For us writers procrastinating can easily become an occupational hazard. It's very common for us to go out of our way to avoid writing; with procrastination being an enemy of productivity.
When blogger and journalist Megan McArdle researched the topic one of her colleagues told her:
Well, 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.”
Sound familiar? Steven Pressfield the author of War of Art believes it's a form of resistance. In his book he identifies the enemy all of us must face. There is a naysayer within all of us that prevents us from achieving our goals. Whether it be writing a novel, or painting a masterpiece. Pressfield then continues to outline a battle plan to conquer our internal foes.
For many of us this foe can be procrastination. Truthfully there are a million reasons we lack the motivation or inspiration to fill our blank pages and we're all different, but here are a couple common ones:
Because we're afraid
Fear is one of the biggest reasons we procrastinate. Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychologist studying motivation at Stanford University believes that writers are often paralysed by the prospect of writing something that isn't very good. However, the fear of turning in nothing by a deadline usually outweighs the fear of handing in something terrible. Dr. Dweck believes this is because we regard our failures as growth because when we're failing, we're learning. It's also believed that the "fear of being unmasked as the incompetent you 'really' are is so common it actually has a clinical name: Imposter Syndrome. We spend so much time worrying our writing won't be good enough but we need to remember that at the end of the day we're always our own worst critics and our fears are usually unwarranted. You can find out more on her thoughts in Why writers are the worst procrastinators.
Because we lack inspiration
When we don't know what to write or we lack inspiration our motivation can be severely impaired inhibiting our potential to create the art we we're destined to produce. As mentioned above, sometimes this lack of inspiration stems from our desire to be perfect, but all you need is an idea. Once you have an idea you have the potential to create something amazing.
To overcome a lack of inspiration you need to actively engage with what you're doing. If you're writing a book about a prison go interview some inmates or correctional officers, or go visit a prison so you can get the feel for what you’re writing about by submerging yourself in the world of your writing. Sometimes you need a change of scenery, or just a short break. There's a million different ways to get inspired but we all do this differently, Psychology Today have some good examples in their article 'Lacking Motivation and Inspiration? 5 Secrets to Get Unstuck' with everything from finding a muse, to shattering your self doubts, these ideas can help you find some much needed inspiration.
Identifying methods of procrastination
According to author Joanna Penn, procrastinating takes many forms. It isn't just playing a dozen games of angry birds, it often looks more like this:
- Reading blogs about writing
- Buying more books about writing
- Tidying your desk so that you’ll be ready to write… really soon…
- Hanging out with other writers (offline or online) and talking about writing.
We spend a lot of time thinking about writing without actually writing, this is the key sign of procrastination and what we need to use to our advantage.
How to fight it
Being well versed in the art of procrastination is understandable given the culture of constant distraction we live in, but procrastination can be an important part of the writing process.
It’s folly, what we do, if you think about it — to make something out of nothing, to spin a story or an argument, to ask a reader to give up his or her time and share with us a fantasy, a dream, a conversation, to seize the moment (for a moment) and try to hold it before it slips away"- David Ulin on procrastination as a creative tool.
Procrastination is often used as a defence mechanism an idea and a blank page is perfect, but once we begin putting that idea into words that perfection can dwindle leaving us raw and exposed. We use it as a strategy for mitigating fear and anxiety.
To overcome this fear we need to follow the advice Annie Dillard provides in her work The Writing Life and understand that we need to write in spite of problems we may encounter. The tension between what we wish for and what we achieve can only be overcome if we work to achieve something. After all Hemmingway himself claimed "The first draft of anything is shit" but as writers we work to overcome this by re-drafting and editing.
Ali Luke a UK writer and writing coach has 4 simple steps to follow when you're struggling to get motivated in her feature on the Creative Penn that's also worth looking at.