Procrastination: how to navigate the swamp

Let’s talk about the writer’s bane. The centerpoint of your existence. The thing that refuses to drive everything. Procrastination. 

As a writing coach, I often find myself advising people on navigating the tricky procrastination swamp. “Navigation?” you might ask. Yes. There is no one road through. And procrastination may look a little bit different every day. It’s fickle and sometimes hard to recognize. Staying with the swamp metaphor: let’s say it’s full of will-o’-the-wisps. 

To be completely honest: I’ve been procrastinating rather than writing this post for months. The topic is both complex and beaten to death online. So I procrastinated. If that doesn’t make me an expert, I don’t know what does. But here we are, talking about it anyway. There. I won. 

Procrastination: what is it

I could write an entire blogpost series on this, but you know I’d keep postponing it anyway. Instead, I have a different solution. A few years back I found this TED talk on procrastination. Now, it doesn’t give you much in the way of a solution. But the “instant gratification monkey” is something that’s never left me. It’s one of the more enlightening and entertaining discussions on the experience of procrastination I’ve ever seen. So rather than reading my words, just watch this video (the procrastinator in you will love it!)

How do I recognize it?

So, here’s the tricky one: recognizing procrastination. Our minds are pretty ingenious. We’re great at rationalizing. And 90% of the time I’m procrastinating, I tell myself that what I’m doing (instead of the thing I should be doing) is pretty important too! I will happily follow every bright light that leads me elsewhere. And that would be fine, meandering can teach you a lot. There’s this saying that a student’s house is never cleaner than right before finals. And yes, hygiene is great! But the thing here is: procrastination would not exist if it wasn’t for goals. 

The power of rationalization

If you’re a procrastinator who has goals, you will spend a lot of time being disappointed with yourself for not achieving them. And that, my friends, is when procrastination becomes a problem. If you’ve watched the Tim Urban video above, you’ll be familiar with the instant gratification monkey. But what Tim doesn’t say is that (ab)using our ingenious powers of rationalization, allows the monkey to disguise itself as rational decision maker! It sounds something like this: “No, actually, playing this game on my phone is a great idea right now. You see, I haven’t been feeling great about myself and I need a win. So once I win one game of Candy Crush, I’ll be in a much better place to get started on this project. Because the better I feel, the higher the quality of my work.” Yes, but no. 

Recognize procrastination: assess your priorities

The only way to recognize procrastination, and start the process of avoiding being distracted by monkeys and will-o’-the-wisps, is to be clear on your priorities. What is important right now in light of your goals? What is it you should be doing and why? And yes, if you’re familiar with my blogposts you will have seen this coming. The only way to do that is to break down your goals and plan your days.  

How to avoid procrationation

Now that we know what it is and how to recognize it, it’s finally time to get to the main question: how to avoid it. How do you navigate the procrastination swamp? Well, the same way you navigate anything: with a map and a compass. (I love it when a metaphor comes together!)

Many procrastinators I know do have a compass. They have this idea of where they’re going and know the general direction of this destination (North). But if you want to reach your destination, you also need a map. Now, to use a map you need to know where you are; you need to have marked significant landmarks so you can keep checking on your progress; and you might need to be able to find alternative routes to your destination if you get too lost. And that’s what planning does: it provides you with a map you need to navigate the swamp.

1. Create landmarks: break down your goal(s)

There’s no one straight road to the North Pole. If you want to reach your goal, you’ll have to take a few turns along the way. And to know where to turn, you’ll need landmarks: recognizable markers that tell you you’re on the right track and where to go next. These markers are sub-goals. Reaching them can be an event in itself and you should certainly celebrate having taken the next step on the road to your goal. This will increase your motivation to keep going.

If you want to write a 300 page book in 12 months, for example, you might tell yourself that means you need to write 25 pages per month. Maybe you know that you’re capable of writing 2,5 new pages per hour. So you set aside 10 hours per month to write. And for each hour your goal is 2,5 pages. As long as you manage to use all 10 hours, and reach your goal every hour, you’ll be able to reach your monthly goal. So every time you write 2,5 pages in one hour, you’ll have reached another landmark and can be safe knowing that you’re still on the right track. 

2. Deadlines are a tool

In his TED talk, Tim Urban talked about two kinds of procrastination. He said that the one with deadlines is easy to recognize as it has the panic monster which sets you straight right when you need it. But there’s also a second one: procrastination on long term dreams. If there’s no deadlines, there’s no panic monster and you’ll keep procrastinating until the end of days. And that’s the one most writers suffer from. Unless you have a book contract or collaborate with someone, your time is yours. There’s no strict deadlines. And there’s no one who’ll suffer if you never achieve your dream, right? Wrong. YOU will suffer. 

So here’s the big thing. The one that’s really obvious when you finally realize it. Deadlines are a tool. And they’re a tool you can use! If having a deadline, feeling accountable to someone, motivates you to work toward your goals… Then why not artificially create the situation you need to succeed? Set deadlines for yourself. Tell other people about them. Ask someone to be your boss. (Did someone mention writing coach?) Deadlines are a brilliant tool in your toolbox, you just need to learn how to use them. 

3. Check up on yourself

Once you’ve broken down your goals into very specific deadlines (landmarks) in very short timeframes (one hour or even half an hour), there’s only one more thing you need to do: hold yourself accountable. When you go down a nice rabbit hole (Wikipedia loop, Youtube binge…) you’ll probably lose track of time. Before you know it, you’ll have wasted hours and will feel bad about yourself for even longer. Now, one trick I’ve found very useful is to simply set alarms. 

Every hour, set an alarm and check whether what you’re doing right now is what your planner says you should be doing. If what you’re doing is not on your to-do list for today, stop. Because let’s be honest, you are going to get distracted, no matter what you do. But this way, you can make sure that the most time you can have wasted is only one hour/half hour (or whatever the timespan is you set an alarm for). You won’t have wasted an afternoon on YouTube. You’ll have taken a one-hour break on YouTube before turning back to achieving your goals!

Some final thoughts on procrastination

Procrastination is a swamp, populated by will-o’-the-wisps, instant gratification monkeys and panic monsters. But with a good compass and detailed map, it’s certainly possible to navigate! The best way to do that is to not give yourself too much time to think, or your powers of rationalization will convince you that YouTube binges are a great way to spend your time. Don’t think about what to do next, just trust the list. And set alarms to check whether you’re actually doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Plan and schedule in advance and then trust that your past self knows what’s right. Don’t give your instant gratification monkey a chance! 

If you could use some help, whether that’s in breaking down your goals or having someone to be accountable to, just contact me! As a writing coach I specialize in helping people achieve their writing goals. You can schedule your first free coaching session here.