So you want to be a writer? Then “read a lot and write a lot” – that’s what they say. Unfortunately, getting words on the page is impossible if you don’t know how to stop procrastinating.
You know the feeling. You want to write but your brain has other ideas. The result? A hopeless battle against procrastination.The compulsion to do less-important stuff always seems to win. We’re left frustrated, despondent, and full of wasted potential.
Procrastination is miserable – and writers are especially prone to it.
This irrational avoidance is not random; it can be analysed, understood, and beaten. The epic post you’re about to read (near 5000 words) will help you build self-control and vanquish procrastination for good. What could be more important?
There is a free download-and-print PDF checklist available to accompany this post. It has been designed to guide you through the techniques you’re about to read. Get your copy now for free.
We’ll start by exploring the contrast between rational and emotional thinking. Understand this difference, and you can learn how to stop procrastinating. But first? Make yourself a coffee and buckle up. To overcome procrastination, we must journey deep within. It’s going to be quite a ride.
Want to stop procrastinating? The key lies with your emotions…
Procrastination makes little sense. We want to be writers, so why don’t we just write? Unfortunately, people are not entirely rational, and this leads us into difficulty.
Thinking ‘I want to write’ is not enough. Such thoughts pop into our minds… and then pop right out again. Rational thoughts rarely inspire action because they carry no emotional power; they are just ghosts of the mind.
Emotions, on the other hand, can be very powerful. Emotional thoughts provokes visceral sensations; it sculpts our perception and directs our behaviour. Recognise emotional thinking and you can stand vigilant against procrastination. This is your first step towards freedom.
Learning to stop procrastinating means learning to change your emotions
Writing is the act of putting one word after another, forming (hopefully!) coherent sentences. Without the behaviour of writing, there is no writing. This sounds zen-like, but really I’m just stating the obvious.
Procrastination starts to make sense when you recognise the power of emotion thinking, and its impact on human behaviour:
• You rationally think: ‘I need to do some writing.’
• You emotionally think: ‘I really don’t want to do any writing!’
• Your behaviour: you’re not going to do any writing. (In fact you’ll probably do anything other than writing).
Writing is difficult when thoughts and emotion comes into conflict. Emotion typically wins, and we tailspin into unhappy procrastination. Worse still, we then berate ourselves for being lazy, weak, or stupid – which only makes matters worse. How many hours have you lost to this constant battle? We need to find another way.
How do people stop procrastinating and write a lot? By learning how to feel like doing it. Our emotions then help rather than hinder, and we’re free to acquire ‘the writing habit’. From there, writing becomes virtually automatic. It feels like arriving home.
But first, you must learn to avoid the avoidance. Procrastination is a trap; once sprung it’s difficult to break free. We need to be smart about this.
A detour: what are you doing right now?
Procrastination is a facet of human consciousness. (I could wax lyrical about this at length, but this post is long enough, it wouldn’t necessarily help you to stop procrastinating!) However, it is worth noting that you’re reading these words in a kind of trance.
This might come as a bit of a surprise, but bear with me!
According to Dr. Stephen Wolinsky (in his excellent book Trances People Live) people spend their lives in a series of trance-like states. You’re currently in a ‘reading trance’, which is characterised by certain attributes:
• Your attention is mostly focused on the screen in front of you, to the point where you’re less concerned with your environment.
• To understand this text, you’re processing these words internally. You’re engaged with your inner experience: the sounds, images, and feelings in your ‘mind’s eye’.
• A great deal of your present experience – how you’re stood or sat, your comprehension of these words, the operation of your device – is unfolding with little conscious input. You’re on a kind of autopilot.
Autopilot trances get us into difficulty
This narrowed attention, coupled with ‘less conscious’ decision processing, is trance-like – not dissimilar to driving, watching a movie, playing with a pet, or arguing with a loved one. In Dr. Wolinsky’s view, trance-states are not mystical, exotic or other-worldly; they are naturally occurring states of mind, common to daily life.
So why is this relevant to procrastination?
Consciousness is fluid and evolving, and the focus of our attention – internal, external, clear, cloudy – reflects this. Whether you procrastinate in a passive way (e.g. watching TV, surfing the web) or an an active way (e.g. cleaning, socialising, exercising) the focus of your attention is away from what you ‘should’ be doing, and towards some other activity instead.
When procrastinating, our decisions are taken without a fully-conscious input. We’re in a kind of procrastination trance. Emotional thinking bounces us into procrastination, and our trance-like decision-making keeps us there.
And this brings us to our first technique.
Techniques to stop procrastinating #1 – notice when you’re procrastinating:
Apologies should this seem obvious, but to stop procrastinating you must learn how to ‘snap out of it’. This is trickier than you think. Procrastination is semi-conscious and compelling; it develops without much conscious control.
So, the next time you start procrastinating, force a moment’s honest clarity with yourself. Tell yourself, out-loud if possible, “I am procrastinating here, and it will cause me harm in future.” Dramatic? Not really: procrastination leads to untold frustration and failure. This statement just affirms an honest truth.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. Recognising – and ending – procrastination states is a key step towards setting yourself free.
Sorry to break this to you, but you are not a robot…
Learning to snap out of procrastination trances does not mean you can ‘just get on with’ being a writer!
Anyone who says ‘just get on with it’ hasn’t experienced true procrastination. For the procrastinator, such easy self-control does not exist. As Tim Urban (from ‘Wait But Why’) states on his excellent post on procrastination, telling a procrastinator to ‘just do it’ is like ‘telling beached whales that they should avoid being out of the ocean.’ Procrastination is involuntary and difficult to control – especially when the habit is entrenched.[bctt tweet=”You don’t write because you want to say something. You write because you have something to say. —F. Scott Fitzgerald” via=”no”]
Procrastination is not dissimilar to alcoholism. An alcoholic has little control over their drinking, and procrastinators have little control over their endless avoidance. Procrastination also ruins lives, albeit less dramatically. It can be a miserable place to exist.
Alcoholics are advised to abstain from drinking altogether. This approach ‘solves’ the problem of there’s no such thing as one drink. This advice works for procrastinators too, because there’s no such thing as one cat video… (sorry!)
The power of excuses…
Abstaining from procrastination is no easy task. It takes practice and an honest heart. It helps to spot the warning signs before procrastination takes hold. This means being mindful of your excuses.
To excuse our procrastination we tell ourselves things like:
• “I can’t write now, I haven’t got time.”
• “I can’t write now, I’m too tired.”
• “I can’t write now, I’m not in the mood.”
• “I can’t write now, I have to clean / check Twitter / do the shopping / etc.”
Or the worst lie of all:
• “I will do some writing, but I’ll just do this other thing first…”
Why do we do this to ourselves? It’s because – for whatever reason – our brain imagines that writing will be stressful. Our excuses offer a ‘get out clause’, because we want to avoid this imagined stress. Unfortunately, our self-deception seems very tempting, even though it will sabotage our progress and causes great frustration.
So why does our brain find the idea of writing so stressful? Usually, it is because:
• Emotionally, we dislike the predicted effort of writing.
• Emotionally, we dislike the predicted amount of time we’ll spend writing.
• Emotionally, we feel overwhelmed and unsure where to start.
• Emotionally, we are worried that our work will not be good enough.
• Emotionally, we are worried that our efforts will attract harsh judgement.
• Emotionally, we feel writing will be a pointless, rewardless exercise.
And so on… People can want to write – but hate the idea of writing – at the same time. This creates cognitive dissonance, and we abandon our desire to rid ourselves of this unpleasant feeling. Our excuses seem to promise relief, although in reality they deliver a mediocre life.
Clearly, we need another way through this swamp.
Your excuses are comforting lies
To truly abstain from drinking, an alcoholic must accept their lack of self-control around drink. This means an end to denial and excuses; one drink means many drinks – they must be honest about the consequences.
To stop procrastinating requires the same admission. Accept that five minutes delay could lead to many hours delay, and our excuses are revealed to be dangerous, irrational lies. The key to stopping procrastination is the hesitate before you start. The ability to ‘think twice’ is crucial.
And that sits at the heart of our second technique.
There is a free download-and-print PDF checklist available to accompany this post. It has been designed to guide you through the techniques you’re reading. Get your copy now for free.
Techniques to stop procrastinating #2 – dismiss your procrastination excuses:
When you find yourself trying to excuse yourself from writing (or anything else for that matter), tell yourself, out loud if possible, “that’s just an excuse. Writing is important to me and I want to do it.”
The aim is to highlight the excuse for what it is: an attempt to medicate the imagined stress of writing, yes, but also a gateway into inertia, frustration, and eventual failure. Our excuses are not to be trusted.
Revealing your discrete excuses
If you’re a long-term procrastinator, your excuses may be fleeting and automatic. This leaves us abandoning our writing without giving it a second thought! It’s like we’ve accepted our procrastination, and we’re okay with that. Our decision to delay unfolds completely on autopilot.
(Hint: you are not okay with abandoning your writing, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this).
In such moments ask yourself: “how am I excusing the decision to procrastinate?” Then, when your brain conjures up an excuse, challenge it using the technique above. Remind yourself how important writing is to you.
The friend test
Procrastination excuses are persuasive because they usually contain some truth. Time is at a premium, and writing is difficult – especially if we’re ‘not in the mood’. This plausibility is no accident. Our brain wants us to believe our excuses.
So, if you’re struggling to recognise your excuses for what they are, try this simple technique:
• Imagine stating your excuse to a skeptical friend. How would they react? Would they agree or would they see right through you?
Your reasons must pass the ‘friend test’, otherwise they’re just excuses – no matter how plausible they seem.
Excuses are not the only way forward
Let’s recap this. Our brain can find the idea of writing stressful, so it scrambles for a ‘get out’ clause. The decision to procrastinate will seem reasonable – automatic even – because your brain wants you to avoid the discomfort it predicts.
Instead, get into the habit of challenging your excuses and you will realise a powerful truth: you don’t have to avoid writing just because brain wants you to. There is an another way.
Frustration is a prison of the mind (and the nervous system)
Cast your mind back to your school days. Remember how it felt to be stuck inside on a sunny day. Watch through the window; other kids yelling and having fun. Every fibre yearns to join them, but you’re trapped in this stuffy classroom. The teacher droning on and on… if only you could escape into the sunshine.
This is frustration. It is our emotional response to restriction.
If we focus on the negative aspects of writing – the effort, the pressure, the risk of failure or judgement – we become frustrated. Our intolerance of this frustration sits at the heart of procrastination; it is why we scramble for excuses.
And yet, frustration is a form of stress – and that is something we can control.[bctt tweet=”Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. —Ray Bradbury” via=”no”]
Ignore your procrastination excuses, and you must confront your deeper frustration. This often feels like a braced, inner reluctance – a tense feeling that prevents forward movement. At this point, you have three options:
- Give in anyway and do something else. The immediate stress will ease, but you’ll taste future regret and mediocrity.
- Suck up your frustration and write. Unfortunately, frustrated reluctance is not the ideal state for writing! It’s like wading through quicksand.
- Ease past the frustration and write with a happier state of mind.
I recommend option 3. The following simple technique really helps. I use it several times per day, and think of it as taking the handbrake off.
Techniques to stop procrastinating #3 – relax your nervous system (mindful breathing):
Step 1. Breathe in slowly through your nose, mentally counting to five as you do so.
Step 2. Exhale slowly through your mouth. Tell yourself: ‘Let it go. Just relax.’
Step 3. As you exhale, tune into your inner reluctance and let it to release.
Step 4. Repeat ‘Step 3’ five times (no less!) Target your shoulders, jaw, back, chest, stomach, hamstrings, and feet as you exhale – these areas carry the most stress.
Step 5. Remember: you cannot rush this! Give yourself the time you need to let go.
Don’t expect miracles straight away. Sadly, we’re not calling in the masseuse! And try not to be judgemental of any feelings; you can’t stress about stress and hope it goes away. Look at this as a form of letting go.
With practice you can gently loosen the grip of inner resistance and clear the way for action.
This exercise works really well with your eyes closed (unless you’re driving, in which case that’s a bad idea). To get the most out of the technique:
• Use it several times per day, especially if you feel reluctant to write.
• Use it immediately after dismissing any excuses.
• Use it to ease past the frustrations that naturally occur when you write.
(If you’re chronically stressed, consider using a more thorough technique. There are some excellent apps out there (android / iPhone). Use whatever you tools you need to learn how to relax properly. Your ability to ease past stress will improve and you can then use shorter techniques).
Everything changes: the power of planning and the ‘growth mindset’
Once you’ve uncoiled your inner reluctance – even just a little – you then need to get a handle on the situation. This means boosting your confidence.
Writing is difficult when our confidence is low. However, confidence is not a fixed attribute – it can be deliberately improved. Your brain is plastic (neurons that fire together, wire together…) and your capacity for personal growth is greater than you think. Improve your confidence and discouraging thoughts become mere shadows; they lose their emotional power.
Of course, people don’t wake up one morning and think, ‘I have confidence!’ (Unless you’re Julie Andrews). It needs to be bolstered, and there are two ways we can do this.
There is a free download-and-print PDF checklist available to accompany this post. It has been designed to guide you through the techniques you’re reading. Get your copy now for free.
What’s your method? The importance of getting a plan together
People feel more confident when they’re clear on the steps they’re about to take.
Without a plan, we may feel tempted to just sit and ‘await further instruction’. Instead, we need to determine the method we’re going to follow. This stops us feeling overwhelmed or uncertain, because we have an idea of what’s involved. Your method should be broken into simple, executable steps – nothing too complex or intimidating.
So, what would this look like?
• If you’re starting from scratch, perhaps your ‘method’ will mean scrawling ideas on a blank page or jotting down some bullet points (this works for fiction and nonfiction).
• Perhaps you need to expand your basic ideas and reorder them.
• Perhaps you need to ‘trim the fat’ and cut out words, sentences, or even paragraphs.
• Perhaps you need to polish your sentence structure or word choice.
• Perhaps your ‘method’ will involve reading your work aloud.
And so on… Be clear on your aims and identify the steps required. Focus on one thing at a time. Keep your steps small, simple, and specific. Use action-oriented verbs and write them down! This last point is very important.
Notice how each ‘method’ calls for different levels of precision. Being realistic about this combats perfectionism. After all – a painter starts with broad strokes, not eyelashes. Save thoughts of perfection until the very end.
Working in blocks to stay organised and in control
Once you’ve sketched an appropriate method, it helps to know how long a ‘block’ of writing will take.
This does not mean the time required complete the work, or even the time you could spend writing that day. A ‘block’ is the time you’ll write for before requiring a break. One approach – The Pomodoro Technique® – suggests blocks of 25 minute, followed by a five minute rest. It is a good place to start.
This segmented approach keeps us from feeling overwhelmed. It gives us structure and helps us stay focused, because your writing blocks are solely for writing – anything else during that time* is procrastination.
(* If your house on fire, then maybe you can pause your writing. Anything less pressing is definitely procrastination. FYI: this post was written in 52 minute blocks, with 17 minute rest periods. I use the iPhone app ‘5217 Pomodoro Plus’ to time myself, and stick to this reasonably well, but not perfectly).
A note on the ‘rest’ period. Resting does not mean tinkering with your writing, answering emails, or checking Twitter. It means getting up, walking around, making a cup of tea, doing a bit of stretching, gazing through the window, and changing the focus of your eyes. Take a complete break from your screen.
Your brain isn’t stupid. If getting your method together causes more stress, it means you’re anticipating what’s around the corner. Stay calm, relax your breathing, and keep ‘the handbrake‘ off. All you’re doing is devising a quick plan. At this stage it’s all theoretical.
You’ve committed to nothing. There’s no need to bounce back into procrastination.
Complete these steps – they take just a few minutes – and you’re almost ready to go. We just need to remember the true nature of success. And it’s something we often forget.
Methodical action and success are usually the same thing
Deciding on a method negates stress. We’ve switched from ‘not knowing where to start’ to knowing the steps. You’ve laid down the parameters for action.
To further improve our confidence, and keep ourselves relaxed, we must remember what we’re trying to achieve. We’re not attempting to emulate the giants of fiction or create our masterpiece (at least, not yet). We’re not trying for perfection, or guaranteed publication, or to inoculate ourselves from harsh judgement. We’re not even trying to complete the piece of work.
No, all we’re trying to do is execute our method for a chosen number of minutes. And then we’re going to take a break. Take a moment to accept this truth: executing your plan gets words on the page and strengthens your brain. It creates progress. Your ability, your determination, your resilience – and your word-count – will grow.
This is the true nature of success. Save other considerations for another time.
Techniques to stop procrastinating #4 – you’re here to execute your plan and grow
Let’s bring this together then – it’s very simple:
• Step 1: Define an unfussy, perfectionism-free writing method that reflects the task at hand. Keep the steps small, simple, specific, and easy to follow.
• Step 2: Decide how long you could carry this out for until you’d want a break. 25 minutes is an excellent place to start. Choose a time you’re comfortable with.
• Step 3: Forget your desire for a completed, perfect piece of writing. Instead, accept that carrying out your method equals progress and personal growth. This is success.
Your complacent brain might think otherwise, but it’s important to write these steps down. Do not skip this! It’ll take just a couple of minutes at most.
The secret power of flossing just one tooth…
Let’s recap. There has been a lot to take in:
Technique #1: Notice when you’re procrastinating. We often procrastinate in a trance-like state, and learning to ‘snap out’ of it is a key skill.
Technique #2: Recognise your procrastination excuses. Would a skeptical friend accept your reasons for not writing? If not, then dismiss your excuse as a dangerous self-deception. Otherwise you’ll bounce back into uncontrolled procrastination.
Technique #3: Relax away frustration. Dismissing your excuses means confronting the stress associated with writing. Deep, mindful breathing helps to regain composure and takes ‘the handbrake’ off.
Technique #4: Get a quick plan together: devise your method, decide how long you’ll work for, and remember that progress, not perfection (or even completion), is your goal. This is true success.
So, what next? You’ll notice we’ve still not written anything. Dismissing excuses, relaxing, and cultivating a growth mindset is great, but it’s not action. Only action is action. (Again, apologies for the zen-like pronouncements!)
To write, you need to minimise your inner resistance. This means starting with the smallest action possible; something that doesn’t require too much commitment, but which will help you get started. You can build momentum once you’ve taken the first step. Getting started is key.
Techniques to stop procrastinating #5 – ‘just five minutes’:
This is actually very simple:
Step 1: Start a countdown timer (set to 25 minutes or whatever) and get into position (be where you need to be and open Scrivener, your notepad, etc.)…
Step 2: Take a deep breath and execute your method once. Scribble one idea. Write once sentence. Edit one paragraph. Replace one word. Whatever your method calls for.
(Yes, just once. If you can’t execute it once, then your steps aren’t clear or succinct enough. Consider revising them).
Step 3: Did you execute your method once? Feel okay? Good, then take another breath and execute it once more. Don’t think about anything else – just stay focused on the step in front of you.
Step 4: Stay calm and relaxed. If frustration flares up, breathe slowly and ease past it. Execute your method just one more time.
Step 5: Slowly and calmly, repeat Step 4 – one step at a time – until it’s time to take a break.
You might be incredulous, but this approach is very powerful. Let’s inspect it more closely.
The power of momentum (and where it can take you)
Earlier we noted that procrastination is difficult to stop when it takes hold. This is known as behavioural momentum – the human tendency to continue what we’ve started. If you floss one tooth, you’re far more likely to floss a second tooth, and then a third. In fact you’re likely to floss all of your teeth. This is the power of momentum.[bctt tweet=”Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you. —Thomas Jefferson” via=”no”]
The ‘floss one tooth’ approach to writing – i.e. write just one sentence or edit one line – works in a similar way. Once you’ve repeated your method for a few minutes, you’ll often think ‘I’m doing it now. I might as well keep going.’
If it all feels too hideous and you just can’t manage, then give yourself permission to stop. Try the relaxation technique again and break your method into clearer, smaller steps. Perhaps you need to stop thinking about completed, perfect work. Remember: executing your plan is success. Even a couple of minutes will do, to begin.
If, however, you’re content to carry on then do so. After fifteen minutes you’ll probably find yourself ‘up and running’ and in a state of flow. Keep it one step at a time for the whole 25 minutes and take a break. Then, restart as before: focused just on one step at a time.
You’re not fooling me!
Your mind knows precisely what you’re doing. Anticipate objections such as:
• ‘I know what you’re doing! You’re going to make me write more than just one sentence.’
• ‘What’s the point? It’s a measly sentence and I want to write a whole book!’
• ‘Even once is too hard. I just can’t do it!’ (If so, then try a more thorough relaxation process).
And so forth… Remember, your aim isn’t to complete a perfect piece of work. It is to narrow your focus and complete your method just once. Nothing else. This narrow, near focus is a mental skill; you block out other considerations and carry out the small steps in front of you. You floss one tooth!
The approach is adapted from a technique known as ‘micro-habits’, and it works very well.
Even if you managed just five minutes writing per day, your habit will grow into something more substantial. And often you’ll manage more than five minutes. So, although our impatient minds may try to dismiss this as meaningless, do not listen – it’s just more excuses. For more information on micro-habits, check out this excellent Tedx Presentation from B.J. Fogg:
The recipe for ending procrastination
The best way to stop procrastinating then is to relax, decide on your method, remember that action equals success, and build momentum by taking one small step at a time. Getting started is key, so make it easy to do so. Keep your commitment low and focus only on what’s in front of you.
Get this right and you’ll feel like writing. Procrastination becomes a thing of the past.
Yes, gratitude is a buzzword – but it’s also important
Why does Stephen King advise us to ‘write a lot’? Because it develops our skill and boosts confidence. Just as weightlifting sculpts the body, so writing shapes the mind – into that of a writer. Action and success become the same thing. Understand this, and you’ll see there’s no need to fear failure. Write for long enough, and unforeseen opportunities will come your way. It’s how things generally work.
And this brings us to our sixth and final technique.
Techniques to stop procrastinating #6 – ‘be grateful to yourself’:
After you’ve made your five minute dash for glory, look inwards for a moment and offer yourself some gratitude. Writing – even sh•tty first draft writing – is success. Striving to create is not easy, so take a moment to appreciate yourself.
What to do when you stumble
Inevitably, you’ll encounter some frustration as you write – especially if you feel uncertain or stuck. Anticipate these moments and the risk they carry. You could easily slip back into procrastination. It pays to remain vigilant.
When frustration strikes, do the following:
Step 1: Repeat the breathing exercise and calm your frazzled nerves!
Step 2: Go back to basics. Execute your method, just one step at a time, adjusting the steps if required.
Step 3: Be slow and deliberate. Take your time. Remember – writing is success. You do not need to rush. Remain composed.
The procrastinator’s brain always looks for escape routes, so be mindful during frustrating moments. Avoid the trap of seductive excuses! Otherwise, you’ll be back in the vortex of frustrated, uncontrollable delay. This isn’t quite ‘back to square one’ – but it’s still not ideal.[bctt tweet=”Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. —Steve Jobs” via=”no”]
Navigating frustration is like driving along a treacherous piece of road. Don’t freeze or panic. Just slow down, focus on the road in front of you, and inch forward with care. Progress, no matter how slow, is the goal. The frustration will pass and you’ll soon be back into the flow. Just don’t spin off the road completely.
Make a start. And then keep going during the tricky moments. It boils down to this. Develop the required mindset and you’ll feel able to follow this advice. The techniques in this post will help. If you’re lost, remember the key: small steps build momentum and make things easier.
Everything is practice
And that’s it! We’ve come to the end of the road ourselves. On this page you have everything you need to overcome procrastination and write a lot. Of course, reading about procrastination will not help you overcome it. You need to practise these techniques and turn them into skills. Only then can you truly master your self.
You don’t need to fear failure, criticism, comparison, or change. Regular writing will transform your anxieties and give you access to an new way of thinking. In fact, the only thing we should fear is inaction: so relax, get into position, and write.
3 final things
Do you have any helpful tips or techniques for beating procrastination? If so please share it in the comments below so that we can learn from your real-life example. Comments are encouraged!
And if you enjoyed this post, then please share it – you will help get more people writing. I am grateful to you for that!
There is a free download-and-print PDF checklist available to accompany this post. It has been designed to guide you through the techniques you’ve read about. Get your copy now for free.