Peanut butter and jelly. Abbott and Costello. Soap and water.
Procrastination and writing.
They’ve been a pairing for as long as writers have been trying to convince themselves to write. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s common for writers to feel a huge resistance to the actual writing process. The phrase “I don’t like to write, I like having written” is true for many writers, including George R.R. Martin (author of the epic fantasy series A Song of Fire and Ice that was adapted into Game of Thrones) who said in an Entertainment Weekly interview:
“I’m one of those writers who say ‘I’ve enjoyed having written.’ There are days I really enjoy writing and there are days I f–king hate it. I can see it in my head and the words won’t come. I try to put it on the page and it feels stiff and wooden and it’s stupid. Writing is hard work.”
It’s this “hard work” that is often the culprit of our procrastination as writers. I’ve definitely earned my black belt in procrastination. Over time, though, I’ve learned how to stop procrastinating on writing (and in general) by going even deeper to the root of my resistance, so not only do I intimately understand this struggle, I also know how possible it is to overcome it. Here are some tips to help you overcome procrastination as a writer.
How to Stop Procrastinating on Writing
Identify why you’re procrastinating
Elizabeth Gilbert says in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear:
“All procrastination is fear.”
When we procrastinate, it’s usually due to a fear of failure, success, judgment/criticism, commitment, or falling short of our own expectations (perfectionism). You may also be overwhelmed by the long list of tasks that have to be completed for a project. That’s also rooted in fear ─ the fear of the long road ahead and the weight of all that has to be done.
THE TRUTH ABOUT FEAR
Fear is one of our oldest survival mechanisms that has been honed over millions of years. However, it doesn’t know the difference between a mortal threat (like a saber-toothed tiger) and something cerebral, like the fear of failure, which is why we have to use our logical mind to override our knee-jerk, instinctive reaction.
It’s going to be triggered and do its best to manipulate you into avoiding the threat (after all, that’s literally its job). That manipulation comes in the form of fatigue (your brain starts to shut down to preserve energy), distractions (to do something more pleasurable and avoid the discomfort), and negotiating with you to give up on the task entirely.
It’s important to get clear on exactly what is fueling your fear and manifesting into procrastination because identifying it and hearing it out is the first step to taking back your power.
The best way to get to the root of your fear-charged procrastination is to journal it out. Despite being a writer, I used to be completely uninterested in journaling until I got tired of every personal development and mental health expert suggesting it and I thought, “Okay, I’ll give this a try.” Well, there’s a good reason why they all recommend it. It f–king works.
Grab a pen and paper or open a blank document on your computer and begin to brain dump whatever comes to mind on the question, “What am I afraid of when it comes to writing?” It may take a minute or two for you to warm up, but the beauty of this exercise is that no one else is going to see it but you. You don’t have to write in complete sentences or worry about typos; in fact, you can delete it afterward if you want. This is all about the process of excavating what’s in your subconscious mind and working through it.
You have to fully witness and hear out your fears in order to deal with them, otherwise, they will keep working in the background, pulling your strings like a puppet. If you take the time to start a dialogue with them and get real with yourself, then you’ll create a level playing field and be on your way to the freedom of making your own informed choices.
CHALLENGE YOUR FEARS
Once you’ve identified exactly what you’re afraid of and why, challenge those fears. Are the beliefs that are supporting them true?
For example, if one of your fears is that you’re not a good enough writer, ask yourself:
- Is that an actual fact?
- How is it a fact?
- Is it just your fear that you won’t be good enough but you haven’t actually proven it to yourself yet?
- Was it another person’s subjective criticism of you that made you believe that?
- Have any of your favorite authors received bad reviews and negative criticism? Do those negative reviews affect their legitimacy and value as an author?
- Can you get better at writing with practice?
Breaking down the glue that holds your fears together will weaken them and load up your logic with ammo. While it won’t eradicate your fears, it will arm you with the weapons you need to fight it when you are faced with the choice to follow them into procrastination or defy them with action.
Stop waiting for inspiration to strike
If you always wait to feel inspired in order to write, you’ll never finish a book or at the very least, it will take you an extremely long time to do so.
Writing is a discipline. Yes, there are times when it feels like magic and the words flow like a river and you lose all track of time and space, and those experiences are amazing. But they are the exception, not the rule. Anyone who has finished a book knows this secret. You aren’t a “bad writer” or “not talented enough” or “not cut out for writing” if you don’t experience this often because the truth is, none of us do!
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” – Stephen King
You have to condition yourself to start without feeling motivated and find motivation through the act of writing. This doesn’t sound sexy, nor is it easy to implement, but it’s the truth. Once you accept it and embrace it, it’s actually incredibly freeing. You aren’t bound by waiting for some magical source to bless you with inspiration in order to create your art. You can learn how to create it yourself at your own behest. It just takes hard work, discipline, and commitment.
This is why the most popular writing tip “write every day” is shared by so many authors because the more you write, the more you build trust in the fact that you don’t need the inspiration to start, and the easier it gets to sit down and do it because you’ve trained yourself to. It’s a muscle that gets stronger over time just like any other.
Get clear on your why
Every time you choose to procrastinate, be clear about the choice you’re making ─ because it is a choice. Your fear will make a very compelling argument and stir up feelings that create a lot of resistance but ultimately, you decide whether to succumb to it or not.
When the option comes up to write or do something else and your fear starts to negotiate with you, state what you are sacrificing if you don’t do it.
Some questions to ask yourself are:
- Why is it important to you to finish your book?
- What are you losing/giving up by not writing it?
- How will you feel in a year, 10 years, 20 years, 50 years if you never wrote it?
- Why do you want to be a writer?
- If this is important to you, is it worth putting in the hard work for?
- If it’s not, why is it not worth it?
- What are you choosing and accepting instead?
Be brutally honest with yourself. Find the anchor that can bring you back when your brain starts to try to negotiate and sway you to avoid the task.
Create a ritual and get rid of distractions
Our brains respond to triggers (like rituals and routines), so creating one that you will follow before a writing session is a great way to send the signal to your brain that it’s time to get into writer mode. It can help break down some of the resistance.
I wrote an in-depth post on creating a writing ritual that you can check out for more ideas since I’m only going to touch on them briefly here.
THE SMALL DETAILS
Think about the circumstances under which you are most productive when writing, such as:
- Time of day
- Seating arrangement
- Ambiance (lighting, music, decor, etc)
Try to create those conditions for your writing sessions when possible. If you aren’t sure what you like, try out some different variations and take notes on what works and what doesn’t for you.
Beyond just time and space, think about the smaller details that can help put you in the mood to write, too, such as a certain scented candle or a playlist of ambient sounds. Not only can these personal details be comforting and calming to help you focus, but they can also send signals to your brain that it’s “writing time” if you use them often enough under those circumstances to build neural pathways that associate them with the act of writing.
Implement them in the same order each time before you start writing to build a routine that helps you slip more smoothly into the act of writing. For some writers, they pour themselves a cup of coffee or tea beforehand and drink it from their favorite mug. They have a particular desk they sit at or type on a particular typewriter. They aren’t just idiosyncrasies, it’s a brain hack.
SCHEDULE IT IN
Instead of treating writing like something you do “when you have time” or “when you feel like it,” schedule it in like you would an appointment ─ and stay committed to it. Not only does this ensure that you’ve blocked out dedicated time for it, but it also gives you a different perspective on your writing sessions when you treat them like other serious commitments.
In a Harvard article published by researchers Dr. Todd Rogers and Dr. Katherine L. Milkman, they found that “concrete and specific plans” and “scheduling tasks makes people more likely to carry them out.” It’s science, plain and simple.
GET RID OF DISTRACTIONS
Silence your phone (and any notifications on your laptop) so you won’t be tempted to stop and check your messages. Also, let people know you won’t be available between a certain time frame so your friends and family will know not to reach out to you during that time.
Many writers (myself included) love to write either early in the morning or late at night because the world is quiet and there are fewer distractions. If either of these is an option for you, it could be worth it to wake up a little earlier or stay up a bit later to write when there are fewer distractions to fight off.
TRY WRITING SPRINTS
If you struggle to stay focused on writing for long periods of time, take the pressure off by doing small writing sprints instead. Set a timer and write for 5, 10, or 20 minutes and then stop to give your brain a chance to rest and do something else for a few minutes, like scroll through social media or go on a walk before doing another sprint.
This helps limit the resistance and train your brain to focus on command (again, it’s like a muscle). What’s five minutes, right? Over time, you’ll find it easier to slip into the writing process and eventually realize that you can stay focused for longer periods. Start small and work your way up.
Other tricks for overcoming procrastination
DO WRITING SPRINTS WITH OTHER WRITERS
Some writers love to do online writing sprints with other writers where they all jump on a live video chat (on something like Google Hangouts or Zoom) or check-in on a post (such as in a writers’ Facebook Group) and write for a set time frame. The pressure of accountability and the good morale of you all being in it together does a great job of boosting productivity.
If you don’t have any writer friends that would be interested in doing this with you, there are a lot of ways to connect with other writers who are already doing sprints on social media such as Facebook Groups, Instagram, and Twitter.
SET CLEAR, ACHIEVABLE GOALS
One of the easiest ways to create overwhelm is to set goals that are so big that you don’t believe you can actually reach them, so you commit self-sabotage. It’s better to start with small goals and build upon them.
For example, if your goal is to write a 100,000-word novel, don’t aim to write 5,000 words a day. You don’t even have to aim to write 1,000 words a day. Start with 250 or 500 words a day in short writing sprints. Then, as your writing muscles get stronger and you begin to trust yourself that you’ll show up and get words down on the page, you can gradually move the needle to longer sprints and higher daily word count goals.
Regularly expose yourself to successful authors talking about the experience of being a writer in interviews, podcasts, classes (such as the ones on MasterClass), etc. You’ll notice the pattern that most of them find the process to be arduous and have trained themselves to sit down and do the work without feeling inspired or motivated to do so. Being reminded of this regularly will help you get perspective on your own struggle so you know that you’re not alone ─ and what you need to do if you want to finish your book.
You don’t wait to be a writer, you decide to be a writer.