I’ve been meaning to write this for ages. It’s been on my list of possible posts for over a year, but I kept putting it off in favour of other stuff. Then around came the new year and it gave me the perfect excuse to stop making excuses and get it done. Everybody procrastinates some of the time, but writers are particularly prone. There may be many reasons for this – writer’s block, for example – but we might just be at the mercy of our brains. If you keep putting stuff off, it can look like pure laziness and a way to avoid work, but procrastination isn’t really about poor time management either.
The truth is, most people procrastinate in order to make themselves feel better in the short-term. You’ll tend to put off doing something either because it’s boring or because it’s too hard and it makes you uncomfortable. This is because there’s a fight going on between two parts of your brain: the prefrontal cortex, which deals with planning and problem solving, and the limbic system, which wants immediate gratification of every passing whim. And this is where we come unstuck.
Procrastination seems to be about the relationship between impulsivity and motivation, and whether you’ll be rewarded for the work. The more motivated you are, the less likely you are to procrastinate. But the more impulsive you are, the more you’ll procrastinate. Generally speaking, we’re not good at delaying gratification. We tend to want our rewards now, not at some future date.
This is bad news for writers.
When you sit down to write a book, you have no idea whether you’ll be able to even finish it, never mind whether it’ll be published. So you’re expecting yourself to feel motivated to do something that’s incredibly hard work with absolutely no guarantee it’ll be rewarded. This isn’t a problem if you’re enjoying the process of writing. But what happens when things go pear-shaped?
Here’s a quote from an old post on Free Your Pen about my struggle with procrastination:
“Here’s the problem: I’m deep into writing my first novel (very bad and doomed to be ignored by everyone), but I haven’t done any actual writing on it for a couple of weeks. I’ve looked at it. Frowned a bit. Made some half-arsed notes about what I think might work. Indulged in a guilt-trip, mentally beaten myself up, and then turned my back and whistled.”
Sounds more like writer’s block. In that post I mused about whether I was procrastinating or percolating. Perhaps the book needed time to stew and I just had to wait. In that case, I wasn’t procrastinating at all. (You can read the whole of that post here: What is Procrastination?)
The real problem here is meaning. If doing a particular task is meaningful to you, then you’ll have no difficulty motivating yourself to get on with it, regardless of whether you’ll be rewarded now or later. If the task is boring or perceived as meaningless (and a lot of the work done in offices around the country every day is both), then you’re going to find it hard to resist the many distractions our culture provides.
The Eight Styles of Procrastination
So what kind of procrastinator are you? Here’s a basic list of the eight main types (some people list 3 or 4 types, while others list 12). There’s probably some overlap between them and your style of procrastination may vary with the task and the reason you’re procrastinating.
Thrill Seeker – you get a kick out of doing everything at the last minute. You may be over-confident of your abilities and think you can wing it. Tend to get bored easily and create crises to spice things up.
Rebel – you hate imposed deadlines and want to be in control of what you do and when. Some tasks seem like a waste of your precious time and you want to retain your sense of individuality. Tend to be impulsive and defiant.
Perfectionist – you want to do it perfectly or not at all. You’re organised and meticulous in your plans but may never get down to work. Tend to make lists and put too much pressure on yourself to get it right. You might also find it hard to finish a task once started because of the need for perfection.
Daydreamer – you would rather think about what you need to do than do it. You may prefer abstract ideas and potentials to messy reality, and find it hard to plan in detail and follow through on your ideas.
Distracter – you get distracted a lot and get bored easily. You may get sidetracked onto multiple projects and tend not to finish what you start. You want immediate gratification and find it hard to concentrate or stay focused on one thing at once.
Worrier – you fear the outcome so avoid starting. You may suffer from excess self-doubt so tend to avoid risk by staying in your comfort zone. Change is seen as something to fear and avoid.
Over-doer – you’re very busy and tend to take on too much. You may find it hard to prioritise your tasks and end up disorganised and overwhelmed. You put off one task so you can do another.
Apathetic – you lack motivation for doing almost anything and everything. You may find it hard to start any task. There could be many reasons, but it’s most likely an emotional blockage of some sort.
Next time we’ll have a look at some of the ways we can deal with procrastination and get stuff done. In the meantime, here’s a cool video by Johnny Kelly you can watch so you don’t have to get back to work:
Image: To Do