I never procrastinate. Said no writer ever.
We’re an unusual bunch, we writers, aren’t we? We’re highly creative and driven to succeed. We can turn a raw idea into a glorious paragraph of literary genius as magically as Rumpelstiltskin turns straw into gold. We create worlds, build cities, meddle with relationships and play God with our characters’ lives, all within the twenty- to one-hundred-and-twenty-thousand words of our manuscripts. In short, we writers are powerful with our proverbial mighty pens.
We are also, collectively, the worst procrastinators of any professional group on the planet.
At least we can laugh at ourselves about it though, right? Megan McArdle, columnist for The Atlantic, humorously wrote, “I once asked a talented and fairly famous colleague how he managed to regularly produce such highly regarded 8,000 word features. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘first, I put it off for two or three weeks. Then I sit down to write. That’s when I get up and go clean the garage. After that, I go upstairs, and then I come back downstairs and complain to my wife for a couple of hours. Finally, but only after a couple more days have passed and I’m really freaking out about missing my deadline, I ultimately sit down and write.’”
It’s all well and good to know we’re procrastinators. Even to laugh about it. But in all seriousness, the question remains: Why are we so acutely afflicted by this “I don’t wanna” mentality?
As a novelist, I’m actually not a procrastinator. I can dive in and out of my works-in-progress with ease. My problem is with all the promo pieces I do for my novels, and also with my dual work as a freelance content writer. The idea of turning rough research or transcribed interview notes into a finished piece with a start, an end, and a cohesive path between the two is about as palatable as going to the dentist for a filling.
Thankfully, after a lot of digging on the internet, I discovered that there may be a psychological reason for why we procrastinate. In my case, it’s not that I fear failure, nor do I fear success. And while I am at least a selective perfectionist, the need to turn out that perfect article or guest post is not as paralyzing for me as it might be for others. The possibility that applied to me was the idea that we procrastinate because we want to avoid pain.
Let me explain. Psychotherapists Phil Stutz and Barry Michels, writing for Greatist.com. argue that, “The list of things we can procrastinate about is endless, but the list of reasons for why we procrastinate is not. We avoid every task for the same reason: Taking action will cause us a certain amount of pain. Think of an action you’ve been avoiding. Imagine yourself starting to take that action. You’re going to feel something unpleasant … No matter what you call it, that unpleasant feeling is a kind of pain.”
They have a point. The thought of having to sit down for an hour or more and turn a research draft into a finished piece is … yeah, painful. In an ass-affecting kind of way (as in ‘pain-in-the’). For me, it comes down to lack of motivation. I’m not motivated to endure that pain in order to turn out a finished piece. But apparently, according to an article published by Oregon State University, if I’m looking for motivation to get writing, then I’m doing it bass ackwards. The article asks, “How many folks do you imagine feel motivated and energized by the prospect of raking leaves, or changing the oil in the car, or doing taxes? These tasks are often seen as unpleasant and less than exciting.”
OSU goes on to say, “Often just taking the first step, regardless of how small, can serve as an inducement and thus a motivator for further action.”
Fair enough. And this might actually be a conclusion I reached without even realizing it. Over the past year, I have figured out that when I’m facing that first step of working rough notes into a first draft, all I have to do is force myself to take it one paragraph at a time. When I do that, and don’t worry about how each paragraph fits in with the others and with an overarching theme, it’s a more palatable task to get on with. A less overwhelming one. Eventually, I begin to see a pattern in the paragraphs that I’m taking one at a time, and I can start rearranging them into a loose order. From there, I have no problem polishing those paragraphs so that I have a fluid, finished article.
Incidentally, that is exactly how I buckled down to the task of putting this blog post together. And writing this piece has reminded me that we writers need to give ourselves a break. Procrastination is in our DNA, just like creativity is. Let us accept this unavoidable trait and take comfort in the fact that some of the most successful writers were also some of the most celebrated procrastinators. Who? How about Victor Hugo, Herman Melville, and Margaret Atwood.
And do you who was quoted as saying “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make when they go by.”? It was Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Are you a procrastinator? When is your tendency to procrastinate at its worst? What tips or tricks do you have to counteract your natural inclination to procrastinate?