Most of us have become familiar with the old enemy: the procrastination demon. It sits on our shoulder, whispering in our ear, doing all in its power to prevent us from moving towards our goals.
“You don’t have time for this.”
“Shouldn’t you be [insert chore here]?”
“Even if you do write anything, it’ll be garbage, so why waste your time?”
“Writing a novel is a huge task. You’ll probably never finish it, so why not do something easier instead? There’s a great series on Netflix.”
“How can you be so selfish? You could be with [loved one] right now instead of self-indulgently sitting here pretending you’re a writer.”
Wow, I got a little carried away with that, but my demon and I are well acquainted. These days, it focuses on other things than writing because it knows that battle is lost.
Do you recognise some of those sentiments? Of course, the demon is part of your own psyche, not some refugee from the Discworld, but that makes it all the harder to deal with.
In my view, procrastination is often founded on negative emotions and guilt is the weapon of choice when it comes to putting you off writing. There’s no point denying that writing is a selfish pursuit, as is any activity that doesn’t have an immediate and obvious benefit to others. Procrastination rarely prevents us from going to work because otherwise we wouldn’t get paid, but it’s a whole different ballgame when you want to indulge yourself in a creative pursuit.
“I mean, who do you think you are? Hugh Howey? Your book will probably suck, anyway.”
And there it goes again. It’s all too easy, isn’t it?
The other emotional response is linked to this last round of ammunition. After all, if you don’t finish your book then you can’t be a complete failure, can you? You’ve failed to finish it, but you don’t risk discovering that you can’t write for toffee. Imposter syndrome could be an even bigger issue than guilt. There’s no hiding the fact that putting your work out there is nerve-wracking.
But it’s also one of the most rewarding and wonderful things you can do for yourself. Because, even in the worst-case scenario that the book gets predominantly bad reviews (which is unlikely if you work with an editor and a group of friendly first readers) that in no way undermines your main achievement: you wrote a book. Most of the naysayers gave in to their demon, but you bested it.
So, how do we deal with procrastination? I want to focus on two tools this technique offers that’ll shrink your demon to manageable proportions.
The first is the micro-commitment you’re making. So, when you begin to tell yourself that you don’t have time, your answer should be:
“It’s only ten minutes!”
Writers—including me—can be rather sensitive souls and many of us lack self-confidence, especially at the start of our careers. But it comes to a pretty pass if we think so little of ourselves that we cannot focus on spending 0.7% of a day feeding our creative souls.
It’s only ten minutes.
You can do your chores afterwards. You can spend time with the kids in ten minutes time. Just get the writing done and enjoy a minor victory that contributes towards winning the war.
By committing to the ten-minute habit, then, you arm yourself with the first weapon.
The second weapon is the power of the streak. It’s been this that has seen me through those moments when I really might have fallen off the wagon.
In 2017, my wife, son and I had been to see Yorkshire folk singer Kate Rusby in concert. It was a wonderful but long evening, and we climbed into bed at around 11.40 pm, looking forward to falling asleep quickly.
In fact, my wife was snoring when I realised: I hadn’t written my words that day. I have no idea why, given that I used all the techniques I describe later for making sure it happened. I guess I was mesmerised by the prospect of Kate.
As I lay there, it would have been so easy to shrug and go to sleep. But, by that time, I’d been writing every day for months.
I visualise the streak as an unbroken chain and, even though I was knackered and wanted nothing more than to go to sleep, I hauled myself out of bed, sneaked downstairs, opened up my Chromebook, started a ten minute timer and got the words in before midnight.
It was the streak that got me out of bed that night, and it was the streak that finally beat my demon into submission.
I predict it’ll be the same for you. Once you get past a week of writing every day, that chain will become stronger and longer and harder to break. I’ve written every day for more than three years because of the power of the streak.
This is why I recommend committing to writing for ten minutes per day over 28 consecutive days. I hope that, by the time you finish the four weeks, you’ll simply carry that streak on, strengthening it with every passing day.
But, for now, simply make the 28 day commitment. Once you reach that milestone, you can then take it a day at a time.