5 Principles to Remember as You Battle the Demons of Creative Procrastination

I’ve been practicing my starts. And I’m not talking about the opening paragraphs.

I mean, the actual act of sitting down and starting.

There’s a reason why people say that half the battle is showing up. People who want to write can be divided into two groups: those who actually do it, and everybody else.

I fight on a regular basis to stay in the first category.

These are some of the things I’ve learned in my ongoing battle with procrastination:

1

Talk nice to yourself.

Seriously.

It’s so easy to beat yourself up because in theory, writing should be easy. All you need is pen and paper.

So when days slip by and we don’t write, and we keep not writing, we tell ourselves what lazy idiots we are, what losers, which makes us feel even worse about ourselves, until we start to wonder why we ever thought we could do this in the first place.

This attitude is not what you might call ‘productive’.

And the reason for that isn’t just because it takes a sledgehammer to your self-esteem. It gives your sly, monkey mind exactly what it wants: an excuse not to work, to go lie on a mental beach somewhere and sip a mojito and watch the sexy people.

If you tell yourself, I didn’t write today, thus I am a loser, that statement has a way of morphing into, I don’t have to write today because I am a loser.

Not only does this let you off the hook of doing the work, it also nurtures this other idea: I could have done it if I’d applied myself except I never applied myself. So by telling yourself you’re a loser, you can also allow yourself to believe that you’re a genius of untapped potential.

That monkey mind is tricky.

2

Respect the task at hand.

When we sit down to write, we’re not just making something of nothing, which is formidable in itself.

We are engaged in nothing less than the act of making meaning. Of giving reason and order to the world around us and in our heads.

It’s important to respect that. Climbing Mount Everest is difficult; it’s easy to understand why a person might want to put it off.

Writing a story or a novel is your own personal Mount Everest.

Have respect for the fullness and richness of that; let it sink through you; understand that you can do it, but only if you’re properly equipped with, among other things, the right attitude.

If you don’t respect the mountain, the mountain won’t respect you, and if it becomes a battle between you and the mountain, guess who wins?

3

Beware the fight-or-flight response.

There’s a very primal part of our brain that hasn’t changed since the days we were drawing pictures on cave walls (or, more likely, procrastinating). This is the part of the brain that activates our fight-or-flight-or-freeze response to threat.

The problem is, this part doesn’t differentiate between a charging bull or a blank computer screen awaiting your first paragraph.

All it knows is that you’re stressed, and if you’re stressed, there’s probably something close that wants to eat you.

So it kicks into gear for the good of your own survival. It tells you to freeze — to back away from your meaning-making, personal Everest — and fly into a different activity, such as shopping (or some other stress-relieving, potentially addictive pastime).

4

Get things off your mind: write them down.

One of the smarter things I did this year was buy David Allen’s book Getting Things Done.

Six months later, I actually read it. Allen is a wise dude, and a very good writer, and I can’t recommend his books enough. But that’s not the point.

The point has to do with Allen’s observations about multitasking.

Multitasking, he says, is a myth (and here, by the way, is a study to back that up). The brain can only concentrate on one thing at a time. People who appear to multitask aren’t doing many things at once so much as efficiently switching their attention between various tasks.

Shortly after reading Allen, I read another book called Brain Rules that devotes a chapter to the issue of attention and our delusion that we can, say, drive safely and text at the same time.

Like money, like time, we only have so much mental energy to spare.

So if you’ve got ten things on your mind — buy cat food, buy a new house, pick up the kids, resolve that fight with your spouse, go to Paris, etcetera — you’ve already overloaded it with stuff it’s trying to concentrate on all at once.

Turns out it really sucks at this.

When left to its own devices, the mind weighs everything equally, so that buy cat food becomes just as important as write compelling and socially relevant novel (and no doubt it is, to the cat).

You want to work on that love scene, but your mind keeps turning back to Purina Chow, because it’s worried that you will forget and Snowflake will starve to death or take to the streets and join a roving cat gang or something.

When you rely solely on your mind to remind you of these things, your mind takes that responsibility very, very seriously. And if you treat it as a bucket to fill with all those thoughts of tasks that need doing, the mind flits from one thing to the next, trying to remember, remember, remember.

...don't forget to buy the dog a bed...

It gets stressed out.

It gets tired.

Allen’s solution to this is to collect everything that’s in your mind and put it in a safe place. All those tasks and goals and dreams taking up space in your head, costing you mental energy — write them down.

This is only one part of Allen’s system, but you might be surprised by the power of it. If your mind knows that it no longer needs to focus on cat food because you wrote down ‘buy cat food’, it will release that concern and move on to something else. It will put that energy and focus into, perhaps, thinking about your book. This is why

5

It’s good to do morning pages.

I”m talking about The Artist’s Way author and teacher Julia Cameron’s practice of sitting down first thing in the morning and filling three pages with stream-of-consciousness writing.

No self-censorship, no attempt to write stylish, compelling prose, no attempt to be ‘interesting': just move your hand across the paper until you’ve filled three pages without stopping, even if all you’re writing is “I need to fill three pages and this is a crappy task and I hate it and feel stupid and want to eat pancakes” over and over again.

I do this. I don’t do it everyday and I don’t always do it in the morning — my pages have a way of becoming afternoon or evening or midnight pages. I found this practice incredibly helpful for several reasons.

It got me back in the habit of writing, of sitting my ass in the chair and applying fingers to keyboard, and after some major life upheaval and personal drama (a.k.a. “getting divorced”), I needed to be brought back to basics.

I leveraged that habit into the writing of actual fiction, including the story I sold to a zombie anthology that came out in October (including stories by King, Gaiman, and Brite) and the novel I’m working on now. In the process, I uncovered a love and excitement for writing (and for writing about writing) that I feared had been exhausted.

I found new direction and vision for myself.

And I also discovered that the act of ‘morning pages’ calms me, and I think it’s because I often find myself writing out lists of things I need to do and want to accomplish, whether it’s for that day, that week, that month; whether it’s notes for a scene in my novel, or a half-baked idea for some vague future screenplay, or the drawers in the bathroom cabinet I want to clean out and the boxes of books to donate to various libraries, or the kind of home and family life I want to create for my sons.

Morning pages serve as a clearinghouse for the mind.

There’s something about taking all that internal stuff and making it external, collecting it on paper so that the mind doesn’t have to try to hold it anymore, that makes it easier for me to write about the people and events that don’t exist anywhere except in my head.

–Justine Musk
check out my blog Tribal Writer (in the Digital Age)

9 comments to 5 Principles to Remember as You Battle the Demons of Creative Procrastination

  • Great post, Justine. I find #4 really works for me. Off to tackle my Mount Everest…

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  • These are some very useful tips! Thank you for sharing this! :)

  • Sharon

    It’s all spot on. Esp. the Mt. Everest reference. ;)

  • This is really, really, really, really solid stuff.

    And another thumbs-up for #4. Interesting: There are two polarities in approach for task/time management … bottom-up, ala Allen’s GTD system, and top-down, exemplified by Tony Robbins’ RPM system … but central to both of them is that brain-dump capture phase to clear the clutter and minutiae from your head. I too find it hugely helpful.

    Never have tried morning pages, although I’ve had The Artist’s Way sitting unread on the shelf for waaaay longer than it took you to get to GTD. I tend to be such a perfectionist that I’ve always feared I would get too caught up in trying to make them something more than what they’re supposed to be. But, you know, this has been a nudge to give that a try this week.

  • Aww, adorable doggie pic! I hope he got a bed eventually.

    GREAT advice all around. Thank you. It’s good to know that I (usually) already do most everything you listed, but sometimes it’s even better to be reminded to (always) do it.

    The one thing I don’t do is the “morning pages,” and maybe I should start. I was forced to do it at a writing workshop I went to, and like you said, it actually turned out out to be good for me, even when what I wrote was useless.

  • I always wondered why I’d stop to check for breaking sports news in the middle of chapter. I’ve used #4 to be able to get back to sleep when I woke up in the middle of the night with my head spinning. It’s amazing how effective the clearinghouse can be. Thanks for the post!

  • I’m in week 10 of The Artist’s Way (tried it a couple of years ago, but bailed by week 5), and I’ve found that the morning pages have opened up a small hole in the dam that has held back my creativity the last couple of years. I’ve stopped calling them “morning pages,” since I also tend to write them in the evening, or yes, at midnight. Hurray for midnight pages!

  • Marg

    Lots of great advice. I couldn’t agree more about how helpful Morning Pages are. They flush some of the dross from my mind and somehow I feel clearer and more ready for the day. I don’t always do them but I’ve found that I get more writing done on the days that I do them.

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