The Publication Coach
A friend of mine once emailed me despairing over her very bright teenager’s inability to finish an essay. The essay was already late and the teacher had assumed that “perfectionism” was what was keeping the teen from completing the work.
I wrote my friend back right away to let her know that perfectionism was likely not the culprit. I learned this wisdom from Piers Steel, author of the terrific book The Procrastination Equation. He says—and I agree—that perfectionists are usually less likely than others to procrastinate. “They tend to be organized; and that organization, actually, is a protective strategy,” he told me.
The real problem for those who procrastinate, he suggested, is impulsivity. I like to use slightly different words. I say that those who can’t settle down to write are unable to “delay gratification.” On the surface, this might sound strange. After all, what could be more gratifying than handing in a piece of writing that is overdue?
Well, try social media. Watching Netflix. Gaming. Talking to friends. Reading a novel. Even, editing the piece you haven’t yet finished writing! (Can you tell me you’ve never done any of these things when you should have been writing?) So many beguiling temptations are ever so much more appealing than writing a first draft.
So, how do you stop procrastinating? How do you persuade yourself to delay the gratification of other easier, more enjoyable tasks? Here is my five-step advice:
Step 1: If you are late with something, accept your punishment or penalty and then make a realistic plan.
Don’t ever try to spend eight hours straight writing. Figure out how many words you can reasonably write in an hour (this will be different for everyone) and then divide this hourly number by that total you have to complete. This will tell you how many hours the job will require. Then, make a fair and sensible plan for fitting enough of this time into your life.
Recently, for example, I was late with a job for a client. Embarrassingly, this was not because I was procrastinating but because I’d forgotten about the job! After some quick calculating, I figured it would take me one hour of writing so I set my alarm for one hour earlier than usual the following morning. I did the work and I also gave my client a 50% discount. (In my case, the punishment followed the plan.)
Step 2: Don’t edit while you write.
This will just make writing take longer. Hang a towel over your computer so you can’t see what you are writing. When you write, write. Always edit later. Remind yourself: no one need ever see your first draft so it doesn’t have to be perfect! Here’s a list of tips on how to break the editing-while-you-write habit.
Step 3: Work with a noisy timer.
The sound of a timer in the background will help you stop procrastinating by reminding you that you’re supposed to be writing —not reading Facebook or surfing the Internet. For me, I no longer perceive the noise to be distracting. Instead, it’s a comforting reminder that I’m doing what I should be: writing.
Step 4: Start small and give yourself small rewards for small accomplishments.
If you hate writing something, write for just 15 minutes and then reward yourself with five minutes on Facebook. Or a specialty coffee. Or a walk in the park. Then write for another 15 and reward yourself with five minutes of talking to a friend. Be sure to keep a timer going for both the work and the reward!
Also, if you really hate the writing job in front of you, or if you’re incredibly late, you should also consider a punishment. If you plan to write for 15 minutes and fail to do so then resolve to make a donation to a political party or cause you abhor.
Step 5: Be sure to give yourself a suitable reward for finishing your writing job.
I like to buy myself books. You might prefer flowers, a good bottle of wine, or, if you’re a school kid, a video game or even tickets to a movie.
Sometimes we all procrastinate. But remember: procrastination is the thief of time. If you’re letting this robber steal your life, spend the few minutes it will take to make a realistic plan. Then, delay your gratification long enough to ensure you get your writing done. ∞