A Perennial Writing Problem: Overcoming Procrastination

Posted: September 5, 2015 in Psychology, Writing

by Zeke Teflon

Until I started writing fiction, I’d never procrastinated before or during a writing project. I’d do my research, then sit down and write. I had no problem knocking out a (nonfiction) book every two or three years while working full time.

Then I started writing fiction. My first, and so far only, novel took approximately ten years to write, largely because of procrastination.

There are many ways to procrastinate, but my favorite was finding something “useful” to do instead of writing. Hmmm, the kitchen is filthy; I’ll write when I’m through cleaning it. . . . Then something else “useful” would come up. . . . Hmmm, it would look a lot neater if I alphabetized all of the books and CDs on my shelves; I’ll write when I’m through doing it.  And so on.

Eventually, I realized what I was doing and decided to buckle down. It only took me another two years to finish the novel after I made that decision, largely because I still dreaded working on it, and often could only force myself to do it late at night after a few drinks.

But I did finish the book (which received good reviews, but bombed commercially) three years ago, and then decided I deserved at least a six month vacation from writing fiction. When the six months were up, I decided I deserved another six months. When that time was up, I sat down to start work on the sequel, filled with apprehension and feeling almost physically ill. At that point, I came up with a truly inventive way to avoid writing fiction: writing nonfiction! The rationale was that I’d “get the juices flowing” with the nonfiction and then move on to the fiction. Somehow, that never seemed to happen.  I ended up writing a lot of nonfiction, but virtually no fiction.

Finally, a few weeks ago, I admitted to myself what I was doing, and began to research ways of overcoming procrastination. First, I tried setting a regular time to write every day. That didn’t work for two reasons: the first and more important was that the dread was still there; the second was that I like to write in the morning, but often have insomnia and never know if I’ll be up at 8:00 a.m. or noon. (I still work full time, but am self-employed and make my own hours.) That approach might work for others; it didn’t work for me.

Next, I rejected out of hand the idea of punishing myself if I didn’t write. The most commonly recommended form of this type of self-abuse is sending money to causes or people you despise (e.g., Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Pat Robertson) if you procrastinate. I knew I wouldn’t do that, and personal experience indicated that it wouldn’t work very well.

I did behavioral rehab for years with “problem” parrots who screamed, bit, and were aggressive. Punishment doesn’t work in eradicating such behaviors. At best, it produces sullen compliance, with resentment and hatred festering beneath the surface. The only things that worked with the birds was ignoring them when they were misbehaving, and rewarding them when they engaged in desirable behaviors, in other words, giving them positive reinforcement. This approach seems to work pretty well with people, too (something I wish the “tough on crime” types would realize).

So, I decided to use that approach on myself–rewarding myself for writing fiction, while avoiding self-punishment. But that still left the problem of dread. At that point I remembered the advice of Michael Edelstein, author of Three-Minute Therapy, who recommends that if you have a task you’re avoiding, just make a contract with yourself to do it for three minutes a day, and to quit at the end of that time if you’re getting nowhere or not enjoying it. That’s a short enough time that anyone can do it, and it gives you an “escape hatch”–an easy way to quit for the day without guilt, depression, or much wasted time.

I’ve combined the three-minute approach with positive reinforcement. I don’t allow myself to write any blog posts or other nonfiction (something I enjoy) until I’ve put in at least three minutes writing fiction every day. It’s working–I normally end up writing quite a bit longer than three minutes; I’m enjoying it, am finally making progress with the sequel to the novel, and am well into a lengthy short story.

If you’re having problems with procrastination, this approach might be worth trying.

* * *

Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel.

Free Radicals front cover

  1. Marta Frant says:

    Three-minute therapy is a good idea. I have to try it out.


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