Research proves that procrastination isn’t always bad for the creative process. If you procrastinate right, you can use it to solve the thickest of thorny creative problems and actually be more productive. But if you procrastinate wrong, it can send you hurtling into a negative, nail-chewing mind spiral that makes you question the existence of your own soul.
That’s why I think you need to procrastinate on your own terms. And by that I mean take back control of your procrastination and use it deliberately, before it uses you.
But first, we need to understand procrastination a little more. We need to look procrastination in its beady little eyes and get to know it better.
Procrastination is selective
It’s pretty obvious that writers use procrastination as a delay tactic. You put off doing the thing that you want to do (or feel you should be doing) by doing something else – usually far less meaningful and way more frivolous.
But what’s less obvious is why we procrastinate over some things and not others, and in certain situations and not others.
For example, we never procrastinate over things that are immediately fun and pleasurable and nor do we procrastinate when faced with something urgent or threatening. You don’t put off having that third glass of Pinot Grigio because you feel the overwhelming urge to size-order the paper clips in your desk drawer. You don’t get distracted by Facebook when you hear your brand new car being broken into on the driveway.
Of course not. You act – every time. But what’s the difference?
Procrastination is all about ‘stakes’
Procrastination only happens in conditions when the stakes are low at the point of procrastination – when there’s no immediate short-term pain or gain.
That’s the difference.
We’re only affected by it when we feel there’s no urgency to act. When delaying isn’t going to get us into any kind of immediate trouble or give us any kind of quick reward. Even when we know full well that finishing that book, screenplay or 2,000-page life memoir might bring us the long-term happiness and fulfillment we crave – we delay.
This is because writing provides the perfect Petri dish of conditions to let the procrastination gremlins breed like crazy. When we write it’s rare to get an immediate hit of ‘fun’. When we don’t write, we don’t really suffer any immediate pain or loss. And to top all that, writing is a slog – it’s hard going, it makes your brain ache, it can make you question yourself and it can knock your confidence.
So it’s no surprise that we put-off, procrastinate and prevaricate – in fact our ancient monkey minds are probably hard wired to do it. When you think about it, it’s surprising that we do any writing at all.
So what can we learn from all this?
Take back control
The key is to take what we know about procrastination and use it – against itself. Now that we know the conditions which lead to action we need to deploy these deliberately in situations where we typically procrastinate.
For example, we’ve written before about the importance of directed dreaming in the creative process – the idea that if you spend time mulling over a problem before you start then you’re way more likely to come up with more ‘divergent’ creative ideas.
So, if you’re prone to procrastination try deliberately putting off the time you have to start a project. Procrastinate on your terms by mulling over the project first or deliberately stopping half way through – your writing may improve as a result.
Make it urgent
Because we know that we rarely procrastinate about doing things that we need to do immediately or can’t get out of, try making the activity you procrastinate about more pressing.
One way to do this is to use the power of social dynamics and accountability. Fool your ancient monkey biology into believing that finishing that writing project is more urgent than it is. For example, promise your Facebook pals that you’ll meet your deadlines and ask them to hold you to account if you fail. Commit to giving money to a cause you hate should you miss your writing targets.
Better still, promise your significant other that you’ll treat them to a posh meal – but only if you hit a deadline (focus on how disappointed they’d be if you failed to meet it). Point being – raise the stakes. Give yourself something immediate to lose – or gain.
Double-bluff your monkey biology
If you know that you’re procrastination prone you probably have a fair idea of what things you do to delay (my particular faves being: organizing books in size order, downloading BBC recipes, buying expensive outdoor gear which I then return, email, email and more email).
But now you know that – use it to your advantage. Make your procrastination activity the thing you do to reward yourself for completing a writing session.
If you know you get side-tracked by Facebook, plan in a Facebook session every 20 minutes. You’ll be far less likely to get distracted in the now if you know you have a reward session coming up soon.
So, don’t sit there are wait for procrastination to come up and pull you away from your writing – get in first. Now you know why you procrastinate and why you don’t, use this knowledge deliberately to beat your procrastination – before it beats you.
How to procrastinate deliberately:
- Procrastination only happens in situations where there is no immediate urgency to act – where there’s no short-term pain or gain. Use this knowledge against it.
- There’s no point fighting procrastination through gritted teeth – far better to accept it and deploy strategies to use it to your advantage.
- Use your tendency to procrastinate and involve it in your creative process – when you take control of your procrastination you lessen the hold it has over you.
- Use the power of social pressure and accountability to artificially make hitting that writing deadline more urgent – fool your monkey biology.
- Use your procrastination activity as your writing reward – double-bluff your procrastination and use it on your own terms.