The Deadliest Killer of the Writing Craft: Procrastination
Updated: Jul 29, 2020
Procrastination is a deadening practice in any field, but for writers it’s a virulent craft-killer. Why? Because hefty percentage of the craft involves getting one’s seat in a chair and fingers on a keyboard or pen. If that doesn’t happen . . . TA-DA! Nothing gets written. Or submitted. Or published.
So, to help myself and a few fellow-writers, I’ve come up with four rules for combating procrastination.
Rule #1: Don’t wait for the perfect block of time, the perfect chair, the perfect circumstances.
Sit down and write. Today. Right now. Or if you can’t manage that, stand at the kitchen counter and jot notes while your kids have their mouths full of corn flakes.
Rule #2 is first cousin to Rule #1: Don’t wait for perfection.
As a matter of fact, I procrastinated publishing this post on procrastination for several weeks. I wanted to make sure I got it “right.” Hmmm. Self-editing is ESSENTIAL, and so is spell-check. But better to publish and perish from embarrassment than to never publish at all for fear of getting it “wrong.” Edit away, within reason. Then send your words into the world. And while they’re out there, revisit Rule #1.
Rule #3: Know why you’re writing.
If it’s to be rich and famous, forget it. That’s a (remote and unlikely) by-product, not a reason. Nor, in my opinion, is the lofty “because I have to” a procrastination-resistant reason to write. It may very well be true. I myself start to feel restless and discontented when I’m not writing. But if I make writing all about ME it’s hard to either justify or persist in it. I don’t like to feel selfish, so if I think of writing as self-involved self-soothing, how can I demand of myself or of others the space to write? At some point, writing does take silence, aloneness and—most of all—time. But that doesn’t mean it’s selfish. Writing is a form of service. A giving of oneself. A sharing.
Think about how diminished your life would be without the work of the writers you rely on and cherish: novelists, memoirists, historians, journalists, bloggers, playwrights, screenwriters, poets. I’m grateful that the writers who have shaped me and my world took the time to write; how sadly impoverished I would be without them. So I tell myself over and over—as I’m telling YOU—that writing is not a selfish or self-centered activity. Writing is a reaching out, a drawing together, of the human family. Writing is a form of love. Believe it. Act on it.
Rule #4: Sacrifice.
You simply can’t accomplish anything worthwhile without sacrificing something for it. So when it comes to writing, the question is not whether to sacrifice for your craft, but what to sacrifice.
When I wrote the first draft of this blog post several weeks ago, I was at a rather slow point in my life. Not too much going on. So, prior to ten a.m. I had:
Done a quick read-through of newspapers (yes, paper ones) that had backed up while I was out of town, even though I’d been back for five days. I didn’t skip Dear Abby, either.
Finished reading the book a friend lent me so I could give it back to her.
Glanced through the headlines of several on-line news sources (I don’t trust just one).
Clicked on a link to the Facebook page of Pedals, a handicapped wild bear who walks on his hind legs. Some people want to put him in a wildlife sanctuary. Others say he’s doing just fine on his own.
Started the dishwasher, which no one started the night before.
Made lunches for family members before they rushed out the door.
Drove my daughter—who didn’t rush fast enough to catch the bus—to school.
Spent a few minutes hobnobbing in the kitchen with my son before he left for work.
Checked email. A writer friend had sent me a draft of his book jacket blurb. I read it.
Had a heated discussion with my son (now we were in the home office) about the upcoming presidential election.
Reminded him to register to vote. Did a Google search to find out how to do so online.
Practiced playing Fur Spring by Grieg on the piano while my son was registering.
Unfurled the plastic floor-protection mat that came in the mail yesterday, and weighted its corners with books.
Thought about starting a blog post entitled Procrastination.
But I still had the following things on my To Do List:
Make an appointment with the Department of Motor Vehicles
Make an appointment for a long-overdue hair cut
Send out an email to fellow Cub Scout leaders summarizing our last committee meeting.
Find someone to substitute-teach my church women’s class.
Call my daughter’s trumpet teacher to schedule a lesson.
Provide feedback on the book jacket blurb (see above).
Mow the lawn.
Call a beloved elderly friend in Connecticut who left a message while I was gone last week.
Return a call to a friend who left a message two days ago.
Call a friend to schedule a swim together and discuss the book she lent me.
Call a dear poet friend whom I haven’t talked to in months.
Call my mom to see if I left my tablet charger and make-up bag at her house.
Fix dinner. A nutritious one.
Go to a Brazilian guitar concert with my husband.
Write a novel.
Needless to say, I never got to several items on the list. Especially the last one. Endless are the reasons and opportunities NOT to write. Yet if you were to ask me what I most want to accomplish this year, I would say, Finish my novel. So why the disconnect between what I most want to do and what I actually get done?
Take a minute and write down how you spend your time. You may come to realize the same thing I have: procrastination is largely about having too much to do! It’s about exhaustion and over-scheduling. Yet even as I write this, I find myself resisting cutting anything from my list. Would I give up interacting with other writers? Talking with my son? Helping him become a responsible citizen? Serving my family in small ways? Serving in the community? Serving in my church? Maintaining relationships with people I care about? Maintaining a livable home? Maintaining myself? (Note that exercise isn’t even on the list above, because I substituted mow the lawn for a trip to the gym.)
Nevertheless, something has to give, if I’m ever to have time to write.
Some writers find that it works to get up early or go to bed late in order to carve out the hours for their craft. My vows to do likewise soon fade after insomnia makes it brutally hard to respond to the five a.m. alarm, and impossible to stay awake at the keyboard if I do. Other writers set aside a certain time of year to dedicate themselves to their art—maybe the summer, or a writing retreat during a winter vacation. But for me, such opportunities for total dedication are hard to find, and harder to continue.
We writers live in the real world, with real jobs, real families, and real demands on our attention. Thus, Rule #4. What are we willing to sacrifice to write?
I’m personally unwilling to give up LIVING to make it happen. God and family. Community and friends. I can’t do without them. But I can postpone reading newspapers, books, email and Facebook until I have fulfilled my writing obligation for the day. I can likewise postpone housework, yard work, phone calls, community service, errands and exercise until the writing is done. In other words. I can combat procrastination with . . . procrastination!
Maybe the answer is as simple as that. DO THE WRITING FIRST! Unless a daughter needs a ride to school, or a son needs to register to vote.