Of all the problems writers face, procrastination is the most insidious. Sometimes we don’t even know we have a problem with procrastination. We will finish our novel/write that poem/complete that dissertation…We’ll just do it later.
Well, as your dad used to say, “There are seven days in a week, and ‘someday’ isn’t one of them.”
Tell that to your writer friend the next time he tells you for the umpteenth time that he wants to write a screenplay “someday.”
Last week we began our deep dive into procrastination: what it looks like, three of the most common causes, and how to fix them. I also created an awesome free mini-course for you: How to Stop Procrastinating and Write the Damn Book. If what you need is a good kick in the ass and you only have five minutes a day, this is where you should start.
This two-part blog series is meant to supplement the mini-course by breaking down the most common causes of procrastination so that you can identify your reason, break past it, and start writing. (If you missed Part I of the procrastination series, you can read it here.)
Reason 4: Self-Doubt & Perfectionism
Sounds like: I just want to get this right.
I just don’t think my writing’s good enough.
Self-doubt is a really common hurdle that keeps a lot of writers from writing. We worry that our writing isn’t good enough — that we aren’t good enough — and we worry about rejection and ridicule. Or we think that the task is too big, and we don’t have the confidence to believe that we could ever finish a novel or get one published.
Self-doubt can also manifest as obsessive perfectionism. We say that we want everything to be “perfect,” and we use our perfectionism as an excuse to avoid finishing an important project. (I’ve struggled with this one myself very recently.) If it’s never “perfect,” we have to keep revising. If we keep revising, it will never be finished, and so we will never have to risk showing it to anyone else or (God forbid) publishing it.
Self-doubt and perfectionism both boil down to fear. As a species, fear of rejection is woven into our DNA. Social rejection used to be a death sentence — you’d be ousted from the clan and sent into the dark forest — and so we evolved to avoid rejection at all costs.
To persevere in our writing despite fear is the ultimate act of creative courage. But this is easier said than done — particularly if we have been so convincing in the story we tell ourselves about wanting to get the book “just right” that we believe our own B.S.
If you find yourself dragging your feet on what feels like a really important piece of work, ask yourself: How would you feel if you died tomorrow or next week? Would you regret not finishing?
Whenever I’m using perfectionism as an excuse to ignore my most important work, nothing lights a fire under me better than imagining leaving this world without the opportunity to finish it.
Reason 5: Looking Everywhere Else for Validation
Sounds like: I never have time for myself because I am always helping other people.
Ever notice how it’s way more fun to work on other people’s problems than work on your own? I should know. I love giving unsolicited advice. (Look — I’m doing it right now!)
Whenever our friends and family members have personal problems, we feel that we have all the answers. (“Quit your job,” “go to couple’s counseling,” “break up with that schmuck,” “go Paleo,” etc.) As we all know, working on someone else’s problems can be a wonderful distraction from our own.
But there’s a difference between being a supportive friend or family member and being a martyr. And it can be a slippery slope if you have a host of your own problems that you’d rather avoid dealing with.
Let’s face it: Doing the hard work of unpacking our own baggage is no fun. It’s much more satisfying to be the shoulder to cry on because then we get validation. (You’re such a good friend. You were right. You’re the only one who understands…)
This feels so good that it can lead to even more procrastination. We get so wrapped up in the real-life drama unfolding before us that we don’t need to create drama on the page through our writing.
One sign that you are looking everywhere else for validation is feeling run ragged and exhausted by all the “help” you’re giving to others. Now sometimes, people in our lives do need help — particularly if they are going through a stressful life event like a breakup, loss of a job, addiction, or illness.
But if you continually feel exhausted by one specific person in your life and this is a chronic condition (meaning the emotional stress was not triggered by a specific one-time event), you may have become co-dependent on this person. (Or you may be dealing with a toxic individual.) And if you are running yourself into the ground for multiple people, this is probably a sign that you are making yourself a martyr because you need validation.
If this is you, don’t freak out. We all need validation. You’re probably seeking out validation everywhere other than from within because at some point in your life, you were denied validation from the one person you craved it from the most.
Be honest: Whose love did you want the most growing up? Mom or Dad? (Not who did you love the most — whose love were you after?) And who did you feel you had to be for that person to love you?
Don’t feel bad about answering this question. This exercise isn’t just for people who suffered abuse or neglect growing up. This exercise can be useful even if you feel you had the “perfect childhood” and great parents. All kids, no matter how great their upbringing, still feel the need to be validated. And no parent can give validation all the time without raising narcissistic children with absolutely no emotional resilience.
If you’ve identified what you feel you have to be to receive love, congratulations. That was a big hurdle. The next step is to work on giving yourself the love and approval you were denied. No, you don’t have to “earn” approval from yourself by writing your book and proving your worthiness. You are worthy just as you are.
If you can accept this, the writing will come naturally — if only because you’re no longer running around trying to be all things to all people.
Reason 6: Being “Busy”
Sounds like: I would love to write, but I just don’t have time.
Okay…You know I love this one, right? Ripping people a new one for being “too busy to write” is my all-time favorite hobby. (Often I hear this as kind of a snide comment when I tell people I’m a writer.)
Here’s something I’ve noticed: Some of the busiest people I know — people with kids and jobs and aging parents to care for — tend to be the people who actually get sh*t done.
Why? Because these people have gotten used to having a lot on their plate at one time, and they have learned how to manage their time to prioritize what is important. And make no mistake: Your writing is important.
If you consistently feel “too busy,” ask yourself what is making you feel that way. Is it actually your work schedule and/or meeting the day-to-day needs of your family? Or is it all of the extra obligations you’ve taken on?
And when I say extra obligations, I mean things like dinners with friends, extracurricular activities (yours or your children’s) — book clubs and travel soccer are big ones — the slippery slope of endless email, crafting Pinterest-worthy marshmallow snowmen, washing the car, trimming the hedges, or wasting precious time scrolling through social media?
My favorite fake-busy activity? My dad’s obsession with power-washing the garage floor in the dead of winter.
If you feel too busy because you have too many commitments outside of the immediate demands of work and family, you need to start taking things off your plate. And sometimes this means bailing on commitments you’ve already made and letting yourself off the hook.
- Is the potluck going to be ruined if I don’t make that extra dish?
- Is the neighborhood going to explode in a ball of fire if I don’t mow the grass?
- Are my guests going to throw their drinks in my face if they come over and the house isn’t spotless?
- Am I going to be fired if I don’t respond to the tenth group email I received today?
- Is my kid going to be kicked out of school if I don’t volunteer for that PTA thing?
- Is my boss really going to hold it against me if I don’t go on this one work trip?
- Will so-and-so shun me forever if my wedding/baby shower/birthday gift comes late?
If you’ve been procrastinating because you are too busy, your assignment this week is to let yourself off the hook for three things. Use the time you would have spent on those things to write.
Here’s a script you can use if you need to un-commit yourself from things you’ve already agreed to:
I’m really sorry, but I just can’t ________. I was so excited about ________ that I think I just overcommitted in the moment. I still want ________, but I just don’t have the bandwidth for________right now.
You don’t have to mention your writing or that you’re taking time for you right now. Being overbusy and overcommitted is so common these days that whomever you use that script with will understand. If they don’t, it’s probably because they’re overcommitted too and they wish they’d thought of giving themselves an out.
So there you have it — the top six reasons why we writers procrastinate.
If you’ve routinely been procrastinating, don’t beat yourself up about. The purpose of these posts and the mini-course is to help you figure out why you’re procrastinating and give you the tools you need to stop and actually get your writing done. You can sign up to receive 5 free video lessons via email from me, which will walk you through creating your perfect accountability system, creating a writing habit that you’ll actually stick to, and having more productive writing sessions.
Why have you been procrastinating? Let me know in the comments below!