As a writer or creative person, you’ve experienced the all-too-familiar dance with procrastination.
You know the drill:
You stare at the computer; the blank page stares back.
When the words don’t flow, instead of prioritizing your article deadline, you check your social notifications, trending news, your email. You can’t resist opening those time-sucking group text threads from friends and family.
And to avoid that all-important, going-nowhere chapter of your novel, you make coffee, check the weather forecast, and don your boots to walk the dog (again).
When you run out of pressing tasks, you feel a sudden urge to organize the junk drawer and clean the lint trap in the dryer.
So, why are you drawn to procrastination?
Why is it so difficult to manage?
How do you beat procrastination?
In this article, we’ll take a hard look at the dynamics of procrastination, exploring its psychological, emotional, and neurobiological origins. We’ll also address practical, scientifically proven strategies for overcoming it.
In no time, you’ll have the tools you need to take back control of your creative process.
Are you ready to create a healthier, more fulfilling relationship with your writing?
Let’s dive in.
Procrastination, at its core, is the act of delaying or postponing action.
For writers, settling down to work demands mental clarity, creativity, and motivation – a tall order– making it an easy target for procrastination.From the outside looking in, procrastination may seem like a simple choice, the result of laziness or a lack of discipline. But those who find themselves powerless understand the complexity. Click To Tweet
From the outside looking in, procrastination may seem like a simple choice, the result of laziness or a lack of discipline. But those who find themselves powerless understand the complexity.
Procrastination is not so much a state of doing nothing as it’s a state of doing something else: the lesser tasks, the more enjoyable diversions, the things we convince ourselves are important in the moment while the true priorities pile up, ignored but not forgotten.
Procrastination is as varied as the individuals it affects, yet common feelings arise:
- a sense of unease,
- a gnawing awareness that time is slipping away,
- a rising fear surrounding an already daunting workload expanding by the hour.
In most people, procrastination causes a low-level guilt; however, it’s not enough to push you into action. There’s a deceptive comfort in procrastination, a familiar, almost reassuring rhythm in the cycle of avoidance, diversion, guilt, and panic.
Why We Procrastinate
Procrastination comes easy because it offers immediate gratification and relief from the stress and displeasure associated with challenging tasks.
It provides an escape route, a quick, dirty fix.
Yet, what makes procrastination easy to adopt also makes it difficult to overcome.
The habit has a reinforcing nature:
Each time we give in to the desire to delay, we strengthen the neural pathways associated with procrastination, making it increasingly difficult to resist in the future.
Additionally, the dread associated with the task we’re avoiding tends to magnify with time, further compounding the reluctance to start. The cycle continues.
There’s also a psychological component to the difficulty of overcoming procrastination.
Completing our work forces us to confront uncomfortable truths about ourselves: our fears, our insecurities, our perceived inadequacies. Often, it’s easier to avoid taking action than to face these challenging emotions head-on.
Ironically, understanding procrastination is the critical first step to overcoming it.
Recognizing its roots in our human psychology, acknowledging the discomfort it shields us from, and accepting the irrational comfort it provides, can empower us to break the cycle.
What Procrastination Looks Like
For a writer, procrastination begins with an innocuous delay, an urge to wait for inspiration, for perfect conditions to arrive.
Often, writers camouflage procrastination in productive disguises.
For example, you may find yourself doing “research,” disappearing down internet rabbit holes, reading countless articles, or watching YouTube videos related to your subject matter, convincing yourself of each activity’s importance.
You might compulsively edit a single paragraph, obsess over finding the perfect synonym, or engage in formatting adjustments — all forms of “productive procrastination,” allowing you to feel like you’re making progress, while the bulk of the task remains untouched.The human mind is remarkably adept at self-deception when it comes to procrastination, and a writer's rationalization can take many forms: Click To Tweet
The human mind is remarkably adept at self-deception when it comes to procrastination, and a writer’s rationalization can take many forms:
“I write best under pressure,” you may insist, remembering instances of last-minute creative bursts. You tell yourself you’re waiting for your muse, despite knowing that writing requires more perspiration than inspiration.
You may even disguise procrastination as practicality, telling yourself, “I’m not ready yet. I need to let the ideas percolate.”
You invite further procrastination each time you prioritize perception rather than actual productivity.
For instance, you may gauge your productivity by the time spent thinking about the writing rather than the actual output or word count. You might point to the “related” tasks you’ve completed — the research done, the emails answered, the workstation tidied — and consider yourself productive, overlooking the reality that you haven’t yet written a word.=
You’ll say, “I’ve always managed to meet my deadlines,” while discounting the late hours, the compromise in quality, the toll taken on your mental wellbeing.
Breaking free requires confrontation.
The Science Behind Procrastination
Research suggests that procrastination begins in the brain, particularly in areas responsible for self-regulation and emotional management.
According to a study conducted by Gustavson et al. (2014), there’s a genetic component to procrastination, suggesting that traits such as impulsivity and procrastination have a shared genetic factor.
Procrastination might not reflect poor time management, but rather, a difficulty in managing emotions and impulses (“Genetic Relations Among Procrastination, Impulsivity, and Goal-Management Ability”).
In terms of cognitive processes, Pychyl and Flett (2012) discuss the role of “time inconsistency,” referring to prioritizing short-term gains over long-term benefits, a concept also known as temporal or delay discounting.
Human nature prioritizes immediate rewards, often leading to procrastination (“Procrastination and Self-Regulatory Failure: An Introduction to the Special Issue”).
This cognitive bias also intersects with emotional factors.
Sirois (2014) found that individuals often procrastinate to cope with negative emotions linked to a task, a concept known as “mood repair” or “emotional regulation.” The immediate alleviation of discomfort becomes a short-term gain that people prioritize over the long-term benefits of task completion, thereby contributing to procrastination (“Procrastination and Stress: Exploring the Role of Self-compassion”).
Sirois’s study also links procrastination to lower levels of self-compassion, suggesting that the harsh self-judgment associated with procrastination can compound stress, creating a vicious cycle that further entrenches procrastination habits.
Psychologists point to a variety of strategies to combat procrastination, including self-compassion, mindfulness, and goal setting.
Tice and Baumeister (1997) suggest that improving emotional intelligence and developing better coping strategies for negative emotions could be key in mitigating procrastination (“Longitudinal Study of Procrastination, Performance, Stress, and Health”).
Procrastination is a complex, multifaceted behavior deeply rooted in our neurobiology, cognitive processes, and emotional management. Understanding these mechanisms can help in developing effective strategies to overcome procrastination and improve productivity.
How to Overcome Procrastination
Writers at all levels grapple with procrastination.
However, through the application of specific strategies, writers can regain control over their time, improve productivity, and foster healthier relationships with their craft.
Here are six strategies to overcome procrastination:
Break Tasks into Manageable Chunks
Writing projects can be daunting, especially when viewed as monumental tasks. Breaking the project into smaller, manageable parts makes it feel less overwhelming and more approachable. For example, if you’re writing a novel, you might break it down into chapters or scenes. If you’re working on an essay, start with the introduction or a particular body section. Completing each part gives a sense of achievement and progress, propelling you forward.
Use Time Management Techniques
Techniques such as the Pomodoro Technique or time blocking can be effective in combating procrastination. The Pomodoro Technique involves working in focused intervals (usually 25 minutes), followed by a short break (5 minutes). This provides structure and allows regular, scheduled breaks to avoid burnout. Time blocking involves scheduling specific times during the day for writing, fostering a routine and ensuring that dedicated time is set aside for the task.
Set Clear, Achievable Goals
Rather than setting vague goals like “write more,” set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals. For example, “Write 500 words daily for the upcoming chapter for the next two weeks.” This provides a clear road map. It also creates a sense of urgency that can enhance motivation.
Create a Conducive Writing Environment
A clutter-free, comfortable, and dedicated writing space can make a big difference. The absence of distractions enables better focus. A dedicated writing space also creates a mental association that when you’re in that space, it’s time to write, further combating procrastination.
Practice Mindfulness and Self-Compassion
Mindfulness involves being present in the moment and acknowledging your feelings without judgement, which can help you understand your reasons for procrastination.
Are you anxious about the task? Are you afraid of failure?
Identifying these emotions can help you address the root causes of your procrastination. Coupling this with self-compassion, which involves being kind to yourself when you encounter setbacks, can reduce the guilt and negative self-talk that often accompany procrastination.
Sharing your writing goals with a friend, mentor, or writing group can increase your sense of responsibility and motivation to meet those goals. Regular check-ins can create a sense of external accountability, and feedback from others can provide additional motivation to help you navigate obstacles.
Overcoming procrastination comes down to understanding your own barriers and implementing strategies to navigate them.
With these techniques, you can reclaim control over your productivity, reduce the stress associated with procrastination, and enjoy the writing process again.
How do you cope with procrastination?
Join the conversation below.