Episode 25: Procrastination: How to work with it, not against it
Show notes from Episode 25 of About This Writing Thing. Available on Podbean, iTunes, iHeartRadio, and Spotify.
Hello, and welcome to About This Writing Thing, a weekly podcast about living the writing life. I'm your host, Sayword B. Eller, novelist, short story writer, and podcaster.
This week I'm talking about procrastination. I am, as I'm sure you guessed, a major procrastinator. I've struggled with it for years, but this week's episode has helped me to put it into perspective. I hope it does the same for you.
First, though, I want to update you on my query progress. There is none. I am still awaiting feedback on my revise and resubmit from May. This process takes a LONG time, y'all. I'm not even kidding. I've also submitted queries to a few more agents and even a small publisher. I'm sad to report, sad and a little annoyed, that one query was rejected in just under an hour. This lets me know the agent didn't make it to my sample chapters because my query still sucks. I'm going to be talking specifically about queries in an upcoming episode, so look for that.
If you haven't subscribed to my email list yet, I hope you will, especially if you like this show. Subscribers get a first look at what shows I'll be recording for the month. You can sign up at my website, saywordbeller.com
Now, let's talk about procrastination.
It should come as no surprise that I procrastinated recording this podcast. Late last week I was consumed with school work and writing, and then I decided - for whatever reason - to take a three-day weekend, so I didn't really work on anything Monday. Then Tuesday, as is apt to happen to those of us working at home, I had visitors and didn't get to record, so here I am bright and early on Wednesday morning recording the episode you will listen to in a few short hours.
A few months ago I would've chided myself for not getting this done last week, but today I'm okay with it. Maybe it's because I'm the boss and I'll record my podcast when I damn well please, but it's most likely because I am embracing my procrastination.
So, why do we procrastinate and is it exclusive to us creative types?
The good news is, no, we are not the only ones who procrastinate. The bad news, it might be something that was ingrained in our psyches at a very young age. This is why I tend to agree with Julia Hess's philosophy, just go with it.
As an undergrad I procrastinated on assignments. I would wait until the day before, or the day, a paper was due and hurry through it so that I could turn it in and not be penalized. Sometimes, my procrastination was so bad that I would have to ask for an extension. There's a term for the kind of procrastinator I was in college. More on that in a bit. Upon entering graduate school I decided I wouldn't be a procrastinator. No way, not me.
And the lie detector test determined, that was a lie!
I think in grad school I just got a little better at procrastinating. Well, better at managing it. Let me tell you, it's dangerous being a procrastinator as a history major. All that research! Phew! I would do my research but still wouldn't begin my paper until the day before it was due. I was so mean to myself. Especially when I flunked out of grad school, which had very little to do with my procrastination and more to do with the fact that my heart just wasn't in history. I wanted to be a writer. Sure, I was good at history, but I wasn't good enough and that bothered me. I'd always been good at English, always been good at writing. I wanted to do what I was great at, and so I failed at what I was merely good at.
If the question of procrastination were to appear on Family Feud, the number one answer would be "Fear of Failure". Everyone says it. Alain de Botton says, "work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly." For me, I think this was my problem in grad school. I didn’t feel like I was as good as my peers and I certainly didn't think I was worthy of attention from my professors. I wanted the history degree, but I didn't feel like I deserved it.
I didn't realize it fully then, but Megan McArdle was spot on when she wrote the reason we procrastinate is because "we were too good in English class" (McArdle 2014).
I don't think that clicked for me until 2018 when I transferred from the history program (which I was excelling in) at SNHU to their creative writing MFA program. In the history program I was overwhelmed. It was exhilarating to be so challenged in the history program. I was, after all, good at it. However, I was great at writing and English. When I started the program I was overthinking every single assignment because it seemed too easy. I mean, I went from turning in 8-page papers every week to being required to turn in 2-4 paragraphs.
So my procrastination returned with a vengeance. I was (and often am) waiting until the day my assignments are due to even write them. Two of my best short stories were written in under an hour for class. So when I read McArdle's statement that we were too good in English class, it clicked. When I was a student of history I procrastinated because I was afraid of failing. I didn't feel worthy. But now I procrastinate because I know I've got this. I've always been great at English.
Not grammar, though.
So why else do we do it? UNC-Chapel Hill has a handout for their student-procrastinators that lists 9 contributing factors:
Fear of failure (always #1).
Fear of success.
Fear of losing autonomy.
Fear of being alone.
Fear of attachment.
Because we expect ourselves to be perfect.
Because we don't like our writing.
Because we're too busy.
Because it works.
Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, links procrastination to "fixed mind set" and "growth mind set". Those with a fixed mind set believe talent is a fixed thing, so they dislike challenges because they don't feel like they'll learn anything. Those with a growth mind set love challenges because they feel like they can grow and learn from them. They don't believe talent is inherent, they believe it can be cultivated and nourished and only get better. I don't know if I totally buy this hypothesis, though. What if it really is just a fear of failure or success?
It took Camp NanoWriMo in July 2020 for me to really get my new project started. I'd been thinking about it and considering where to go with it for months, but hadn't quite had that moment where it was clicking. I didn't feel connected to it. Maybe it's because I'm still in limbo with my previous project. I'm querying Catching Fireflies and I don't want to have to stop in the midst of my new project to make edits to my old one. I need to be in the right headspace for the projects I'm working on. So I kept smacking into this brick wall with this new project because the old one is unfinished. It was so bad that I thought maybe I don't have another novel in me. I was afraid of failing before I even began.
What are the ways we procrastinate?
Ignore the task.
Over or under-estimate the degree of difficulty the task involves.
Minimize the impact that your performance may have on your future.
Substitute something important for something really important (i.e. cleaning instead of writing your paper).
Let a short break become a long one (hello, Netflix!).
Focus on one part of the task at the expense of the rest.
Spend too much time researching (UNC-CH).
So maybe it's because we were too good in English class, maybe it's because we're afraid of failure, maybe we're afraid of succeeding, or maybe it's every single one of those things. But what if it's something else?
Julia Hess credits Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird with her epiphany that procrastination is an integral part of her process. She happily admits that she puts off the act of actually writing her articles until the last minute. Hess breaks procrastinators down into two categories: active procrastinators and passive.
Active procrastinators are people who thrive under the pressure of upcoming deadlines. They choose to procrastinate because they know it will help them produce better writing. Something I found particularly profound was when she said that the active procrastinator's awareness of how they lack self-regulation means they often have stronger decision making and time management skills than they realize.
Did you hear that, my friends?
As an active procrastinator, I appreciate knowing this. We're so often told that we must be lazy (that's passive procrastinators, BTW) and that's why we put things off until the last minute. I have to tell you, though, the rush that comes with finishing a 27 page paper you started 12 hours before mere minutes of a deadline is difficult to explain. You're not berating yourself for waiting until the last minute anymore. You're elated that you beat it. You won. The feeling returns when you get an A or B on said last-minute paper. Yes, I actually did this for my senior seminar as an undergrad.
There are all kinds of tricks and tips for managing your procrastination. The Mind Tools Content Team lists 8 Anti-Procrastination Strategies:
Forgive yourself for procrastinating in the past.
Commit to the task: focus on doing not avoiding.
Promise yourself a reward.
Ask someone to check up on you.
Act as you go: complete tasks as they come up instead of putting them off.
Rephrase your internal dialogue.
Do least appealing or most daunting task first. They call this "eat an elephant beetle". Sounds yummy, huh?
This morning I made my bed first thing. I find that when I do that I'm more likely to get things done throughout the day. It's weird that beginning the day with a task does that, but who am I to question my brain?
For me, an active procrastinator, I only do the last three things in the above list. I no longer tell myself I suck for not doing a task immediately. When I have tasks that need to be completed, I think about the time I need to do them and proceed from there. Especially when my day or week looks like this one. I prioritize the tasks and work on them one at a time. My homework will, no doubt, be done on Saturday or Sunday, but I know the discussion post has to be posted tomorrow, so I'll get on that tomorrow morning. I absolutely minimize distractions while working. I put my phone on silent or DND and place it facedown, but I don't scold myself for taking small breaks to check social media or email. I do recommend tackling the most annoying task first. Get it over with and move on, that way you can focus on the less annoying tasks without it eating away at your peace of mind.
I'd love to know some of the ways you manage your procrastination, if you have to. Leave me a comment or send me a message and let me know your best practices.
That's all I've got for this week. I hope you'll join me next week when I talk about a major writing weakness for me, pacing.
Do you have a topic you'd like for me to cover? Send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Thank you for listening. Take care and keep writing!
Resources for episode:
McArdle, Megan. Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators. The Atlantic, February 12, 2014: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/02/why-writers-are-the-worst-procrastinators/283773/
UNC-Chapel Hill. Procrastination. https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/procrastination/
Hess, Julia. How Procrastination is Actually Part of Your Writing Process. Craft Your Content, April 20, 2017. https://www.craftyourcontent.com/procrastination-part-of-writing-process/
Mind Tools Content Team. How to Stop Procrastinating. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_96.htm