If you’re anything like most of the people I know, you need help. Trust me, you really do.
In today’s society, procrastination is almost an art form, something that a certain group of people have perfected to such a degree of proficiency that not only do they believe their own excuses, but the people around them do too. Almost every person old enough to talk is at least mildly proficient at procrastination; I’d say I fall somewhere between “Exceeds Expectations” and “Jedi”. But when it comes to the things that matter to me, that I dream about every day and night, I’m also a master at cutting through the procrastination and getting work done.
Tell me, how many times have you watched television or read a book and fantasized about being the character that is just getting so much stuff done? You know what I’m talking about: you’re watching a crime show and the police detective stays up all night reading files (I can do that, I’ll write all night); you’re watching Suits and Harvey and Ross work for twenty straight hours doing research on a case to crush their opponents (I can do that, I’ll start this project tomorrow and finish it in one sitting); you’re reading Harry Potter and Harry/Ron/Hermione are in the library writing a long essay by candlelight and it sounds kind of cool (next week I’m absolutely going to the library and crush some work); or you’re watching a movie where the workaholic journalist wakes up, drinks coffee, works all day, then passes out on the couch with their papers on top of them (why would I even want to watch a movie or get a beer with friends?).
Now tell me, how many times have you seen that inspiration and said you were going to be that person tomorrow, then gone back to watching TV (I know this is especially true for writers).
But the truth is it’s actually not that difficult to be the hard-working person you want to be (okay, maybe not as extremely hard working as the above examples). Below are some of the ways that I do it, the first few of which you’ve probably heard of before, and the last of which is my personal favorite:
Balance our writing with a reward
This one is obvious, but effective. If we promise ourselves some sort of reward after doing something we might otherwise procrastinate, we’re far more likely to do it. We can tell ourselves we’ll have a couple glasses of wine, or a couple beers, after we’re done (or, sometimes, while we’re working), and just like that we can’t wait to get started. Or maybe we can watch an episode of Game of Thrones for every hour of work we do. The reward itself doesn’t matter, it’s the routine that works. Eventually we can condition ourselves to see doing the work as a stepping stone to something satisfying.
Alternately, we can combine our writing with a reward simultaneously. For me it’s music. I love listening to it, and if I know I’ll get to put on my big headphones and listen to some great songs while writing, I’ll be happy even while I’m working.
Measure our progress
Measuring our progress is exceedingly important, especially for longer projects. Celebrate smaller things, like the completion of a chapter, or section, or every 5,000 words. This helps us understand that putting off the work until “tomorrow” actually hurts us; in the grand scheme of things, like writing a novel, a single day isn’t much; but in the scheme of finishing a chapter a single day wasted is huge, sometimes doubling the amount of time it takes us to finish.
Don’t just set a deadline, set many
Deadlines within deadlines (inception deadlines?) keep us accountable, on track, and unable to procrastinate. If our deadline to finish something is in three months, skipping work today is easy – we’ll just make up for it tomorrow. But if we have a mini-deadline for completing the first quarter of our book coming up in four days, we can’t skip our work today. We’d never finish in time.
We can also hold ourselves accountable by sharing these deadlines with friends, family, or the public (maybe on a blog for the weirdos who write on those things; am I right?)
Make a master list of your favorite or most common excuses – put it up somewhere
This is my personal favorite. While the three things above help me a lot, my list of excuses is the most tangible and tactical thing I’ve ever done to make sure I don’t procrastinate. Spend a few minutes making a master list of your favorite or most common excuses, then add to it over the next week as you think of more. Edit it down so it isn’t too long (mine has ten on it), then write it out on a poster or print it, and pin it up somewhere highly visible (or wherever you do your work). My list is my computer background.
Now, every time you’re about to start working and make an excuse as to why you can’t do that work now, check your list. If your excuse is on the list you have to ignore it. Then remember the reward you’ll have for yourself when you’re done, remember your upcoming mini-deadline and how badly you want to beat it, and remember how good it’ll feel to mark down the progress you make today. Now get to work.
Example excuses to ignore include:
- I’m not in the right mindset; anything I write will be crap
- I’m tired; anything I write will be crap
- There’s too much noise here / this isn’t my normal writing space / my significant other will not shut the f*** up; anything I write will be crap
- I only have X amount of minutes, which isn’t enough time
- I’d rather watch TV/a movie (just make that a reward)
- I ate too much, I have to digest first
- I have way more free time tomorrow so I’ll just do double the work then
What about you? How do you stop yourself from procrastinating? Or, better yet, what are some of the most ridiculous excuses you’ve made to get out of doing work?