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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

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?


At 12:43 PM, Blogger Prisakiss said...


You pegged me in so far as trying to cram too much into one day. Mostly, I need to work on saying, "I'd love to help, but I'm a little overcommitted right now. Perhaps next time."

It's a matter of prioritizing. If writing is important to me, then why do I let it fall by the wayside.

Many times it's a question of me letting others' priorities take precedence over mine. And then, add in a little laziness/self-doubt, and I wind up letting my writing stay on the backburner.

Bottomline, am I writing as a hobby, or because I want to get published? That's what I have to keep reminding myself.

That, as well as "Sorry, I can't help at the moment." This last partis a work in progress for me.


At 12:43 PM, Blogger Mo H said...

Yup, I'm guilty of feeling guilty for not getting in enough writing time. I've had a crazy week, and the writing, which I love, had to go on the backburner for more pressing items on my list. I won't call it procrastination any more.:)

At 1:23 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

Too much in one day? Nahhhhh... Well, maybe.

Of course.

Some days I remind myself that I'm not really procrastinating if I'm doing the things my family needs and I consider a priority.

It's not really procrastination if my son's doing his homework using the one laptop that we share.

It's not even procrastination if I'm burned out from living life and need to refuel in a way other than writing and not if I'm thinking about my writing, puzzling my way out of the corner I've backed my story into or refining my character's motivations.

But there are definitely times when I could be writing and I don't.

Then I definitely feel guilty.

At 1:49 PM, Blogger Minnette Meador said...

You got me nailed, girl! And that guilt? That comes just after your first child is born and continues, I understand, to your dying day ~sigh~ But the writing thing is even more full of guilt...I loved this! Well done. M:)

At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Nicole said...

It seemed like you were speaking to me today. Thanks for a great post!

For me, it is absolutely about the fact that I secretly feel like I am SuperWoman/Mom/Wife/Writer and should be able to do it all without flinching. But, when I get to the end of the day, so exhausted I can barely move, and still feel guilty that I didn't do XYZ...that's where I've got to do some analyzing and admit I ain't ALL THAT!

I like your idea about putting XXXXX where you can't figure out what goes there. Since I'm doing NaNo, I'm having a really hard time not going back and editing while I'm trying to think of just the right word/description, etc. to put in there. Maybe if I start doing that, it'll keep me moving at a faster clip.

Thanks again!

At 3:04 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

Pris, aren't you really saying your writing CAN'T take top priority in your life right now? Isn't it true that it's really disappointment you feel because you can't put it at the top even at the times when you might like to?

How about assigning it a priority number? Then attempt to schedule it accordingly? If you know honestly where it's got to be slotted in your current life, then maybe you can give a hard look at just where in your schedule you can fit it in, and how much time you can give it.

Let's suppose you decide you can only come up with fifteen minutes a day to devote to specifically creative writing. Look at your schedule and find where those fifteen minutes are each day-- it could easily be different every day. Then when that quarter hour rolls around, tell yourself that's the only thing you're going to do, and for that fifteen minutes only.

Actually, I remember when I did this. I could only take one of my breaks every day to write, but that time was mine and by law, my employer the state had to let me have it. They could- and did- force me to work long overtime hours, which I then would lose for some reason or other. But they couldn't deprive me of my breaks. I wrote one entire book that way. Knocking out 1 to 2 pages at a time.

At 3:18 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

I think I'm seeing lots of the Supermom Syndrome here. Let's look at how that works.

Minnette, you're right, the onset of symptoms comes with the first baby. I'll go back further in time to pregnancy, even marriage. These days, it's aggravated by the acceptance, even expectation that a woman will somehow juggle a career along with the baby on the hip. Back when I was a young mom, I got turned down by employers who took it for granted I wouldn't do the job right because of my mom obligations. But now it's expected a mom will somehow magically be all to her family while rising up the career ladder.

Unfortunately, those old employers, although clearly discriminatory, had a point. It's darn hard to do both.

Then along comes Supermom and decides she'll write too, and she'll be professional about it, which means she'll put it top priority. But wait, she's already got two top priorities. How's she going to handle another one?

I had a boss who, when we were faced with massive RIFs in the state social work ranks, insisted those of us who were lucky enough to remain would have to pick up the unfilled the positions as well as our own. When asked how we should prioritize our tasks to do this, she simply said, "It's all top priority". Meaning we'd better do two or three jobs' worth of work or get replaced by someone who would.

That seems to be the definition of Superwritermom. Do three jobs in the time alloted for one, and make them all top priority.

Let's be honest with ourselves instead of flogging ourselves. Let's not heap on the guilt. Instead, let's reasonably assess our time and resources and grasp what we can really do. That way, we can succeed instead of failing.

I see that Karen Potter has a blog coming up on "100 Words a Day in 100 Days". This might really help some of you who struggle with the ongoing time pinch.

At 3:56 PM, Blogger Dianna Love said...

Love your doodling, Delle. :)

I like your point about assigning something a priority. I have days where EVERYTHING is a priority - "g" - so it's really "take a number" thinking at that point. That's when I literally break it down to a list starting with "if this doesn't happen today - will there be chaos or not?"

I find making an "appointment" for time to write works pretty well since I don't have a schedule per se and have to cut out spots in every day of the week to write, then make the most of that time when I get it.

At 3:58 PM, Blogger Prisakiss said...

Once again, you have it right, Delle. It's hard to be Supermom/writer/wife/volunteer.

I just saw the note about Karen's upcoming post. That one, along with your idea to give my writing a priority # is a good idea.

I know I can come up with at least 15 minutes to call my own during the day.

Maybe, instead of committing to a certain number of pages a day, I need to commit to an amount of time. Then I can schedule my time, and not feel guilty for not getting my certain # of pages done if my day gets crazy and I don't have enough time.

Thanks for the advice!!

At 4:10 PM, Anonymous Christine Glover said...

I like the XXXXX trick... usually I write ?? BODY TAG/REACTION and move on... that helps me a bit. I just informed my husband (I loved that line... "noticing husbands")that starting today, I would be writing 4 hours a day till I got the GH entry wrapped up. That I would NOT be cleaning toilets or taking care of anything major in the house other than basic triage. Perhaps I shouldn't have announced it. Already I've been requested to A) find someone to take pictures of my daughter for headshots for a recital coming up B)go to Target to buy a Wii because it is on sale THIS WEEK C)find out why the fridge is making that funny noise and oh, find someone to fix it?

All to no avail. I remain resolved in my pursuit... And the timer thing is working for me. I set it for 60 minute intervals. Mini break and then set again.

Thanks for all the great advice!

At 6:35 PM, Blogger Delle Jacobs said...

Christine, I make notes in CAPS on my ms, but I put XXXXX beside them. When I think I'm through polishing a ms, I do a search for XXXXX. Sometimes I find it, even after several drafts.

I'd suggest consulting your "schedule" in an obvious manner when someone makes an unreasonable request. "Oh, sorry, can't work that in. My schedule says I have to be writing then. Is there a way you could do it for yourself?"

At 6:44 AM, Anonymous Christine Glover said...

Oh, I like the "obvious schedule check" a lot. I'll use it if they are able to see me do it. If it's a call, I'll say, "let me check my schedule... rustle papers... come back on the line... say sorry, not in my schedule" LOL.

Love the CAPS with XXXXX... definitely using that from now on.


At 7:43 AM, Blogger Linda Banche said...

One major thing I say is give up the guilt. Women do so much more than anyone else and then feel guilty that we're not doing enough.

I'm finally learning to say no. There is such a thing as too much work. But YOU don't have to do it all. If no one says how important it is, you decide. You may decide not to do it. See what happens.

Someone said to me once: "When a woman dies, she never says 'I wish I'd spent more time doing housework.' " Replace "housework" with anything else you want, and go from there.

At 12:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A great article, Delle. Very thought-provoking. My main problem is that my family seem determined to find "better" things for me to do. (My husband even dumped his elderly sister, 20 years older than he is, on me, despite my telling him I didn't think it was in the interests of any of us. I can't cope with a hypochondriac, never mind one who won't eat so many things!) I thought of keeping my office door closed but that would mean denying my dogs my company, not to mention making the room too hot in summer and shutting it off from the warmth of the fire in winter. I feel as though I can't win whatever way I turn.

At 2:36 PM, Blogger Jessa Slade said...

Delle, the "doing three jobs, all of them top priority" is too true. I fancy myself fairyly organized, disciplined and realistic and I STILL can't do it all.

But I have not learned to accept defeat graciously. And maybe that's in most writers too; the determination to be Superwoman, even if it's impossible.


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