How to Beat Procrastination
Today we welcome back Dave Baldwin to Write from the Inside Out. Dave has beaten back the procrastination bug a few times in his life like we all have. Enjoy his post and book review of John Perry’s The Art of Procrastination.
Ah, yes—procrastination. “I’ll get around to that later.” Much as I hate to admit it, I still procrastinate my writing. Despite my tendency to procrastinate, I have managed to churn out 264,817 words since June 10th of this year. You might get the mistaken impression that I’ve beaten the habit. But, in fact, I have only come to develop a deeper understanding of just how severely my tendency to procrastinate can cripple my ability to write. So, as one can easily imagine, I was excited when a friend told me about The Art of Procrastination by John Perry.
The book is a quick read, and I’m sure that the author understood that a quick read would appeal to procrastinators more so than a thick, unconquerable tome. Those of you who have followed my blog and read my previous posts know that I’m a fan of The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. Like The Art of Procrastination, The War of Art is a quick read—and it’s also broken into short, easily-digestible snippets. (Perhaps that is a message in itself.) One of Pressfield’s central assertions, with which he begins The War of Art, is that the discipline of sitting down to write is more difficult than the act of writing itself. I have known this tendency of mine for a long time, and I’m always looking for ways to give myself a psychological and emotional boost to ensure that the most important writing gets done.
The Art of Procrastination begins by asking us to accept our innate tendency to procrastinate, rather than trying to change or fix it. I found myself nodding my head in response to this. I’ve never believed in trying to fix my weaknesses. Perry suggests instead of fixing yourself, you devise a system of self-management that takes procrastination into account. But he also reframes the problem of organization and goal-setting a bit differently than classic books do. It’s not about remembering what needs to get done; it’s about giving ourselves an emotional incentive to get them done.
I’ve found that I tend to procrastinate much more when I am in a depressed emotional state. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, and Perry acknowledges this also. I have learned some tricks over the years for breaking out of this cycle. The most consistently effective device I have discovered, thus far, is to completely finish something small. It doesn’t matter how easy or simple the task is, as long as I’ve left myself with nothing further to remember to do afterwards. For example, sometimes I’ll reply to an e-mail I’ve been putting off. Sometimes, I’ll mail a letter that’s been sitting on the table next to the door for days on end. But I’ve found that if I can get just one little thing done, even if it’s neither urgent nor important, I will enjoy a slight motivational boost. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but it works most of the time.
In the world of writing, I’ve personally made a commitment to myself and to those following me on Facebook to write an average of 2,740 words per day. The accountability has made some difference, but not as much as you might think. Perry’s work helped me to understand some of the psychology that has allowed me to persist in my writing game despite some considerable setbacks that might have taken me out a few years ago. Without knowing it, I have essentially used my writing game to help me procrastinate less-desirable tasks. You see, while I enjoy writing and letting the words flow out of me, I don’t particularly enjoy getting started writing. Jump-starting my creativity is somewhat like priming a pump on some days. I look forward to writing, but I put off starting my writing for as long as humanly possible.
Perry advocates embracing a procrastinator’s mentality to help create motivation when it really counts. He says that human beings, while capable of making rational decisions, seldom follow through on those decisions. In other words, we already know how not to procrastinate. Most of us generally have a clear set of priorities when we’re honest about it. The problem is that human beings make decisions emotionally. We are all inescapably addicted to feeling good now, and we are all driven to do what will make us feel good, even when we know we will pay a price for it later. But, says Perry, when we learn to understand how this mechanism works within ourselves, we can use it to our advantage.
Here is the other aspect that I appreciated about The Art of Procrastination: the author suggests numerous techniques for using environmental stimuli to modify automatic and emotionally-driven behavior. For example, Perry discusses the differences between “vertical” and “horizontal” filing systems. Vertical systems, by Perry’s definition, involve filing papers away in folders where they are out of sight. Horizontal filing systems, on the other hand, involve putting things in piles or stacks, and keeping them in sight until they are done. Perry says that horizontal filing systems are more in line with the way procrastinators naturally think, and therefore more likely to be consistently implemented.
The final point that I took away from The Art of Procrastination: some tasks should be procrastinated. I’m guilty of jumping right on things that easily could have waited a few days, or even a few weeks. This can burn up energy that might have been devoted to things more deserving of immediate attention. Perry didn’t give me a list of techniques and systems for solving the problem, but a different way of thinking about it. The lingering question left on my mind when I closed the book: how can I train myself to procrastinate more of the things that can easily wait, while ensuring that I will get them done when I absolutely need to? I think that every chronic procrastinator can benefit from asking this question, and from picking up a copy of this book.
I’ll close with one final point about the art of writing. Creative writing is one thing that should never, ever be procrastinated—if it’s your chosen art form. On my better days, I get out of bed and write before I do anything else. These are the days when my best writing gets done. If you are struggling to motivate yourself to write, I would suggest using Perry’s methodology, with a bit of a twist. See what happens if you bump creative writing to the top of your priority list for a day, and procrastinate everything else as long as humanly possible. Even if you only manage to get one paragraph written before the smoke alarm goes off, you will still have won an important battle.
When you learn to consistently win small battles, bigger victories follow. That is the most important thing to remember if you are both a procrastinator and a creative writer.
What has helped you beat procrastination? Please share here!