A Writer’s Curse: Procrastination

Okay, I’ll admit it.  I’m writing this blog because I just took a procrastination quiz—wanted to find out how bad a procrastinator I was—based on Piers Steel’s new book, The Procrastination Equation.  (Take the quiz at www.procrastinus.com, click SURVEY at top of page.)

I’m an average procrastinator.  Whew!  There’s hope, after all.  It’s not near as bad as I thought.

Unfortunately though, I’m reading the book when I should be studying for my doctoral exams.  I don’t want to study because I’d rather be writing, working on my medieval novel that I’ve been procrastinating about for several summers, despite the fact that I wrote a GREAT, I mean GREAT! first 20 pages in a just a couple hours back then.  Plus, the entire book is now thoroughly plotted out.  There’s nothing left to do EXCEPT the writing.  That first draft.

Oh, how I’ve come to dislike writing first drafts.

Actually, that’s not true.  I like writing first drafts and seeing the pages pile up, which means I’ll be able to mold, modify, and revise soon.  I totally enjoy the rewriting/editing process.

What’s difficult is getting my butt in the chair! 

Typically, I should do my creative writing—or any important big task—first thing in the morning, even before I’ve brushed my teeth.  Personal needs met (relief & some kind of food—hard boiled egg or a slice of toast works) and then commence to writing.  Minimum an hour, but oh, how fast that hour can go.  And I’m so ready to go to work because I know how much I can get done in that first hour when I’m energized.

Problem is I like to stay in bed until I absolutely HAVE to get up to go to work, meet someone, meet a timed deadline.  Bed is too comfortable!  Even when time is my own, I manage to avoid that chair.  And then, golly gee whiz, the day is gone, it’s too late to write because I have to get up early the next day and sleep isn’t one of those things I’m willing to give up, not any more.

I need to go back to Steel’s book and find out how and why we’re “biologically hardwired to procrastinate.”  If someone could just make some kind of tool that can better corral these procrastination moments like braces perform on teeth.

[Major pause while I go back to reading the book.]

Okay, I’m back, and there was a lot of good food for thought. 

Previous learning has taught me that the reptilian brain (where the cerebellum and brainstem resides) is the oldest part of our brain, developed about 500 million years ago.  The mammalian brain aka, the limbic system was developed about 200-300 million years ago.  The cortex was the last part of the brain to be developed, 200 million years ago.  Today, the cortex is the last part of the brain of an child to become fully developed and that doesn’t happen until a child reaches 25.

According to Steel, basically our limbic system (where impulsiveness resides) and our frontal cortex (where our ability to delay gratification and plan resides) are at odds with each other.  Guess which part of the brain is stronger?  The part that developed before the other.  Yup, the impulsive system; and advertisers and our modern-day electronic-driven world heap temptations upon us, all speaking to that impulsive nature that feeds into our procrastination!

College students have it worse than I.  They’ve got a brain that hasn’t reached maturity so their impulse mechanism is much stronger, they’re surrounded by other impulsive-driven students, and they’re generally in an environment where for the first time in their lives, they’re unsupervised with fun organizations and extra-curriculum activities.  It is any wonder that procrastination rules?

Obviously, I need to rethink what I’ve been doing.  If I was smart, I’d get rid of the cable.  I guess I’m not that smart.  I don’t have a major issue reaching my goal to get my Ph.D.  Semester deadlines resolve that issue for me.

Creative writing, however, is another matter.  To break my procrastination habit, I have to consciously:

  • turn off the bell that announces I got e-mail:  I don’t want to be Pavlov’s dog any longer, which means stop checking all e-mail accounts and Facebook while writing.  The Internet becomes a reward instead.
  • turn off the TV when I’m at the computer.  The only background noise I need to here is the birds outside or my own thoughts.
  • perform the writing first thing or in a block of time I have scheduled later in the day purposely for that task, even if only for 10 minutes a day.  I can easily write a page or two in 10 minutes.
  • break the writing project down into even smaller bite-size pieces than I’ve already done.  It’s easy to achieve 10-minute tasks over one that requires half a day’s work.
  • get out of bed when I first wake up.  Use that lolly-gagging half hour to write instead of play the I-wonder-what-time-it-is-without-looking-at-the-clock game.
  • [There’s probably more I can add to this list, but this plan will do for now.]

I do know from experience that it generally takes about 15-20 times before a new habit becomes mine.  I also know that the more I work on a project, the more involved I become, and the more time I want to spend working on it because at some point the pages pile up, and I’m closer to being finished than I was when I wrote that first page.

I’ve mastered the procrastination monster before, so I can certainly do it again.  The fact that I’ve done more creative writing in the past week than I’ve done in several months, nay half a year,  tells me so.

So, what do you procrastinate about?  Are you inspired to make a change?

About Diana Stout

Screenwriter, author, former English professor
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