The Many Faces of Procrastination, Part I

When I work with writers to help them stop procrastinating, usually they don't quite know why they're doing it. They often end up labeling it as laziness or writer's block. I can tell you that I've never met a truly lazy writer, and while I certainly have met some who are blocked, sometimes a little delving is required to uncover the deeper issues that are stopping them from writing.

Let's talk about the spectrum of writing-stoppers that show up as procrastination.

You're stuck.

You might find yourself procrastinating when you're stuck. Maybe you've hit a section you aren't sure how to deal with, or you need to rewrite some or all of your draft but you're not sure where to start, so you just... don't. This stuckness doesn't take long to turn into procrastination, and soon, to full on avoidance.

Antidotes: Sometimes when you're stuck, you need help to get going again. A plot coach or a writing friend often comes in handy here. Alternatively, you might want to write about the writing -- this is a great time for some journaling and brainstorming to unlock your writing energy and ideas.

You're overwhelmed.

Sometimes the sheer volume of work facing you will cause you to procrastinate. When you're looking at a mountain, it's hard not to feel the weight of it bearing down on you. 

Antidotes: The antidote for overwhelm is to find one small step to take. In other words, what's the first thing you can think of, no matter how small, that you know you can do now? Then do the next thing. This is a great time to pick easy things to do too, because when you're feeling overwhelmed, easy makes it doable. Sometimes I'll just work on formatting for a bit to get myself back into the project, no matter how fiddly it is. No step forward is too small.

You've been hooked by perfectionism.

When you get stuck in believing that you must make your writing perfect or get caught up in visions of this being your biggest hit ever, you'll be triggering procrastination faster than you might believe. Perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis work together to create a vicious cycle that keeps you from writing, ever. Perfectionism is funny way of staying safe too, because if you don't write it, you don't have to see it being flawed and imperfect, nor can you be ridiculed for it.

Antidotes: Make peace with being an imperfect human being who values writing and finishing more than telling yourself whoppers about incredible success or massive failure that hold you back. Embrace the notion that only the divine is perfect, and decide that messy and done is so much better than not writing.

Your inner critic is freaking out.

When the voice of your inner critic starts getting loud and scary, it's hard to keep writing, especially if you listen to it as if it's the voice of truth and reason, rather than simply a terrified guard dog it trying to keep you safe. Also note that this voice will get louder and scarier the closer you are to the precipice of taking action, finishing a draft, or moving into a new level of your career. If those aren't reasons to procrastinate, I don't know what is!

Antidotes: First, pat your inner critic on the head and tell him/her that you're going to take care of everything, you got this, and you don't need any help protecting yourself. Then, one by one, rewrite the negative self-messages that swirl through your mind while you're writing into positive, believable statements. Having a coach or witness for this work helps it land more deeply and take root in your psyche in a positive way. 

You've gotten feedback on your work and it's affecting you.

Good feedback, bad feedback. Feedback period. All feedback affects us. It's an energetic shock to the system that's hard to absorb. We've been tenderly entwined with our beloved writing only to have it held at arm's length by a stranger who cooly evaluates it. The stun from this can send you into a tailspin. And good feedback? Glowing feedback on your early chapters? That can be a recipe for triggering perfectionism and the anti-creativity cycle too, because suddenly you have to measure up to your existing work and you might not believe you can.

Antidotes: After giving yourself some time to recover from getting the feedback, take a deep, deep breath. Remind yourself who is in charge. (That would be you.) Evaluate the feedback as cooly as it evaluates your book. What do you agree with? Use that. What do you disagree with? Throw it out or save it for later re-evaluation.

You're deeply exhausted and you're self-protecting.

Sometimes you may procrastinate because you're actually deeply tired or burned out, and reflexively protecting yourself from overextending. This may be the result of binge writing, pushing to meet deadline after deadline, or from being exhausted by a non-writing life circumstance.

Antidotes: Rest. Write for the love of it, if you're called to do so, but make it easy, like journaling, and give yourself some time to recover. You will feel the call to write again. Trust me. 

You're dealing with a creative wound that needs addressing.

When you're not writing... and not writing... and not writing... and it's just going on forever, sometimes there are deeper creative wounds that have gotten triggered and need addressing. Like that time you were ridiculed for daring to make art and express yourself creatively. Or how you were raised in a family culture that taught you that writing would never pay your bills and you were a fool if you pursued it. Or the scathing feedback you received from someone you deeply loved. Events like these leave open wounds in our psyches, like ghosts in the machine.

Antidotes: Revisit the events in a safe way (such as through visualization or journaling) so you can find the truth in the experience from a broader spiritual perspective. From there, you'll be able to begin to find forgiveness for yourself and peace with the experience. Often these experiences happen to us when we are young, and having our more mature perspective helps us begin to shift how we feel about it now. While you can do this work on your own, working with a coach or witness who can hold a safe space while you're processing what happened can accelerate your growth and ability to move past the pain.

And there's more...

There are many more underlying reasons for procrastination, including creative apathy, confusion, adrenaline addictions, and more. Read Part II, here

When has procrastination most reared its head for you, and how have you dealt with it?

Share your stories and experiences in the comments section below.

 
 
Photo by Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash

3 Tips for Staying Energized When Writing a Book (or Script!)

One of the biggest challenges I've seen for writers working on long-form writing projects (like books and scripts) is losing heart along the way, mostly because we get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work left to do.

It's not easy to keep our energy mustered toward completion when we've got pages and pages more to write... or harder, pages and pages left to revise (and potentially additional revisions left to go).

Here are three tips designed to help you keep your spirits up as you battle the forces of writing resistance:

Tip #1: Create a Plan

For every stage of your writing, make a plan for it. A plan for the outline, a plan for the first draft, a plan for the revision. For example, if you're writing the first draft, identify the milestones you're aiming to hit, like scenes from an outline or turning points from a beat sheet. Create a timeline for those milestones so you know if you're on track, and if you need to make any adjustments as you're moving through the project.

Even if you're a total pantser, you can still make some estimates for word counts, major turning points, or numbers of chapters.

Make your milestones big enough to be inspiring but not so big that they're overwhelming. I love to use 15-page chunks of a script as a milestone, usually the number of pages between each major script turning point because I know approximately how long it takes me to write or revise a section of that length. (You can see me putting a simple form of this in action here.)

Tip#2: Track Your Work

Once you have your plan and start implementing it, make a point to track your work so you can see how your plan is progressing. I like to use spreadsheets for tracking my writing (there's one in my Ultimate Writer's Toolkit if you want a jump-start with your own tracking).

The core idea is this: Track your time and your word or page counts so you can SEE the progress happening. It's one of the best antidotes I know for project overwhelm. There's nothing quite like seeing your counts climb and knowing you're making progress to help you focus on the progress you are making, as opposed to the work you have yet to do. And this is one of the biggest challenges we face as writers.

We tend to be an intuitive, conceptual bunch (at least the crowd I hang out with) so we can easily see the final, finished product in our minds' eyes -- and then despair when we see how far it is from here to there. But when we learn to use baby steps, and track those steps, we shift our focus from what's yet not done to what is already done, and it's an incredible relief.

Another amazing benefit of tracking your work is being able to see how long each stage and type of work typically takes you, and then you can project approximately how long it'll take to hit each milestone. Such as, how long it takes you to write 15 script pages or 2,000 words in your novel. Or much writing you can do in 60 minutes. Or how long it typically takes you to outline. Knowing your own innate pacing is a big confidence booster, and helps you build trust with yourself as a writer and believe in your ability to complete a project. Knowledge is power.

Plus, when you track your work you'll have the evidence you need to help you stay on track with your writer's schedule. If you've set aside 60 minutes a day for writing, and see every day you're adding 750 words to your manuscript, you'll be more motivated to keep your next writing appointment with yourself because you know in your bones those minutes count.

Tip #3: Keep Your Head Down

And at the same time, let tracking your work be enough of the big picture. Learn to keep your head down and focused on the work at hand rather than on the overall timeline.

Here's what I mean by "keep your head down." Once upon a time, I worked as an intern doing digital 3-D modeling (I made digital houses for virtual architectural walkthroughs and elephants for an animated dictionary, super fun). After I went back to grad school, my boss told me about someone they'd hired. "She keeps her head down," he said.

I wondered what he meant, and he explained that she focused well on doing the work that was in front of her, without looking up and around, chatting, or getting distracted. It clicked for me. And I find that the more I "keep my head down," once I've established the plan for my work, and just do said work, the better off I am.

As a general rule, the time to question and design the plan is not in the middle of implementing the plan, unless something has gone horribly wrong and a course correction is required. But if things are moving forward and no major trains have gone off the rails, stay focused on putting one foot in front of the other and logging the time and tackling the items on the writing to do list.

It's when we stop and question that we flounder. I've seen more than a few writers dropping in and out of the game for reasons like this, and it's just not worth it. The only way out is through. Don't spin your wheels asking "Why is it taking so long?"Just do the work. 

Plan the Work and Work the Plan -- And Track It!

So if you're looking for ways to keep your energy up while writing your epic book or script, remember: Plan the work and work the plan -- and track it along the way. You'll be amazed at how motivating it is to see your body of work building and building over time.

diamonds

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Writing even when overwhelmed

As writers and creatives with a certain sensitivity to life, we can get easily overwhelmed, which can be paralyzing, deeply uncomfortable, and hard to break free from.

Let’s talk about why that happens and what we can do about it.

There are a few different ways overwhelm happens, and they inform us about how to handle the overwhelm, so it’s useful to look at what’s gotten us overwhelmed in the first place.

1. We get overwhelmed by the size of a project.

When we’re taking on a big project (like writing a novel, for instance), if we look at the entirety of the thing, it can be overwhelming just to contemplate, let alone begin it. I’m reminded of the joke about how to eat an elephant. If we look at the whole thing, it feels impossible. But when we think about taking “one bite at a time”, we can begin to see how to start going about it.

Solutions

  • Break it down into component parts. For example, with a writing project, we can start with brainstorming, or an outline. Then we can tackle one scene at a time.
  • Make a list of everything you’ll want to do — then put it away. Focus on one thing at a time and stop thinking about the big picture, or you’ll make yourself crazy.
  • Look at working in small increments of time, as small as 5 to 15 minutes a day. It’s quite surprising what we can accomplish in these little chunks. I wrote my screenplay Rift in 15 to 30 minute increments, and it was thrilling to see the page count creeping up, day after day.

2. We get plain old overstimulated.

If you fall on the highly sensitive side of the spectrum, you’re more sensitive to stimulation of any kind, and have a lower threshold for stimulation than the rest of the population. This means that you’re more likely to get overwhelmed earlier than your peers, which can feel a little crazy making when everyone else seems to be able to handle it just fine, thank you very much. But overwhelm from overstimulation is just as paralyzing as the other types.

Solutions

  • Remove yourself from the source of the stimulation.
  • Give yourself time to recover.
  • Have a repertoire of soothing practices to get grounded, balanced, and present again.
  • Notice that writing will often help you feel more grounded, balanced, and present again.
  • Plan ahead to keep stimulation at a manageable level in the future and build in recovery time.

3. We get overwhelmed by life.

Then there’s the “garden variety” overwhelm we experience in our busy world. There’s always more to do, more to take on, more to handle. Someone always needs something, there’s a project that’s due, our kids are sick, you name it.

And it can be easy to let something like a writing habit or a passion project fall to the wayside in the midst of all that. But the cost is far higher than you might expect. It turns out that feeding the passion we feel and fulfilling the commitment to our deeper selves is critical fuel we need to actually handle the overwhelm. Even at a time when “one more thing” feels like way too much, putting ourselves first — just like we put our oxygen masks on first — is key to staying grounded and sane when the going gets tough.

Solutions

As far as solutions go, it depends.

First ask yourself, is this an ongoing pattern in my life? If so, the answer is to look closely at what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, to see if there is anything you can let go of, delegate, or defer. Be willing to keep your passion project at the top of the list, and let go of other obligations. Your first obligation is to yourself. Choose wisely.

On the other hand, if you’re experiencing an unusual period of intense work, simply “contract” your expectations on your project to an attainable level. For example, write for 15 minutes instead of an hour, or pick out the tiniest piece of your project to focus on.

  • Be willing to look at what you might need to let go of.
  • Contract your project expectations to a reasonable, attainable level.
  • Remember the value and importance of feeding your soul’s passion.
  • Build up to more over time.

4. We get overwhelmed by major life stresses and events.

Beyond the “ordinary” level of overwhelm we feel in our day to day lives comes the extraordinary kind of stress and overwhelm we can feel when a major life event dominates our experience, like a parent being hospitalized, a major relationship upheaval, the death of a loved one, or personal surgeries or health issues.

During times like these, pretty much everything drops off the radar that isn’t “critical path” to handling the major life event. In my opinion, that’s okay, especially during the true crisis times. But once things start to settle down into a “new normal”, see if you can find your way to doing the contracted version of your project I mentioned under number 2, above.

Solutions

  • Give yourself time and space to deal with the major event.
  • Return to the project as soon as you reasonably can, at a minimal level of engagement.
  • Build up to more over time.

5. We get overwhelmed because we’re burnt out.

When we are creatively (and energetically) burned out, we can get overwhelmed by the simplest things. Keeping the house clean, dealing with paperwork, and handling the basics of daily living can make us want to crawl back into bed and hide.

Usually this happens for a couple of reasons, including dealing with the ongoing high level of expectations we have in our culture about what we should be able to do in any given day (see #2, above), and dealing with major life events (see #3, above), but it can also include the creative backlash that comes from pushing ourselves to the point of burnout.

In other words, if we’re working crazy hours to meet a deadline, we become exhausted when it’s done, and no surprise there either. But few of us allow ourselves to take time off when that happens.

Solutions

  • Plan to take at least one solid day off after a big push, maybe a few more.
  • If you’re creatively burnt out, give some thought to how you’ll refill your creative well with interesting and inspiring ideas as you recover. My favorites: museums, art stores, toy stores, TED talks.
  • If you’re energetically burnt out (which usually goes hand-in-hand with creative burnout), seriously ramp up your self care for a while. You’ve just taxed yourself and you need time to bounce back.
  • Keep the writing going by doing morning pages during this time, or if you already have a next project to work on, put in the minimum amount of time on it and then take the rest of the day to renew. But do it first, so you can fully enjoy the time without the low level of stress and anxiety that procrastination creates.
  • Transition yourself to a regular writing habit so you won’t have to work so intensely in a big burst all at the end (if you need help with this the Writer’s Circle may be just the ticket for you.)

Your turn

What works for you? How do you deal with overwhelm? We’d love to hear from you in the comments on the blog.

Warmly,

 Jenna

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