Why is writing procrastination so hard to overcome?
It’s 12 noon. You’re on your computer browsing through random videos on YouTube. Soon, you stumble upon a lady cooking an interesting spicy shrimp pasta dish.
“Wow, that looks delicious,” you say to yourself. A few hours later and you look at the clock: it’s 4 p.m. You’ve spent hours going through this lady’s library of cooking videos.
You find yourself staring at a blank Google Doc. Paper’s deadline is 11 p.m. sharp. No worries there- you’re a fast writer. You can easily whip up an English paper in seven hours, no biggie.
You click on another food video.
And then another. And another. A friend shared a funny video on Tiktok. So now you’re on the app scrolling through dozens and dozens of mundane vids on your “For You” page.
The document remains blank.
Hours pass, and it’s now 10 p.m. You hastily whip up an 800-word essay about the ending of Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. The writing’s clumsy, the points are incoherent- but hey, at least you’ve managed to get it done.
It’s 10:59. You turn in the shoddily cobbled-together paper and hope for the best. Maybe your professor will take pity on you and see that, at least, you gave it some degree of effort. Nevermind that the effort was borne out of panicked rushing to get the paper done at the very last minute.
As the day ends, you sit there and contemplate, knowing that you’re bound to go through the whole writing procrastination tango again in the next paper, the next essay, the next article, ad infinitum.
Table of Contents
Why do I procrastinate everything?
Just to be clear- procrastination isn’t a writer-exclusive affliction. Almost all creatives have been guilty of dawdling around important work on one occasion or another. Maybe we don’t like the project we’re working on. Maybe we have too many things on our plate. Whatever the reason is, it can all be attributed to human nature.
We humans tend to avoid going through things that can be too overwhelming and difficult for us. If given a choice, we are likely to choose the path that offers the least resistance.
Because as we all know, procrastination and writing often go hand in hand. This is because writing is hard. It takes quite a lot of mental- and in some cases, emotional- effort to regurgitate words on paper.
Procrastination is avoiding difficulty
When you’re faced with a blank page, just the thought of filling it with words can seem like an insurmountable task. So we do other things instead. Other easier and/or more enjoyable tasks like playing a video game, chit chatting with a friend, or scrolling through a social media feed.
There’s also the fact that the reward for finishing a writing project doesn’t come immediately. When you play a game, you’re rewarded with a trophy, a high score, or maybe a cutscene or two. When you look at your Twitter or Facebook feed, you’re rewarded with happy entertainment (for the most part).
With writing, you need to wait. Sure, there’s the feeling of elation when you put the final period at the end of a 25-page research paper. But you often have to wait for your professor’s or your editor’s feedback first before you can really start to appreciate what you have finished.
In the same vein, publishing anything on the Internet means waiting around for people to read and interact with your content (IF they do read it all).
Understanding the cause of writing procrastination
Aside from those we mentioned above, here are some more reasons why people procrastinate on their writing:
Lots of writers are perfectionists. They set out to write for the day thinking that they need to produce The Next Epic Novel. And any writing short of the quality of Haruki Murakami or David Foster Wallace is an embarrassing failure.
So, we obsess over every single word, every single sentence, thinking that they must always be perfect. The words should flow right from the get-go. Everything should come out perfect the first time around.
While there’s value to be had in looking up to and persevering to be like these iconic authors, lots of writers beat themselves up too much over it. They put off writing because they can’t be as perfect as their idols and produce perfect ideas and sentences all the time.
2. Fear of failing and getting rejected
Imagine spending hours and hours of your life on a writing project… only for your readers to dislike it. This is a valid fear, of course. People’s tastes are very subjective. You can’t reasonably expect each of your books to be a universally-loved bestseller. Even popular authors put out duds from time.
3. Getting overwhelmed
So, you have this great idea for an epic fantasy novel. You envision this as this sprawling world, full of unique locations, and with dozens of fully-fleshed out characters with their own backstories, histories, and motivations. It’s going to be like Lord of the Rings, you think, but with less gallivanting in magical forests and more fighting orcs.
Then you start writing and find… that it’s too much. Your brain goes into overdrive thinking about all of those grand ideas that you want to put into writing. You sit in front of a blank page, paralyzed with uncertainty. Do you have enough skill and writing stamina to bring all of your ideas into fruition?
Your ego starts to get wracked by self-doubt. Instead of typing away the first few sentences of your epic fantasy novel you just close the document away and browse Reddit instead.
4. Because you’re too used to it
One of the worst things about being a chronic procrastinator is that sometimes we don’t get punished for it. Yes, writing procrastination is like a self-replicating virus; it can reinforce itself indefinitely.
Take for example, our shoddy rush job of an English paper in the first part of this article. Maybe it’s due to skill and luck (or maybe you really have lots to say about Finnegan’s Wake), your professor graded your work with an A+.
Because we were rewarded for our procrastinating efforts, we feel compelled that it can work the next time around. So we do it over and over again.
It’s not just you – some famous procrastinating authors
Writing procrastination can affect even the very best of writers. It’s not only just students rushing to finish school essays, lots of famous authors are also sometimes known to be chronic procrastinators too.
- Franz Kafka, Czech novelist of The Metamorphosis fame, had a day job as a clerk. You would think he would immediately start writing once he got home, but no, he didn’t. He would leave work at 2:30 p.m., eat lunch for an hour, and then sleep until 8 p.m. He would only start writing a few hours after dinner (11 p.m.), until sleep takes him again by early morning the next day.
- Author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams is famously known for constantly missing his deadlines. He also penned the very hilarious quote that we’re using as a procrastination meme in the picture above.
- Margaret Atwood of The Handmaid’s Tale called herself an expert in procrastination. She sees herself as “lazy”, as she narrated in a podcast with the psychologist Adam Grant. However, unlike Adams, she’s a stickler for time and is a proper deadline-abiding author.
- Famous playwright, actor, and novelist Truman Capote was so plagued by debilitating bouts of procrastination that not even a humongous amount of money can spurn him to write. In the 70s, publishing company Random House contracted him to write a book for them. The contract was for a million dollars. Despite having that amount of money dangled in front of him, Capote was unable to finish the book by March 1981, which was the deadline set by the publisher. Capote died at the age of 59 in 1984, completing only four chapters of the book, and leaving many of his fans disappointed.
Can writing procrastination be cured?
Yes, it can! But only if you’re willing to change your habits and have the drive to see your writing to its very finish.
A quick note: writing procrastination is very different from writer’s block. Writer’s block is what happens when you WANT to write, but are unable to do so. There is some sort of mental or emotional barrier that’s preventing you from putting words on paper. You are motivated and driven to write- you just can’t produce the words. (As an aside, the Leaders Press blog has an excellent post on boosting your writing motivation as well as dealing with writer’s block that you can check out).
Writing procrastination is what happens when you DON’T WANT to write at the moment, despite circumstances. There might be a deadline looming soon, but still you find yourself delaying the very act of writing until the last minute.
It’s possible that these two behaviors can occur at the same time. They may also stem from similar causes (e.g. perfectionism, and fear of rejection).
Strategies on tackling writing procrastination
1. Break the assignment into small manageable chunks.
The thought of writing a 5000-word final paper for a class is intimidating. How will you ever find the energy to start a project of that magnitude?
But if you break the thing down into chunks, then everything becomes easier. Take for example, the introduction. Let’s say you want to allot at least 500 words to it. Here’s how your checklist for that part of the essay can look like:
See how we’ve broken down the 500-word introduction into five parts? One hundred words is very manageable; you can easily write that in a few minutes if you want to. Just a few of these ultra bite-sized writing chunks, and voila! You’re done with the intro.
And here’s an added bonus. Do you know why checking things off a list feels good? Because it gives your brain a brief dopamine rush. And due to the fact that you’re rewarding yourself so frequently, your brain can then start to associate writing with pleasure instead of the dread that procrastinators usually feel.
2. Write badly.
Yes, you read that right. Write badly. Don’t worry about grammar or word choice- everything can be fixed and edited later. Your only goal now is to get something, anything, down on paper.
For the perfectionists among us, this method can be hard. It’s natural for a lot of writers to want to edit their work as they go along. But try to fight the impulse. Avoid perfection.
Pro-tip: get into the practice of writing bad first drafts
Remember, an extremely bad draft is better than having no draft at all.
If you’ve been through a college-level English class, then there’s a high chance that your professor would have made you read an essay by Anne Lamott called Shitty First Drafts. This hilarious essay is practically a classic in university English classes, and here’s why.
A shitty first draft, is exactly what its name suggests. A first draft so bad that you’d be embarrassed to show it to your friends, let alone your editor.
Writing a bad initial draft is the only way Lamott can get any writing done. This draft is oftentimes nonsensical and incoherent. After writing it, she goes through the draft again, and picks out the parts that she can use for the next draft. Like mining diamonds from a dirty coal mine.
If you can’t write because you’re too afraid of not getting it “right” the first time, then be comforted by the fact that even seasoned authors don’t produce elegant first drafts from the get-go.
So let all of those words out. Let it be a mess. Let it be boring and awful. Every terrible first draft is a stepping stone to something great. Once you’re up in the morning the next day, go through everything you’ve written, pick out the useful parts, and then rewrite it.
Always start first and edit later. You’ll start to see that everything will fall into place sooner than you think.
3. Start in the middle
It’s natural to want to start at the very beginning of something. For most writers and authors, this means writing the introduction or the first chapter of a book first before anything else.
But there’s really no rule that says that you MUST start at the beginning. If you’re really excited about writing a scene that happens way later in your book… then write it.
Writing should be enjoyable. If you find yourself enjoying writing the more interesting or more action-packed middle of your novel, then go write it.
4. Use technology to your advantage
It’s funny how technology can be a double-edged sword for writers. Technology can make you procrastinate through games, social media, and what-have-you.
However, it can also help you out immensely! Below are some great examples of tools that can help combat procrastination:
a. Website Blockers (e.g. StayFocusd)
Don’t want Tiktok, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to distract you from your writing? Then remove temptation by blocking them all! A website blocker is a tool- usually in the form of a browser extension or an installable app- that will actively prevent users from accessing websites that they have set in a “blocklist.”
b. Timers (e.g. Pomofocus.io)
Time-blocking, more specifically the Pomodoro Technique, works especially well when you’re battling writing procrastination.
This is how time-blocking works in general. You divide your day into “time blocks.” Each block is to be dedicated to accomplishing one single task alone. The Pomodoro Technique is based on time blocking- but it takes this concept and pushes it even further.
With the Pomodoro Technique, you’re going to be working in 25-minute intervals (also called “pomodoros”). For 25 minutes, you only have to focus on accomplishing one task at a time. Working in short bursts like this means that you can retrain your brain to focus intensely on a single task and not be bogged down by distractions.
A single pomodoro session is long enough to get some work done quickly, but not long enough to feel overwhelming for most people.
The creator of the Technique, Francesco Cirillo, suggests using a timer with an audible ticking sound. The timer instills a sense of urgency, and can help speed you along.
While you can use any ordinary timer you can find in your home for the Pomodoro Technique (a kitchen timer is perfect for this, for example), web apps like Pomofocus provide more customization options.
c. Gamified productivity apps (e.g. Forest, Habitica)
Gamification sounds like a buzzword, but it can work well for people who are gamers at heart. It means treating productivity like it’s a video game, and applying common video game elements like scoring, friendly competition, rewards, and high scores to your tasks.
Forest is a timer with a cute concept: you cultivate virtual trees by focusing on your tasks. If you leave the app before the timer is up, your tree will die and wither away. Successfully completing a session earns you coins… which you can spend to plant real, actual trees!
Habitica, on the other hand, is obviously inspired by computer role-playing games. You list your tasks down as “missions”; each mission completed rewards you with experience points that can be used to make your player-character stronger.
5. Have other people around
“No man is an island,” as the saying goes. Cliche as it may seem, but it’s true.
We sometimes picture writers as these lonely souls typing away their masterpieces in some corner, completely lost in their own little world and withdrawn from the rest of society. Writing IS a solitary activity after all. Most of the time, it’s just you and a blank piece of paper (or an empty Word document).
While there are writers who can write in isolation like this (think Henry David Thoreau when he wrote Walden), the truth is that people are social creatures. We benefit greatly when we’re around people.
But don’t despair yet, introverts. When we say “have other people around,” this doesn’t mean going out and putting up “Wanted: Writing Buddies” posters everywhere (although, you can do that if you want to, no one’s judging).
Just working near other people is enough to spurn you into starting writing. This is the reason why lots of people, especially freelancers who don’t work in an office, like to hang around in coffee shops and libraries.
Just the mere presence of other people alone is enough to boost motivation. You don’t even have to interact or talk to them- just having people around you working on their own stuff can spur you to stop procrastinating. A 1920 study by social psychologist Floyd Allport showed that people have an increased “flow of thought” when they are in a group versus when they are alone. This is true even if the people in the group aren’t working or competing with each other.
The best thing of all, even if you live alone and prefer to work at home, you can still replicate a real-life coworking experience through these apps/sites:
Focusmate works by pairing you up with another Focusmate user that you can cowork with for either a 25 or 50 minute session. You log into the site, choose a schedule, and the system finds you a coworking partner.
Once you’re both connected, you both have to tell each other what you’re going to be doing for the session, and then you start to work. You can mute the audio, but it is vital that you don’t turn off your computer’s camera. Your partner HAS to see you (check out the interesting science why this works in this blog post). Knowing that someone on the other side of the world is working alongside you and being productive with you provides a whole lot of social pressure for you to complete your tasks.
• Study Together Discord Server
Prefer to study in a large group versus the one-on-one sessions offered by Focusmate? Then try hanging out in the Study Together Discord server.
Join the server through Discord, and then pick out any of the server’s “study rooms.” The best thing about this server is that 1) it’s free, 2) it has a huge variety of study room channels that you can choose from, 3) some rooms don’t require you to turn on your webcam..
You can join the regular screen/cam channels where you’re required to either turn on your webcam or screen share what you’re working on. There are lo-fi music channels where you can both work and vibe along with others, plus some private channels if you’re bringing along friends
Final words on conquering writing procrastination
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to writing procrastination. For some people, it can be as easy as turning off their phone and logging out of all distracting social media. For others, it can be harder. They might utilize a combination of the strategies that were mentioned above, or they could even hire the services of a writing coach to serve as an accountability partner.
Your writing habits won’t change overnight. But remember, you just need to keep at it! One small step done today can result in a huge leap in your future productivity and writing success.