Don’t Get It Right, Get It Written: 10 Tips for Breaking Through Procrastination

It’s back to school time, which means we parents no longer have to contend with trips to the beach, summer camps that end way too early, and a constant chorus of “I’m bored!” It also means we can finally get back to some serious writing.

Or not.

I’m known as someone who is focused and disciplined, but that’s not how I see myself. I’m a procrastinator, especially when it comes to writing. Too many times I would choose vacuuming return vents or ironing sheets (Something which I’ve never actually done.) over sitting down with my half-finished manuscript. Why do I love to write so much yet sometimes hate doing it at the same time? Perhaps because most activites that are extremely satisfying are also very challenging. (Would I put sex in that category? That’s for another post.)

I rarely get enough writing done in a day to satisfy myself, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. Over the years, I’ve developed or learned a few tricks to get past my creative inertia. None of them work all the time. They’re like a bag full of golf clubs that I pull out one by one, hoping to make it to the green. Many of these seem obvious to me, but that’s because I’ve been doing them for so long. I offer them up to you in print to remind myself that there’s more than one way to skin a first draft.

  1. Find your sweet spot during the day. I’m a morning person. Give me a cup of coffee and a quiet space in the morning and I’m happy. But by two o’clock, I’m pretty much worthless creatively. I’ve come to accept that. I try to get a jump on the writing and get as much done in the morning as I can. It’s much more pleasant to tackle the laundry in the afternoon if I have some good pages under my belt.
  2. The internet is Satan’s handmaiden. If I’m stuck on a scene, character, or even one word, I head immediately to the internet, not to find an answer, but to avoid the problem. What are my friends doing on Facebook? What’s the latest political news? I really could use a new sweater. Next thing I know, hours have passed and I’ve accomplished nothing. I try to turn off the internet if I can, though it’s hard to maintain that discipline. I don’t carry a smartphone because I often get my best writing down on the train commuting to work. No temptations = productivity. (Though it is annoying when the guy sitting next to me is craning to read the hot sex scene I’m writing.)
  3. Set goals, but make them realistic. At the beginning of the week, I write down what I want to accomplish each day. I try to make these goals as specific as possible. “Finish a first draft of chapter 12” works much better than “work on chapter 12.” I try to gauge how much I can actually accomplish. I don’t want to end up short or with too much time on my hands. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
  4. Change your venue. Write in a different room, or just a different chair. Write outside. Go to a cafe. I even used to sit in a nearby hospital’s lobby.
  5. Dress for success. I was watching American Ninja the other day. (One of my guilty pleasures.) A woman contestant said she wore a superhero pajama top to bed so that every morning, when she looked in the mirror, she felt inspired to do great things that day. I haven’t tried that one yet, but it’s definitely on my list for the future.
  6. Find a writers’ group. Nothing helps spark creativity like the knowledge that it’s your turn to get critiqued at your writers’ group. If you can’t find one that’s right for you, start one. If you don’t have time to meet in person, join one on the web.
  7. Take a Break, but don’t make it too long. Take a day off to catch up on chores or go to a museum. Go on vacation. Lie on the beach. It’s good to get away from the page, but too many writers I’ve known turn breaks into long hiatuses that last months or even years. If you don’t have an agent or editor, nobody’s going to be calling to ask when you’re going to finish the book. You have to be your own taskmaster.
  8. Don’t be fooled by creative distractions. I know writers who seem to spend the majority of their time working on their web presence, or writing a press release for the PTA, or creating a one-woman show based on the unpublished novel they wrote 10 years ago. It makes you feel creative when you do these things, but are you really distracting yourself from your more important goal, to be a novelist?
  9. Write more than one book at a time. This can be dangerous because if you have too many projects going, you might not finish any of them. But sometimes I’ve found it helpful to work on more than one book at a time. If I’m stuck on one, I can turn to the other and keep the creative juices flowing.
  10. Don’t give up! Almost every writer procrastinates. It doesn’t make you a bad person. If you find yourself avoiding your writing, forgive yourself, make another pot of coffee, and get back to it. You’re a writer, dammit! You can do it.

Best wishes,