In my career, I’ve had generous mentors who taught me three powerful tools to overcome procrastination, restore broken commitments and jumpstart my writing projects. I’m not exaggerating when I say that these methods changed my life. We all have moments of doubt, so please accept this encouragement.
I wrote the first draft of this article while coaching a client about her book. She confessed that she doubted her ability to ever finish. The negative narrator in her mind rattled off a litany of times she had not completed something.
“I know that voice does not have my best interest in mind,” she said. “So why am I afraid to just shut it out?”
We talked about her fears and some of the real obstacles that stood in her way. After our conversation I got thinking about my standby tricks to fix a broken process, especially when I have become mired in procrastination or doubt. Productive Procrastination rears its ugly head all-too-often when it comes to writing projects. But there are ways to face it and overcome.
Tip 1 – The Commitment Formula:
The first tool my mentors taught me is a framework for making commitments. This is important because commitments set powerful forces in motion.
Making commitments seems to draw outside our own abilities, and finishing a job gives us confidence. The thing is, we start off gung-ho but we’re human. Life happens, and we don’t always do what we say. Then the mind’s nay-sayer has a heyday. “You don’t have what it takes. You’re not a finisher. Who do you think you are to take on such a big idea?” Guilt and doubt are destructive demotivators so it’s important to break that cycle. When this happens to me, I have learned to take a breath and dust off my old pal, “The Commitment Formula.” Here are the steps:
- Step 1: Acknowledge it. I own that I have made a commitment, and then did not live up to it. Simple as that. I don’t have to explain all the reasons (although I inevitably want to.) I just acknowledge it to the other person or to myself. I’ve found it makes all the difference to be sincere and humble. Being in communication makes all the difference. Relationships get weird when people are left to wonder what is up, so I must have the courage to clear the air.
- Step 2: Make it right. If breaking the commitment had an impact on someone else, then I need to do what is necessary to make it right. I ought to to forgive myself, (meditative breathing helps me) and move on to the next step.
- Step 3: Recommit. Make the commitment again or replace it with a fresh one, if that is more appropriate for the new reality.
- Step 4: Follow through. Now I must do what I said I would do, by when I said I would do it. If I don’t live up to that commitment, then I’ve gotta keep repeating the cycle until I get it right. I try to keep my chin up and get some encouragement from a friend. I remind myself that there is power in this process so even when I fall short, I try to keep self-criticism from convincing me to throw in the towel.
Procrastination Tip 2 – Beware of “But First” Detours:
The second way to combat procrastination (or resistance, in the words of author Steven Presfield) is being on guard for “but first” traps and detours. You know how it goes, you have something important to do, but first you have to do this one little thing, then one more, then one more. These obliterate the time you had.
Sometimes the “but first” jobs are legitimate but other times, they’re just distractions.
An example of the legit kind of “but first” was when, a few years ago I felt it was important to start doing some writing. I had a few “but firsts.” One was that I didn’t know what to write about. I got past that by saying, “Okay, I don’t know what to write about but on this date, I am going to sit down and write whatever is there. If this really does matter, then the inspiration will come. But my job right now is just to get started.”
So I penciled a date to begin on my calendar. I also felt it was important to clear my physical space, so I spent the week leading up to the date working like a madwoman. I got projects wrapped up at work so I wouldn’t be stressed. I cleaned my house so I wouldn’t be distracted. When the day came I exercised to get my head in a peaceful state. So in short, I got those “but firsts” out of the way but did not put off the date I had made. When the hour arrived, ideas flooded onto my legal pad. That writing session led to my first book.
Sometimes, though, the “but firsts” are just mindless distractions: checking email, piddling around on Facebook, or working on tangent projects that seem like a good idea at the time. Even cleaning the house can just be “productive procrastination.” How do we stop ourselves from getting caught in this trap?
One discipline is turn off all notifications, close email and give a time limit to not do anything else. It was ridiculous how I used to start tweaking like an addict to look at my phone. After the hour I’ll allow myself a minute to check in, get up and stretch or whatever. Then it’s back to work for another chunk of productivity. I often set a timer on my iPad that goes off to tell me when enough is enough. These exercises can be a real wake-up call, but I have found I look forward to distraction-free time now. The day I uninstalled Facebook entirely from my phone was one of my best days this year. I could not believe how much freer I felt from that first moment. I’ve never looked back.
The key here is to recognize that I’ve slipped into a wasteful habit and hit the personal reset before my time window runs out. If not, any inspiration that might have been hanging around will get the hint and move on to where the love is.
Procrastination Tip 3 – Focus Small to Summit Big Projects:
A third reason for procrastination is feeling overwhelmed, and the root cause is that a huge project is impossible to tackle all at once. The tool here is to “break it down.” I know this sounds like a platitude but it takes mental discipline to stop and figure out what very teeny, tiny step is needed next.
As an example, many would-be authors tell me they don’t know where to begin. The task of “write my book” is impossible. My best advice is this: focus on moments. For a memoir, don’t worry about the over-arching story. So to move forward, just think about one of life’s moment and write about that as a self-contained vignette. Then write another and then another. It might make sense to start at the very beginning and go from there, but more often than not, I find that I am inspired by a particular scene and I write when I’m feeling it. Then I weave the over-arching narrative together later. Especially when I am writing a client’s memoir, I may not know what the theme and story arc is at first, but I can write mini stories as I do interviews.
If you have writer’s block, consider asking yourself very specific memory-inducing questions. Here is a list of questions we use in interviews, and you can ask them of yourself too.
As another example of focusing small, I often find I am avoiding a project because the info I need to proceed isn’t at hand. For example, perhaps I need to contact an expert but I don’t know an expert, let alone have a phone number. So I might realize that my next step is to ask around for leads or do some research. Then it’s important to reach out before I stall again. It is so stupid and simple, but I can’t tell you how many times I have been halted for lack of a detail.
Once I have overcome these hurdles and begin working again, momentum starts working in my favor. As my dad liked to say, “You can’t steer a parked car.”
Procrastination tip four – let go of perfectionism
We all have to let go of any notion that our work will be perfect at first (or ever). It will probably be a “shitty” first draft, to quote memoir coach and author Anne Lamott. In Bird by Bird, she notes the following:
“[Perfection] will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”
-Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert reminds me that at some point, I just have to call a piece done. Finish the darn thing so we can go onto making more beautifully imperfect art. She describes the process of working diligently and then letting go and calling an imperfect work done. This is what she means when she says:
“You must learn how to become a deeply disciplined half-ass.”
To recap, four procrastination tips are:
- Recognize the power of making commitments. Use the commitment formula to rectify broken promises, clear the energy and move forward with fresh resolve.
- Beware of “but first” traps. If a “but first” task is important, then get it out of the way and get moving. If it is a distracting rabbit trail, then muster up some discipline and return to the path forward.
- Focus small to summit big projects. Spend the mental effort to break it down into the smallest task possible. Then get to work and let inertia start working for–rather than against–the project.
Okay, I have two more additions to discuss some wonderful books. The War of Art, was impactful enough that I listened to it twice and then immediately listened to The Legend of Bagger Vance, also by Steven Pressfield. I’ll be brief here, but his coverage of “resistance” and ways to combat it by “turning pro” and inviting the muse were some of the best I’ve ever heard. Inspired stuff. If you want a breakthrough in your art or anything, get this book quick fast and now. I’m not even exaggerating. Read it and then tell me if it wasn’t one of the most life changing book you’ve ever read. Get The War of Art on Amazon by clicking here.
- Read this great kick-in-the pants by one of my favorite authors, Steven Pressfield. It’s entitled, “Put your ass where your heart wants to be.”
The power of tiny habits
If you’re going to do this work, then commit right now to figuring out a regular time when you will write. Create a schedule and stick to it, showing up at the appointed time and writing something even if it’s not much and even if it is bad. For great, practical wisdom on how to create a new habit, I highly recommend, Atomic Habits, by James Clear. My other favorite book on winning the battle against procrastination and resistance is The War of Art: Break Through The Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield. It’s genius and I recommend it to all my students. Stephen King’s book, On Writing also has sage wisdom in this regard.
I hope these tools help you leap right over procrastination hurdles and that you can soon have that exhilarating feeling of accomplishment.
Rhonda Lauritzen is the founder and an author at Evalogue.Life – Tell Your Story. Rhonda lives to hear and write about people’s lives. She believes that when you tell your story, it changes the ending., She and her husband Milan restored an 1890 Victorian in Ogden. She especially enjoys unplugging in nature. Check out her books: How to Storyboard, and Every Essential Element. Most recently she was the writing coach of bestselling author, Rob A. Gentile, who wrote Quarks of Light, A Near-Death Experience: What I Saw That Opened My Heart