Three reasons writers procrastinate and what to do about it

I’ve had a few goes at writing this post. In between stopping and starting, I’ve checked my email dozens of times, written a couple of grocery lists, walked the dogs, made banana bread and updated my LinkedIn profile. Researcher Fuschia Sirois reports that up to one in every four people is a chronic procrastinator. In Procrastination, she defines it as:

… a common self-regulation problem involving the unnecessary and voluntary delay in the start or completion of important intended tasks despite the recognition that this delay may have negative consequences.

Most research into procrastination is conducted on university students, but the very nature of freelance writing – self-directed, flexible, fluid, frequently undertaken in pyjamas – makes it an activity that’s even more ripe for procrastination. The fact that writing is also difficult also contributes to the urge to put off till tomorrow what could have been done today. Putting words on the page can bring up unpleasant feelings – frustration, inadequacy, rage, anxiety, jealousy, self-doubt or even boredom.

Psychological research suggests that it’s these negative emotions – not a lack of motivation, willpower or impulse control – which lies at the heart of procrastination. When we procrastinate, we sacrifice long-term goals for short-term mood repair. “In effect,” says Sirois, “we trade the future for the present.”

So what are three of the biggest procrastination traps for writers?

  1. Indecision

If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.

Mark Twain

The problem: Some days, I look at my to-do list and instantly crave a cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down. Like most freelance writers, I’m working on multiple projects, for different editors, all at once. It’s hard to know where to start. Also, like many freelance writers, I’m keeping the home fires burning, which might mean, on any given day, additional tasks like taking the dog to the vet, putting something in the slow cooker for dinner, and picking children up from school.

When you’ve got too much to do in one lifetime, let alone one day, it’s tempting to throw up your hands and not start anywhere. Because when weighed against a mighty list of must-dos, the impact you can make from tackling something – anything – can seem so small as hardly worth the effort.

The antidote: Prioritise and delegate. Accept that there will always be more plates spinning than you have the capacity to manage. Let those plates fall to the floor and enjoy the smashing sound they make. For me, prioritising the three most important tasks for each day is a way to claw back some clarity and control. Others recommend alternative approaches – like those outlined in Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or Gary Keller’s The One Thing – but they’re all a variation on the same theme. Prioritise. And once you’ve prioritised, delegate, where you can. Let people make their own damned dinner sometimes.

2. Distraction

You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.

Winston S. Churchill

The problem: Freelance life is full of random work-related intrusions, interruptions and requests which, on their own, don’t seem to demand a lot of time, but collectively, can derail an entire day. Review proofs. Select photographs. Come up with fresh story ideas. Write captions. Return calls. Send emails. Reschedule interviews. Accept invitations. Set up Zoom calls. Post on social media. Respond to comments. Submit invoices. Chase invoices. Chase invoices again. (And this doesn’t even account for doom scrolling, binge watching and assorted other distractions.) Before you know it, you’re no further forward on the article, pitch or proposal that you intended to get done that day. All that frenetic activity can feel productive, but it ultimately comes at the cost of the tasks that are most important to you.

The antidote: There’s no getting out of such tasks, but ringfencing them can reduce the sense of being yanked in a thousand directions at once. I block out an ‘administration hour’ in my calendar every day to cover all the unavoidable bits and bobs that would otherwise nibble into every corner of the day. There’s a bonus to task batching like this: it allows you to whip through one item after another in record time, as though it’s a race, or a game. Once administration hour has passed for the day, new tasks that lob into my head, or arrive via email, text, or phone message, go onto a list to be tackled the next day. Yes, it means people sometimes have to wait for a response.

This strategy is a form of time blocking, where you divide your day into smaller blocks of time, all of which are assigned a special focus. For freelance writers, a three- or four-hour block might be devoted to drafting an article, or writing a series of pitches, or some other creative endeavour requiring concentration and focus. According to Deep Work author Cal Newport, such blocks of uninterrupted time can be transformative, but are becoming increasingly rare in the digital age.

3. Perfectionism

The first draft of anything is shit.

Ernest Hemingway

The problem: It always starts out the same way. You set out to write the most enthralling first-person travel feature, the most incisive personality profile, the most heartfelt personal essay, the most comprehensive destination guide. Yet somewhere between the dreaming and the doing, you get bogged in mud of your own making as your inner critic takes the megaphone: You call that a compelling lead? Where are the telling details? Can’t you come up with better descriptors? Are you sure that’s what he said? How is that even relevant? The result is that you write slowly, or not at all.

The antidote: Perfectionism and procrastination are so closely related, they might as well be conjoined twins. It must be said that perfectionism isn’t all bad. Getting the details right is important (although even stringent fact checks won’t satisfy the most eagle-eyed of readers). Perfectionism becomes a problem when it leads to paralysis and gets in between you and that shitty first draft. The solution is to deliberately set out to write the absolute worst first draft you can muster – or a zero or ‘dirty’ draft, where you simply tell yourself the story, secure in the knowledge that no-one else need ever see it.

Perfectionism can sometimes masquerade as pseudo-writing activities like research. This is a big trap for me. I download academic articles and buy books with the same sort of gusto with which some women collect shoes. Developing a deep understanding of a subject area is consistent with the iceberg theory: you won’t (hopefully) put everything you’ve learned into the story, but it still sits there, under the surface, allowing you to write with more authority. Research can also unearth fascinating tidbits and suggest new questions, which leads to more stories. Yet, at some point, you need to call it a day. Enough is enough. You don’t need a marine biology degree to write an experiential piece about snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef.

Coming up next: Three more reasons freelance writers procrastinate – and what to do about it.

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