We recently did a quick survey through the Ingenium BooksLetter and asked our audience what the biggest pain point was for them on their writing or publishing journey. Of all the responses, most of them can be boiled down to one thing: procrastination.
Just about every author has struggled with writing procrastination at some stage, and this includes the wildly successful ones: Douglas Adams was so good at procrastinating that his editor, Sonny Mehta, famously locked him in a hotel room for three weeks until he finished writing So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish.
You know the drill: You’ve set yourself a goal for when you want your book to be ready for publishing. Maybe you’ve even set yourself a firm deadline. But instead of actually sitting down to write, you find a million other things to do and before you know it, another day has gone by where you didn’t write a thing. And then that deadline comes whooshing by.
So how do you put off procrastination? Here are six tips to help you sit down and get that book done.
Understand why you procrastinate.
There are different reasons why you might be procrastinating. For writers, these include perfectionism, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, too many distractions, being averse to the less fun tasks, unclear goals, or even health issues like exhaustion, depression, or ADHD. It might be difficult to pinpoint exactly what your reasons for procrastinating are but as you start implementing techniques to stop procrastinating, those reasons will become clearer and you can focus more on specific solutions.
Set concrete and manageable goals.
Not having clear goals is a big contributor to procrastination. It’s all too easy to get out of a vague goal like, “Get some writing done by the end of the week.” When you set yourself more concrete goals, make them SMART goals: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound. An example of a SMART goal is, “Write 5,000 words by Friday.” Even better is “Write 715 words every day.” You’ll notice that 5,000/7 = 714.28. I don’t know about you, but I find it much less daunting to generate 715 words than 5,000, but either of these two as writing goals are SMART. They both tell you exactly what you need to do, by when, and is realistic enough that it doesn’t set you up for failure.
A big factor in procrastination is that anxiety-inducing feeling of being overwhelmed: Because you don’t know how you’ll ever get the task done, you avoid starting it in the first place. A solution for this is to make your goals less lofty and to instead break them down into smaller goals. So, instead of saying, “Write 100,000 words by the end of October,” look at your calendar and set yourself deadlines for smaller goals, like a chapter a month, or 5,000 words per week, or 1,000 words per day. Take into account what is realistic for you, given your lifestyle and other commitments, and also give yourself enough time to rest and replenish your batteries.
Define your writing hours and stick to it.
Set aside a specific block of time every day for writing. Treat these like your work hours, so plan your day around them. Think about when you’re most productive when you set these hours: Maybe you get more done first thing in the morning, or maybe you work better after you’ve dropped the kids at school, or maybe you work best late at night when the rest of the world has gone to sleep.
Whenever your preferred writing hours are, though, make a commitment and stick to it. Make sure everyone in the household knows not to bother you during those hours. Then go to work just like you’d go to a regular job. Have something to drink and some snacks at the ready if you need them, put on your day pyjamas if you’re so inclined, close the door, switch off the phone, and Do. Not. Emerge. until you’ve met your target for the day.
The slightest distraction can derail your day’s work, especially if you’re struggling with task-avoidant behaviour like the kind associated with ADHD. So, minimize the risk of distraction by focusing on your specific Achilles heel when it comes to focus. If it’s sounds, for instance, get some noise-cancelling headphones or give the dog a toy to prevent him from barking. If you find yourself staring out the window at that perfect view, draw the blinds. If it’s social media, turn off your notifications until after your writing time.
One potential distraction that you can’t really avoid is research: It’s very easy to go down a rabbit hole and spend hours reading up on things that eventually aren’t relevant for your book. Research is a classic procrastination tool! But you can’t just not do research, since it’s an integral part of writing, especially in nonfiction. A great solution is to set aside research time as well and keep it separate from your writing time. You may also find it helpful to do your research the day before, so you can sleep on it and decide how to incorporate your findings in your writing.
Sure, we said that you shouldn’t emerge until you’ve met your writing target for the day. But writing is an intense activity and you need to give your body and brain a break every now and then. A helpful way not to let your breaks become an excuse for procrastinating is to use the Pomodoro technique, where you set a timer for 25 minutes during which you write with focus, then take a five-minute break, and then set the timer for the next 25 minutes.
Don’t overthink the words. Just get them down.
Especially if you’re prone to perfectionism, you probably know the routine: You write a sentence, delete it all and then write the exact same sentence all over again; rinse and repeat until you’re driven to, well, distraction. However, it doesn’t matter if that sentence isn’t perfect the first time round. What matters is that it’s there. As writer Anne Lamott advises, get that “sh*tty first draft” on paper.
So, learn to embrace the craptastic. Get the words down as they flow and don’t go back to improve them just yet or you might lose the thread. Remember that this is only your first draft. It’s easier to go back and edit a first draft in its entirety than to try and edit when you don’t really know where the story is going yet.
Besides, your editor might not have the budget to lock you in a hotel room for three weeks.