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A Seven-Step Program for Procrastinating Writers

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity. Andrew Marvell’s poem “To his Coy Mistress”

In the quote above the poet Andrew Marvell was contemplating time’s pressure in another context, using it as persuasive device to bring a lady round, but writers feel time’s weight for other reasons.

Image of Coffee & Donoughts

Step 1

In a recent Washington Post column on “The Writing Life,”

Image of Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers talked about a problem endemic to those who write.

After describing the shed in his backyard where he goes to craft his prose, Eggers said:

And here is where I spend seven or eight hours at a stretch. Seven or eight hours each time I try to write. Most of that time is spent stalling, which means that for every seven or eight hours I spend pretending to write – sitting in the writing position, looking at a screen – I get, on average, one hour of actual work done. It’s a terrible, unconscionable ratio.
Given Eggers’ record as a fairly prolific author and editor, I’m a little suspicious of his claimed 1:7 productivity ratio. Still, most of us who’ve tried to perpetrate writing have had experiences very like his.
When I was in my 20s and working for a magazine where I was expected to pump out a major article each month, I had a pretty fierce case of what some might call writer’s block. I enjoyed doing the research and so would prolong that job indefinitely, anything to put off the terrible moment when I found myself alone at a desk facing a blank page in a typewriter.
Step One

Eventually, I developed an elaborate ritual where I’d go to a McDonald’s or an old-fashioned coffee shop (this was the pre-Starbucks 1970s) and order myself a coffee and one donut. Then, and only then, could I begin to hand-write my first draft. The donut was both the reward and the signal to write. Out of desperation, I’d created a Pavlovian psychological trick that served to get my pen moving. Oddly, the bustle and hum of other people (and that donut) seemed somehow to free me up in a way that a quiet office with a shut door could not. And I was not the only young writer on that magazine who seemed to need a deadline to concentrate the mind.

Writers are famous for wasting time and worrying about it. Here’s Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the British poet and critic, in a typical lament confided to his journal at age 32:
Yesterday was my Birth Day. So completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month.—O Sorrow and Shame. . . . I have done nothing!
As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve realized that this problem does not belong to writers alone, though we do seem to suffer from the most acute cases. There’s a new book on my reading list called Procrastination: The Thief of Time (I’ll get to it some day), in which the editors collect the latest research by social scientists on this vital topic. Another useful piece is a 2003 Psychology Today interview with two experts titled “Procrastination: Ten Things To Know.”
In the years since my donut days I’ve learned a lot about wasting time, developed more elaborate systems for dealing with the problem, and – I like to think – become more efficient.
Step Two
Another key for me is to break down the vast sweep of that seemingly insurmountable blank page into more structured, smaller tasks. James Surowiecki, reviewing Procrastination, describes the problem this way:

But some of the philosophers in The Thief of Time have a more radical explanation for the gap between what we want to do and what we end up doing: the person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person: they’re different parts of what the game theorist Thomas Schelling called “the divided self.” Schelling proposes that we think of ourselves not as unified selves but as different beings, jostling, contending, and bargaining for control.

Jostling selves bargaining for control – that sure sounds like me. And here’s the solution according to Surowiecki:

Since open-ended tasks with distant deadlines are much easier to postpone than focused, short-term projects, dividing projects into smaller, more defined sections helps. That’s why David Allen, the author of the best-selling time-management book Getting Things Done, lays great emphasis on classification and definition: the vaguer the task, or the more abstract the thinking it requires, the less likely you are to finish it.

The horror, the horror

So for me, this means when blogging, a rigid three-posts-a-week plan. A man can get into the rhythm and the compulsion of three posts a week. Tuesday, Thursday, F
riday – a post will go up. Like the seasons, these days are fixed, unchangeable – or so my mind has come to believe.  Another crucial component: someone besides me is watching. Yes, I’m well aware that if I were to miss a blogging deadline, my blog partner Kaze would be on the line before the day was over, and while Kaze is pretty much a pussycat, I really don’t want to disappoint him.

Step Three
Things get more complicated when we talk about writing fiction. Nobody cares if I ever write a story, so I have no external reward, no Kaze waiting for the post to appear. The plan I follow here is one I’ve lifted from Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life: either produce 1,000 words a day, or spend two hours a day doing hard, serious revision of previous drafts. It also helps if I pile on more structure. For example, a recent assignment to self: write a series of very short stories, no more than 500-750words each, all of them about being on the road. Anything that makes the big blank space seem smaller encourages writing.
Step Four
Social media is a black hole, so it must be handled the way you handle nuclear waste – very cautiously, following rigid rules. Every time I go into Facebook or Twitter, I set an absolute limit on how much time I can spend on this visit, usually 15 minutes. When that time is up, I exit. Otherwise, I’ve learned you can get sucked into surfing interesting thought lines across the Web and three hours can pass with very little to show for it.
Step Five
Another trick of the mind: it’s very helpful to keep track of how much time you’re spending on tasks – as if you’re a lawyer and charging a client by the quarter-hour. Since my day job now is a consultant, I’m used to keeping track of time in this way.  The simple trick is to treat your own personal writing – be it your poem, novel, story, blog post, or freelance work – in the same way.
Step Six
Keep a writing log, says Meggin McIntosh of the Writer’s Sherpa Blog. How many words you’ve written each day, how many days in a row you’ve written. The brain likes habit and when it notices that you’ve built a string of 10 consecutive days of 1,000 words on your novel, the odds on your doing 1,000 words on the 11th day go up. I like to call this channeling my compulsions.
Anthony Trollope

So let’s match up these techniques with that grandmaster of productivity, Anthony Trollope, the English novelist who cranked out 49 novels between 1847 and 1882 while holding a day job as a traveling postal inspector.

How did Trollope do it? Routine, habit, channeling his compulsions. Each day Trollope rose at 5:30 a.m. and wrote till 8:30 a.m. His metronomic goal, usually attained, was 250 words every 15 minutes.
Step Seven
And Trollope’s psychological trick, his advice to writers?
Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.
Few of us can be a Trollope, but we can use his methods to maximize our own production.
What tricks do you use?
Writer doing what writers do.
Are you a time-waster? Take Copyblogger’s test to see.
And thanks to Tatyana Gann, author of “How To Easily Remove Writer’s Block in 10 Steps,” for that nice photo of a writer looking out a window.

14 Responses to A Seven-Step Program for Procrastinating Writers

  1. Two suggestions for stealing another few minutes from the morning to devote to your work: 1. dispense with shaving; and 2. there's really no need to button your clothes.

    With warmest regards.

  2. Thanks, AT, well noticed.

  3. Fantastic. I am a Norwegian author who found this while procrastinating. Hugs. The bottom tip is now assimilated and my writing log now says: 24/1/2011: —

  4. A lovely article. I suppose was far from alone in feeling a little funny when I saw this pop up as a Twitter link and then put off reading it for 3 hours so that I could go back to worrying about the fact that I was still putting off writing today.

    Gads.

  5. THIS [WILL HOPEFULLY] INCREASE THE QUALITY OF MY LIFE BY TENFOLDS.

  6. My way of dealing with procras involves applying the old adage that your greatest weakness is also your greatest strength. So my greatest weakness, procrastination is how I make a living: consulting on workplace productivity and personal energy management. Hey, it works! :) Love the post. Helpful, specific, and great quotes. Thankyou.

  7. Thanks to all in this comment chain for your very nice words on this post. Sorry it took me a while to catch up with them.

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  9. I, too, found this on Twitter while procrastinating. Really appreciate the tips though. I think the writing log will be a helpful tool if I can manage to do it, and if I could shut off social media, or maybe the entire internet, I could definitely be more productive. :)

    • Alas, Shawna. We live in a world of social emdia and the Internet, and they can be useful at times. For example, you found this post. Thanks for the nice comment.

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