#64: Kicking the Procrastination Habit

Hi Story Nurse,

I’m having trouble buckling down and writing. It seems like this happens in a few, related ways:

1) When I come home from work, I’m exhausted and can’t muster the energy to write. On the weekends, I have a million things to do and don’t manage to devote time to writing.

2) I’m waiting for the “perfect time” to write—when the sun’s up, and my brain is clear, and I’m not in too much pain/too exhausted.

3) When I do have time and energy to write, I frequently don’t prioritize writing, even though I know I enjoy it and it makes me feel productive and happy.

This is all complicated by the fact that I don’t often have time and energy at the same time, due to the fact that I work full-time and am chronically ill. I struggle with figuring out what the “right” balance (or at least, a good balance) of self-indulgent/happy-making things (writing, video games, reading fic) and Responsible Adult things (financial stuff, laundry, etc).

Do you have suggestions of how to get yourself to write besides just sit in the effing chair, block social media, and stare at your word doc until writing happens? Do you have any thoughts on how to get yourself to not feel guilty when you don’t write, but also to not feel guilty when you do prioritize writing (guilty that you’re not doing “actually important” i.e. Adulting things)?

For context, I write fanfiction, almost entirely for exchanges (my inability to write without a deadline/fic exchange is a separate, possibly related issue). The longest fic I’ve ever written was almost 5k, but most have been in the ~2k range.

I generally find dialogue, character relationships, and emulating the source material to be the easiest part of writing; I struggle with coming up with plots/keeping tension (and your posts have been very helpful with that!). I’m getting better at describing things other than body language (scenery, smells, etc). Also for context, I’m Autistic and queer.

Thank you for all your enormously helpful advice!!

—mlraven (she/her)

Dear mlraven,

Thanks for writing in with a challenge that a lot of writers face. Procrastination is endemic among writers, and it’s hard to know how much of waiting for inspiration or the right circumstances is legitimate and how much is just finding another excuse to not be doing what you feel you ought to be doing.

I recommend moving away from the idea of “getting yourself” to write. A coercive dynamic is of limited use in the short term and no good at all in the long term; it will add to the guilt and stress over writing and make it hard to remember why you write in the first place (presumably because you enjoy it and find it satisfying!). Instead, think about how you can invite yourself to write and make writing feel like the thing you most want to be doing right now. “Make the right thing the easy thing” has been one of my mottos for a couple of decades, and I recommend it to you.

Similarly, you can’t make yourself not feel guilty. Feelings don’t work that way. You can forgive yourself for not writing, and you can construct situations where you grant yourself permission to do things that you would feel guilty about if they seemed illicit, but once the guilt is there, it’s a thing you need to address directly in some way, as a legitimate emotional response to a situation. Maybe it’s a more palatable form of another emotion that you don’t want to look at directly, such as guilt over being disabled (a lot of us feel that guilt, even though we know it’s toxicity inflicted on us by an ableist society) or anger at your limitations. Maybe it’s a manifestation of depression, or a legacy of past experiences. Whatever it is, it is real, and trying to run away from it or shrug it off will only make it worse. Find some way to process and heal it—maybe talk it out with a sympathetic friend, journal about it, or seek the help of a therapist who’s clueful about disability and creativity.

As for the procrastination, here is my prescription for you, and other procrastinators:

  1. Accept that your personal resources—time, energy, wellness, inspiration—are finite, and that the perfect writing time doesn’t exist. I know you know this, but it’s one thing to know it and another to sit with it and fully accept it. In myself, I’ve found that procrastination is often a way of pretending that the world is better than it is. For a moment I can live in a fantasy land where I really don’t have anything better to do than play my phone game or chat online or whatever cat-waxing I’m doing. But if I gently bring myself back to the real world of finite resources, I can begin to craft a plan for allocating those resources rather than letting myself be driven by compulsion or anxiety or defiance or impulse.
  2. Accept that breaks, delays, and procrastination are a normal part of anyone’s writing process, and build time for them into your schedule. No one can work flat-out for long, and downtime is vital for mental health, intuitive leaps, and creativity. Lots of very productive people have only worked for a few hours a day. Just as you budget for entertainment as well as rent, budget time for fun and goofing off and rest as well as being productive. If you have a deadline, start working toward it early so that you have plenty of time for the breaks you need and don’t have to feel stress or guilt or shame over taking them.
  3. Prepare before you write. Are you fed, rested, hydrated, medicated? Have you turned off notifications on distracting apps and asked the people around you not to bother you? Are you in a place where writing is easy? Are your tools comfortable to use? Is it a time of day when you usually feel pretty alert? While acknowledging that the purely perfect writing environment doesn’t exist, do your best to set yourself up for success.
  4. Schedule “Can I write?” check-ins. Last week’s post gets more into how you can move away from guilt and shame by deciding in advance how much time you can spend on writing and then setting aside that time. In your case, your ability to write isn’t a reliable thing, but you can still have a regular time at which you check in to see how you’re doing and write if you can. If you’re too low on spoons or in too much pain or too anxious and stressed to write, try doing something from your self-care list; you’ve already removed all the “shoulds” from that time, so there’s no reason not to spend it on being good to yourself. And if you don’t feel particularly bad but writing just isn’t happening, check my post on writing for five minutes at a time for some writing-related activities, such as researching (or reviewing canon, for fanfic) and outlining, that you can do instead.
  5. Write things you enjoy writing, in ways you enjoy writing. Write stories that make you feel all the feels. Write for the joy of giving someone else a gift. Write within your comfort zone if that’s what feels good, or stretch yourself if you enjoy a challenge. You like having assignments and deadlines, so keep doing those fic exchanges. If you find you’re not enjoying writing a story a certain way, write the next story a different way. Be the type of writer you are and don’t stress yourself out trying to be some other type of writer.
  6. Have an attainable, satisfying writing goal. Don’t beat yourself up with it, but do let it inspire and encourage you. You’ll know how much procrastination and break-taking is too much when it starts getting in the way of achieving your goal.
  7. Take breaks on purpose. It’s counterintuitive to interrupt yourself when you’re actually getting things done, but think of the break like a cliffhanger ending: it should make you eager to get back to writing, to find out what happens next. That eagerness is a crucial antidote, or prophylactic, to unhappiness and guilt. Everyone is different, so observe your writing for the next few weeks and try to spot when you naturally start drifting toward doing something procrastinatory, and turn that into a conscious habit of taking a well-defined break. It may be after a certain word count (I always hit a wall around 1000–1500 words of fiction no matter how long it took me to get there) or a certain period of time. If you sometimes hyperfocus, you may find it’s better to indulge that and ride it out, or you may find that breaking it is good for you. Design a break schedule that suits you and leaves you feeling good.
  8. Make a list of healthy, enjoyable ways to spend your breaks. When I want to procrastinate, I tend to default to activities that don’t actually make me feel good, like obsessively reading the never-ending Twitter scroll, and then I end up in a downward spiral of time-wasting and unhappiness. But if I do something that rests me or soothes me or energizes me, I can do that for a relatively short time and be happily productive afterwards. Consider what procrastination tasks make it easier for you to get back to writing, rather than sucking you in. If it eases the guilt, procrastinate productively by doing chores (I do a lot of laundry while I’m working). Think of this as the equivalent of reaching for a nourishing snack instead of one that tastes good but makes your body unhappy. Having a list of such options makes it much easier to take one—you’re stocking your procrastination pantry.
  9. Limit your procrastinating. Do things that are naturally self-limiting, like washing dishes. I often play games where you eventually run out of lives and they take time to recharge; I know the game companies want me to pay for more lives, but instead I take it as a cue to be done playing games and go back to being productive. Establish a quantitative cut-off: “I will watch one episode of TV.” “I will read three short stories.” If you come up with your own Pomodoro-like schedule of alternating bouts of writing and rest, you can set a timer to tell you when the next writing bout is starting. Find a metric that works for you and that you really pay attention to; you can allow yourself a snooze button equivalent if you want (“I finished my three stories but I want to read just one more”), but at some point you do need to foreground your commitment to your goal and decide that break time is over.

If it helps you feel any better about being a procrastinator, it’s taken me about five hours to write this post, during which time I’ve done two loads of laundry, written a tweet thread, cleaned out my inbox, and chatted with friends. But that’s fine, because the post is still written and it will still go out to my patrons on Sunday and go up on the site on Tuesday. There’s nothing wrong with procrastination or any other kind of break-taking as long as you do what you set out to do.

Best of luck with the guilt-wrangling, and happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

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2 thoughts on “#64: Kicking the Procrastination Habit

  1. I can’t say whether this would work for anyone else, but here’s what’s worked for me in building a consistent writing practice:

    I started by building a journaling habit – first thing in the morning, when I get out of bed, I switch on the computer and start writing in the Notepad document which is currently acting as my journal. I started this as a thing at five minutes worth of journal writing per day (timed with a timer). After a month at five minutes a day, I switched up to ten minutes a day, then the next month it was fifteen, then twenty, then twenty-five, then thirty. Just writing in the journal, not bothering to try and get work done on any of the fanfic pieces or original stuff I’ve got sitting on my hard drive.

    Next step: adding in a fiction writing habit. Again, start with five minutes per day for a month, working on a particular fiction project (in my case, it’s a long piece of fanfic). Build up to ten minutes a day, then fifteen and so on. I’m currently up to thirty minutes journaling and twenty minutes work on my fanfic project – which means I’m adding something like 500 – 600 words per day to the project every day. Which is great.

    (It also means I have a better measure for how long a university essay is likely to take me to write, as well – if I’m doing something like 500 words minimum in about 15 – 20 minutes, then a 1500 word essay is going to take between 45 and 60 minutes once I get all the stuff I want to say assembled.)

    The reason I think this is working so well for me is because the journaling acts as a sort of “warm up” for the creative parts of my brain before I start working on the formal “writing” bits. By the time I’ve got to the point where I’m going to be working on the fiction project, I’m already in the “flow” state for writing, and I’ve been there for at least twenty minutes, so all I need to do is basically change gears, rather than getting into a whole ‘nother headspace. In addition, by building the habit of writing, I’m making this a part of my everyday life, part of my morning routine, rather than something “special”. That works for me.

    Like

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