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Why We Procrastinate, and 7 Ways to Stop

Relaxed thick guy entertaining with pizza and television

I have a confession to make (yes, another one).

About six months ago, I signed up for Holly Lisle’s 22-week “How to Revise Your Novel” course.

I’m halfway through “week 4”.

Most days, I’ve told myself I’d work on it, and, most days, I’ve worked on something else, something less laden with dread.

However.

The mess I'm cleaning up: 81 notes, each representing a scene in my book, with columns representing my main plot, 9 subplots (yikes) and my

The mess I’m cleaning up: 81 notes, each representing a scene in my book, with columns representing my main plot, 9 subplots (yikes) and my “notplot”, which consists of pointless scenes that add nothing to the story.

I’ve made more progress on it in the last month than I’d made in the previous five, for three reasons:

  • I acknowledged my excuses were bullshit.
  • I renewed my commitment to my most important work.
  • Before starting work, I’ve been cultivating my creative mindset.

I’ve done a lot of procrastinating in my life. I’ve also done a lot of getting over it and getting my work done. Here are 7 of the most effective ways I’ve found to stop futzing around and do what matters.

1. Acknowledge your excuses are bullshit.

My excuses for not working on my manuscript were as follows:

  • I needed to write and edit 10 short stories first so I could learn how to stop being such a crappy storyteller.
  • I needed to promote my blog so I could have a “platform” to convince publishers I wasn’t a waste of time and money.
  • I needed to take a bunch of online courses on blogging, books and publishing so I wouldn’t make an ass of myself.

Then I read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art** and realised my excuses were really just manifestations of what he calls “Resistance”.

Resistance is how our fear of being creative expresses itself. We’re afraid our work will never live up to our hopes for it. We’re afraid of being laughed at. Resistance is our ego running the show.

It’s also, as Pressfield points out, excellent at disguising itself, which is why we can say things like, “Oh, I can’t compose an opera because I’m too busy with my job,” or, “I can’t write a novel because I have kids,” and believe ourselves.

“Resistance is always lying and always full of shit,” Pressfield writes.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between intuition and Resistance. Here’s where fear becomes our friend. If we feel even the slightest sense of uncertainty regarding our abilities or qualifications for a project, we can be pretty sure our reasons for avoiding it are bunk.

We then know it’s time to put them aside and dig in, consequences be damned. As Pressfield puts it, “If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends) ‘Am I really a writer? Am I really an artist?’ Chances are you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.”

2. Put First Things First.

I stole this one from Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.  The idea is we’ll always be inundated with supposedly “urgent” tasks, but our most important work, the stuff that feeds our souls, rarely grasps our attention. It sits passively in the dream world waiting for us to make it real.

If we don’t do those things first, before anything else, we’ll likely never get to them. We’ll tell ourselves we’ll do them after work, or after the kids go to bed, and when that time comes, we’ll be spent.

My Novel Manuscript.

My Novel Manuscript.

3. Recruit accountability partners.

“Accountability partners” are people who’ll hold you to a deadline you’ve created for yourself. I’ve told my aunt and sister I’ll send them my completed novel manuscript by the end of August.

4. Make it a habit.

As James Clear points out, turning our creative practise into a scheduled daily habit removes willpower from the equation. It becomes something we do automatically, without thinking about it, like brushing our teeth. Procrastination stops being an issue.

Carve out a block of time every day for your creative work. Make it 15 minutes, if that’s all you can manage. That’s how my sister started her first novel, Medicine Song. Now the book is finished.

5. Just show up.

Maintaining my writing habit is sometimes easier when I tell myself I don’t have to accomplish anything in particular during a session. Here’s a trick I got from Elizabeth Gilbert’s interview with Neil Gaiman: I tell myself I just need to sit in front of my computer, notebook, or manuscript for a specified amount of time, during which I’m not allowed to do anything but write or stare into space. If I don’t write anything, well, at least I showed up.

With the pressure off, I always write something.

6. Start small.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done taught me how to overcome the sense of overwhelm that often accompanies my creative work:

  1. Break projects into their tiniest component tasks.
  2. Prioritise those tasks.
  3. Tackle the first one.

7. Set an intention for your work.

Once I’ve got my ass in my chair, I’ve won half the battle. The next half comes from putting myself in the right frame of mind for writing, which requires silencing my Inner Critic, (a.k.a. “Princess Penelope”).

One way I do that is by making a list of the feelings I want to have while working.

Another trick is to say a prayer of sorts. Pressfield recommends the invocation of the muse from Homer’s Odyssey, the T.E. Lawrence translation.

I sometimes borrow the intention Maharishi Mahesh Yogi supposedly set before entering his meditation cave: “Let me enter my cave with peace, patience, and without loss of heart.”

For me, “cave” symbolises my innermost self, which is where my muse lives.

Featured image: “Relaxed thick guy entertaining with pizza and television” © YakobchukOlena, Adobe Stock.

PS: If you’d like me to send you the first chapter of my eBook, Creative Confidence, once it’s complete, Subscribe to my blog for free.

**Except for Celeste Lovick’s Medicine Song, all the book titles in this post contain Amazon affiliate links. It you buy one of them after clicking the link on this page, I’ll receive a teeny tiny commission. 

5 Comments

  1. I’ve had a small, 1400 word fictional story in my Drafts folder for about a week. It was in my head for years before that. Resistance is correct. Even though it is written in my preferred, most comfortable style, I feel some random stranger will see it and think it’s the most terrible piece of writing to hit the internet. When the reality is, maybe 10 will. Moreover, it’s written simply for pleasure and practice, not to be published or submitted for some kind of prize.

    When you are not a professional writer (whatever that really means) you definitely feel inadequate.

    Great post. Gives me a lot to think about.

    I have never written a book, and I don’t plan on it, but it looks like such a stressful yet wonderful and rewarding undertaking. Best of luck, and keep having fun with it!

    • First of all, ARES.THREE, congratulations on getting that draft written! Most people don’t even get that far. Also, “pleasure and practice” are wonderful reasons to write. And professional writers feel inadequate much of the time too:-) I hope you do write a book!

  2. Karina @ www.thewithinblog.com says

    Procrastination= my middle name….
    Well done of finding your way out of it! I might try some of your suggestions on board and see what’s gonna happen. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Karina @ www.thewithinblog.com says

    I meant ‘take some of your suggestions on board…’ , lol

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