways. Let’s just say that procrastination is the habit of putting off tasks to the last minute. It is the seemingly never-ending battle to get things done on time or completing things late and the agonizing you may go through to get them done at all.
We have all made promises to ourselves that somehow never get fulfilled. It’s the start of a new year, which means I again promise myself I am going to lose 20 pounds. As you can see, the regularity of this promise confirms that I have been repeatedly unsuccessful.
Procrastination is about the promises you make to yourself to change, but aren’t able to keep for reasons that you may not understand, accept, or know what to do about. We tend to assume that the reason we procrastinate is because we lack the willpower to control our own actions. Newsflash: You’d be very wrong.
The idea that some people have been preordained with a divine power, hardwired into their hippocampus, is ridiculous. Apart from the fact that I have always wanted to use the word hippocampus in a post, this type of thinking plays into our own insecurities. That somehow, we aren’t good enough. That others don’t suffer from procrastination like we do.
Procrastination is normal. You are not deficient in any way. But there are steps you can take to push through the pain of procrastination and get writing again.
We procrastinate because we experience emotions that we don’t want to feel when we attempt to do tasks. Fear, anxiety, self-loathing, impostor syndrome. These emotions may make us feel overwhelmed or powerless to change. We may fear being evaluated, set unrealistic expectations, or fail to prioritize.
Procrastination does not address these emotions, but by procrastinating we are able to avoid these feelings, at least for a while. The positive news is that procrastination is entirely normal, and by following some simple strategies it can be managed.
Procrastination Is Normal, So Be Kind to Yourself
If someone has ever told you that they never procrastinate, they’re lying!
R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) once said, “It’s a job that’s never started that takes the longest to finish.” Procrastination is quite common in society. We all procrastinate at least occasionally. If you feel that you are on the more frequent side of “occasionally,” you need to read on. Help is at hand.
While writing this blog post I found myself cleaning my desk incessantly, filing papers that simply had to be ordered, alphabetized, and slotted into their corresponding folders.
I also found myself gazing at the black and white cat in the neighbor’s driveway, looking at the small, noisy miner bird perched on the letter box, wondering if it was safe or doomed to a short life.
The answer about the miner bird’s fate will appear at the end of the article (see what I did there? Accountability). In short, procrastination affects nearly everyone. Welcome to the Just You Wait and See Club.
Although procrastination may serve to relieve stress in the short term, studies of procrastination find that it also causes stress. In his book The Now Habit, Dr. Neil Fiore suggests that making time for fun can be an effective way to overcome procrastination.
Set Aside Time for Procrastination
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Rather than avoiding the task completely, organize your time into blocks. This will give you a clear plan to follow. Decide in advance what blocks of time you will allocate each week to family, entertainment, exercise, hobbies, and work. Your priorities will determine the order of these blocks of time, but making time for them all is the essential balance required.
Benjamin Franklin advised that the optimal strategy for high productivity was to split your day into one-third work, one-third play, and one-third rest. Hold your work time and your play time as equally important so one does not encroach on the other.
Overcoming procrastination involves the ability to establish priorities, manage time, set goals, break tasks into manageable pieces, set false deadlines, and also reward yourself. When this happens, the body releases endorphins—the feel-good hormone.
Over time, with repetition, you will come to associate feeling good with completing a task or project. However, before you can do these things you have to identify your saboteurs.
You know what I mean when I say this. It’s the packet of chips that appears in the pantry when you are trying to lose weight, it’s the new book arriving that morning that you have to start reading before you sit down to write.
Managing procrastination is a gradual process; it takes time and a conscious effort to change what is not working for you. No one ever overcomes their procrastination with just one attempt at doing things differently. It takes repeated efforts and determination to continue.
As writers, we can be incredibly hard on ourselves when we set goals and fail to meet them. Life happens around us and there will be times when things are out of our control, but procrastination is not one of those things. Embrace the normalcy of it, know that you can overcome it, and that you have everything you need within you to turn this around.
How To Deal With Procrastination
If your desk has ever looked like this while you’re trying to write, you are not alone.
Have you ever wondered why you sit down to complete an important task and then find yourself rearranging the furniture, alphabetizing your books, and then deciding to rearrange them based on the color of their spines? True anecdote!
I give you permission to forgive yourself. As procrastination is linked to negative thoughts, forgiving yourself can reduce the guilt you may feel. It also allows you to recognize that it’s OK to feel like you don’t want to do a task.
But you can still start it.
Challenge Self-Defeating Beliefs
We have all been there. Thoughts buzz in our heads that our writing is not good enough. We convince ourselves that no one really wants to read what we have written. By changing how we think, we can change this pattern.
Acknowledge these thoughts and feelings when they come up. There is no point fighting against your own mind. It’s exhausting and the thoughts will keep reappearing anyway. Turn those thoughts to static and instead say to yourself, “Doing something is better than nothing.”
When I feel like this, I remind myself that these thoughts are not my reality. I can always choose to pick up a pen and continue to write. We are our own harshest critic. No one will be as brutal as we are with our own writing.
I have just finished writing my second novel, and passing it on to a trusted editor filled me with self-doubt and sabotaging thoughts. It wasn’t easy, but acknowledging these thoughts of doubt allows me to push past the little voice in my head that constantly tells me I’m not good enough.
I am, and you are too! We are all good enough. Your mind is your most powerful weapon in defeating procrastination. Fight like a ninja.
Just Start! Action Leads to Action
Sitting and staring at a screen won’t help. Get yourself moving.
Some writing inspires us, other writing can be hard to get excited about. When you are one of the poor souls who chooses writing as a profession, this is part of the work. Often, though, when we pick up that pen and write, magic can happen when we least expect it. We find our flow and the words fill the page like fine grains of sand, sifting beautifully through our fingers.
Action begets action. Create a “to-do list,” take the dog for a walk, or just take yourself for a walk. The idea for my second novel came while I was walking the dog. She was most alarmed as I dragged her home, raced upstairs, and put pen to paper before I forgot my thoughts. Speaking of this…
Get Something Down on Paper
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking everything has to be perfect before you start. Remember: Done, not perfect. Write quickly; brainstorm, use mind maps, and edit later. As you enter the editing phase, read your writing aloud. Your ear will catch awkward phrases and expressions that your eye often won’t.
When I was tackling a particularly complicated literature review, I taped four A3 sheets of paper together, put the main topic in the middle, and gradually worked my way around the topic with a mind map of all the important points I needed to include.
It gave me clarity to physically see these points in front of me. At a glance, I could determine what topics could be grouped together, which led to a clear structure of my points. Visually, it worked for me. Decide what works best for you. Remember, if it isn’t working, try something different.
Jot Down Distracting Thoughts
You may not think writing down “unimportant” things is worth it, but I promise it is!
We aren’t robots. Writing is a human necessity. We write to connect, form relationships, and for many of us it is therapy. Life can be a hard, messy business. Allow yourself time to deal with the messiness, but don’t use it as an excuse to do nothing. We can always do something to move ourselves forward.
“The journey from the head to the hand is perilous and lined with bodies.”
—Ann Patchett: “The Getaway Car”
When you have distracting thoughts, write them down and set aside time to deal with those concerns after you get some writing done. When I started writing full-time, I was filled with doubts and trepidation. People kept telling me I was brave. I didn’t feel brave. I felt stupid. Why would I give up a regular wage and plunge myself into this murky world? When I read “The Getaway Car,” I knew why. Writing is hard. It takes practice, but it’s the best thing in the world (apart from my family).
If You Could Get One Thing Done Today, What Would It Be?
Just writing an answer to this question can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes, our to-do list is so long that we don’t know where to start. By prioritizing tasks, it makes it easier to begin. Put the number “1” next to tasks that need to be completed today. If it’s a large project, choose one smaller aspect and focus on that.
Getting things done doesn’t always mean writing. It could be having a conversation or asking for help. You are still actively doing something and moving toward your goal.
In addition, long hours sitting at a computer can be bad for your neck and posture, so be sure to take some breaks. Walk around. Ideas may come to you while you are walking that don’t come while you’re hunched over the computer. Take time off, and give yourself both physical and mental breaks to recharge.
Be Assertive and Set Time Limits on Distractions
Don’t let yourself doom-scroll until the end of the day.
Yep, that’s right. Put the phone away. Just stare at a blank page until you write something. No Google, no social media, no memes, gifs, or YouTube. Just a blank page. Doing nothing can be more productive than you think.
Work in Your ‘High Energy’ Part of the Day
It’s surprising how often this point gets overlooked. Our brains are not perfect machines (fun fact). Studies have shown that the brain’s optimal performance can vary greatly throughout the day.
A study of Japanese workers found that they responded better to stress in the morning. The study confirmed that cortisol levels (the main hormone in our fight-or-flight response) increased after an early morning test, but not late in the day.
According to Professor Yujiro Yamanaka from Hokkaido University in Japan, an increase in cortisol ensures that when you are stressed, you have the capacity to do something about it. Figure out when you have the highest energy in the day and write then.
Identify What Energizes and Motivates You Into Action
What gets your creative juices flowing?
I have visions of us writing while running on a treadmill—perhaps not! But seriously, try varying up your routine, and if music or exercise energizes you, try to combine that with work. As writers, we can be creatures of habit. If you normally write in your study room, try writing outside. Rather than using a laptop, put pen to paper. If it’s a boring task like paperwork or accounts, then make sure you have a special treat lined up in the kitchen to reward yourself for completing the task.
There’s nothing wrong with having a structured routine. However, sometimes our routine has become a habit which may not be in our best interests. Varying your routines can increase your focus by pushing your brain outside its comfort zone.
Research has shown that when we change locations—eating lunch outside, working in a different space—it actually stimulates the hippocampus (sorry, I couldn’t resist a second opportunity). This helps our long-term memory. There are clear benefits to mixing it up once in a while.
Here endeth the lesson! (Fun fact: Third-person singular simple present indicative form of end.)
We all suffer from procrastination, and we can all manage our approach to dealing with it.
The Just You Wait and See Club
In the end, procrastination is normal. Motivation follows after you have done the work. So start now. Be aware of your thoughts and behaviors and know which anti-procrastination strategies work for you.
Acquiring and understanding the possible reasons why you procrastinate will, at the very least, mean you will not have to punish yourself for procrastinating. There are rational reasons why you procrastinate, but there are rational strategies to address them.
Be kind to yourself!
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said,“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
And just keep going!
One last thing: The miner bird survived. Accountability, tick. Article complete, tick.
About the Author Patricia Allen
Patricia Allen is a professional content writer and copywriter specialising in white papers and case studies. She is the founder of Allenwrite Consulting, a former Educator, Researcher and Executive Director. Patricia holds a BA, Dip.Ed., from Sydney University and a master’s degree from Macquarie University, Sydney. She is at heart a storyteller, connecting with people on real issues. She enjoys vinyl records, reading, a good conversation and, of course, putting pen to paper. You can find her at allenwriteconsulting.com or on LinkedIn.