Why Can't We Stop Procrastinating?
I was going to write this blog last night. But I had to finish off some other things I hadn't done. I had a book I've been meaning to read on the subject, called "BREAK the Procrastination Habit... NOW!" by Dr. William J. Knaus. It's been sitting on the shelf for about a year. It's the kind of book people buy because they ought to get it, then are always going to get around to reading it... Someday...
(That's a Delle Doodle, by the way.)
My dad used to have a large wooden coin-like thing called a Tuit. He said it was a Round Tuit. He gave it to me whenever I said I'd get around to it... I should have flipped it into the trash, except that he got such fun out of the joke. Besides, it gave the teenage me yet another chance to roll my eyes.
I actually did read part of that book and it seems to be full of great ideas, but somehow it didn't quite seem to be getting at Writers' Procrastination. After thinking about it for awhile, I began to realize we writers may be mis-labeling what we do to put off writing. If we're really the kind of procrastinators who put off anything in our lives that is unpleasant, uncomfortable, causes frustration, etc, and it is causing really serious problems in our lives, then yes, we need to get help. That kind of procrastination is crippling, and we can't live full lives until we get a handle on it.
But writers have our own variety of procrastination, I think. We have a tendency to get everything (or most everything) else in our lives done, and only procrastnate on the writing part. Writers actually tend to be more of the Delayed Gratification type, or we wouldn't put up with writing as a profession in the first place. We write whole books on speculation, then send them out to the publishing world, which if we're lucky, buys them, then wants revisions-- all that before we get paid, months down the line. People who just want to play around don't do that kind of thing.
Most of us also have other duties like housework, raising kids, noticing hubbies, other jobs, runnng errands, shopping, and so on. We have to do those, and just take it for granted they will get done. And we do them. It's writing that doesn't make the cut.
Writing gets the same kind of place in our lives, but not. We often don't actually allot enough time to squeeze it in effectively, and it's possible thtere really isn't enough time left after everything else, but we hate admitting that. Writing usually can't have the top priority, yet we are often told we must make it our top priority. So when we're not getting it done, we feel guilty and blame ourselves, as if somehow we could make extra hours in the day. And because we can always remember some time in every day in which we just totally goofed off, we feel justifed in saying we could have done it if we'd just put our minds to doing it. We usually fail to realize we needed to take those goof-off breaks, and they probably weren't long enough to have accomplished the amount of time we would have needed anyway.
Writers also remember their initial euphoria-filled writing exerience and always want to re-capture that wonderful joy. For me, that was the greatest high I've ever experienced in my life. But if it's a true high, the kind that releases certain chemicals in the brain and re-connects the brain's synapses in a different way, then chances are the brain also gets inured to this experience. Like a true addict, we have to get more and more to satisfy that craving for the high, until the brain does a sort of short circuit, and we can never get there again, but can't stop searching for it.
Likely if we've lost the thrill of the high, we won't ever get all the way back to that point. That's the way the brain works. It's a lot like being in love then getting married. The relationship changes over time, and it's not the same. We can't go back in time and stay there because it's not supposed to be that way. the same is true with being an author.
Back then, when our experience with writing was new, we could just write and love the exhiliaration of the creative experience. Unfortunately that writing probably needed a lot of work, and we didn't really know it then. Once we discovered all the work we had to do to turn our creative work into really good work, our writing became more of a real job. Not quite as thrilling, but still creative in some ways. Most of the time, we can't really make that journey back to the purely creative phase because we now have too many rules, too much knowledge, that also have to be met. Even as we create, we're looking for how to improve it. We're now at a different stage. We can't go back.
So it's possible we're striving for something that isn't really attainable. This doesn't mean we should give writing up. But it may mean we need to look at it more for what it is. Most of the time, it's a difficult job. Yet we're beating heads against the wall wondering why it doesn't come easy anymore. It's not supposed to. If it's easy, then chances are it's something anyone could write. We need to be searching for the story not anyone else could write, and that's a hard story to find.
There's another bad habit that often gets mistaken for procrastination: Disorganization. Most people realize computers have changed the way we think. But they may not realize for some people they also mess with our organizational skills. I have discovered the computer is not a good place for me to keep my daily schedule or deadlines, task lists, Christmas lists, etc. Why? I'm an out-of-sight-out-of-mind person. When I was working a day job, I kept myself on task by having a running list of every task I needed to do and checking it frequently. My calendar was a monthly one, always in sight. I knew which court reports needed to be done when, and I never missed a deadline. But a computer calendar can disappear too easily for me. I've had to revert to paper calendars and notepads for lists. If I don't, something always slips by.
Any time I'm losing my organization, I blame myself for it-- that's logical. But then I tell myself I was procrastinating on the jobs that didn't get done. Not really likely. I know sometimes there's just too much to do, and I know how to break the enervating feeling of being overwhelmed-- just pick a task, any task, and do it. Then pick another. The feeling of accomplishment can give me the surge to keep on going instead of giving up. If I can be more realistic about how I schedule things, I can usually be happier with myself.
So first of all, if we're not getting our writing done, we need to look at why, and really be honest with ourselves. If we really couldn't get to it because of our daily lives, then let's say so. Let's be fair about our limits. If writing is one of two major jobs we have in our lives, we need to be fair and let ourselves understand that doing two job is extremely difficult. Our failing may be in our disappointment at not being able to squeeze in more things in our short days, but it's not laziness or procrastination.
If we're pushing at writing and not getting it done, staring at blank screens, flipping back to the news or email, then we need to analyze what's wrong. Maybe we've actually hit a tough spot that will prove to be one of those wonderful pieces of creativity that make our work unique. Instead of brow-beating ourselves about our lack of creativity, how about recognizing that we're at a point of a major break-through? That we're about to find something really special that most people wouldn't find?
Another reason for the blank screen is simply that the brain is telling the writer there's nothing there because that's the wrong path. What the writer wants to do is perhaps too ordinary, not realistic, not what the character would do, or in some other way isn't working. (Or, for me, it could be a sex scene and I don't want to slog through it, but then, that really is procrastination.)
How can we work harder to find this missing piece instead of temporarily giving up and doing something easier? For me, it's often been hand-journaling, beginning with a sentence like, "Okay what's wrong here? Why doesn't Joe want to climb this mountain? I've started by saying...."
Another trick is the daily journal kept handy to jot down those wonderful phrases that pop into the mind at odd points in the day, and in middle of the night revelations. I tried keepng them on the computer. They get filed in LaLa Land and never seen again. I need a journal for each book. Paper.
A third thing to do for stuck points is XXXXX. Whether it's a word that won't come to mind, a whole description or scene, XXXXX is the answer. And then go on. Five X's. When I do the next draft, I do a search for XXXXX. Eventually the answer comes.
The blank screen is not procrastination. Giving up on it is. Frustration is a part of our jobs. Our work is expected to be difficult. If we're truly too tired to think clearly, we need to look at being too tired, and what or if there's anything we can do about that.
What we shouldn't do is use guilt to motivate us because guilt is too often a cover-up. Once we accept the guilt, we secretly feel better because it feels like we cold have done better, but chose not to. Job done. We accepted responsibility and duly punished ourselves.
There's one other thing to look at, here. Maybe we took those breaks because we really needed them. There are times, and these times should if possible occur every day, when we should give ourselves time to separate from our pressing duties and do something completely different. We need time to re-assess ourselves, recreate. We need to legitimize our fun time. We need to do it just for us. It gives us perspective. It might be good to not cross over fun time with writing time, especially when writing is not so much fun.
Writing needs to be given the professional status it deserves. Sure, it's fine if it's also enjoyable. But it's also frustrating at times, like any other job. It still needs to be done. It's just harder then.
So, now it's your turn. Are there things you're doing that you call procrastination but really aren't? Are you trying to crowd too much into a day, then blame yourself for not making it work? Are your expectations of writing or of yourself unrealistic? If so, what is behind that? How can you change that or make it work for you instead of against you?