Confession time: I totally procrastinated while writing this article (I know, the irony in the air is thick right now).
What might come as a surprise to you, though, is that I consciously chose to procrastinate.
I listened to podcasts. I read Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please. I took a nap (or three). I went out with friends. I did all these things while my deadline for the first draft of this article grew closer and closer, each minute ticking by. But I didn’t get mad at myself for not getting started. I didn’t even think about how I wasn’t writing my article.
When you’re in tune with your own writing process, you understand how procrastinating can actually be a part of your process, just as much as brainstorming, outlining, drafting, revising, and proofreading are all steps in the writing process.
In my own writing process, “procrastination” is wedged in between “brainstorming/outlining” and “drafting.”
I love to brainstorm ideas — that’s probably my favorite part of the writing process. I doodle ideas in my planner. I free write, unrestrained by grammar rules or critical thoughts, about an idea for an article. I type out notes on my phone while I’m taking the train to work, or when an idea pops into my mind while listening to a podcast. I talk out my ideas with anyone who is willing to listen.
I also like to create outlines of my ideas, even if they’re just vague lists of things I think I might want to write about.
And once I get feedback on a piece of my writing, I love returning to it, playing with the language, clarifying vague ideas, and fine-tuning some of the clunky sentences kindly pointed out by my editor.
But writing the first draft of a piece? That’s when my impulse to procrastinate is at its strongest — it’s definitely not writer’s block that’s keeping me from writing.
As someone who is a bit of a perfectionist (especially with my writing), I tended to procrastinate when it came down to putting my ideas into sentences that someone might actually read (and judge, grade, or critique). Whenever I was super close to a deadline, my inner critic would come out, and it was bad news.
I’d open Microsoft Word and prepare to really buckle down and write the damn thing, but then my inner critic would scream, “These ideas are terrible and unoriginal! What were you thinking?!” Sometimes, my inner critic would scoff at me: “Your sources are shit. There’s no way you’ll be able to defend this argument.”
On my worst days, my inner critic would whisper in my ear, “You’re so lazy, and you didn’t spend enough time on this piece. This paper/article is going to disappoint your professor/boss, and you’ll never be able to face them again.”
And that’s when I recognized it: my fear of disappointing others was what really drove me to procrastinate.
Over time, and with a little help from my friends (who were also English majors), I started to quiet that inner critic during the drafting process and only allowed it out once I was revising, which was when it was most beneficial for me to critically look at my writing.
But my impulse to procrastinate during the drafting process didn’t disappear. And even though I still made myself feel bad about procrastinating, I would produce pieces of writing that I was proud of (not just papers that I got As on in school).
A lot of my procrastinating — and training myself to accept my habits — happened during graduate school, while I was getting my Masters degree in English, teaching first-year writing (English 101) at a university, and doing a million other things.
As part of talking to my students about the writing process, I would bring in an excerpt from Anne Lamott’s wildly popular book on writing, Bird by Bird. It wasn’t until I was prepping a lesson based on her “Shitty First Drafts” chapter that I took pause while re-reading Lamott’s description of how she would try and get started with writing her article. After writing and crossing out sentences over and over, she’d start to worry, thinking she was “ruined” as a writer, but then:
“I’d get up and study my teeth in the mirror for a while. Then I’d stop, remember to breathe, make a few phone calls, hit the kitchen and chow down. Eventually I’d go back and sit down at my desk, and sigh for the next ten minutes. Finally I would pick up my one-inch picture frame, stare into it as if for the answer, and every time the answer would come: all I had to do was to write a really shitty first draft of, say, the opening paragraph.”
A lightbulb went off in my head — she’s describing procrastination! Even professional writers do it! For once, I felt like I wasn’t a failure; if Anne Lamott did it, then it couldn’t be that bad, right?
Following this description, Lamott explains that it didn’t stress her out to use this method — procrastination and then free-writing a first draft — because it was basically steps in her writing process: “But because by then I had been writing for so long, I would eventually let myself trust the process — sort of, more or less.”
Suddenly, it hit me: If procrastination is necessary for my writing process, and it helps me produce writing I’m proud of at the end of the day, I just have to embrace it.
I started to learn that if I just accepted procrastination as a part of my writing process, and there’s no way to stamp it out, I could lower my stress levels by not being so hard on myself and actually have more fun with writing. Not only is it part of my process, but there is a way to use procrastination to help me grow as a writer.
With the stigma associated with procrastination, though, it’s worth taking a minute to think about why writers do it, since that’s the best place to start with figuring out how to use it to your advantage.
Without going into a whole lesson on the history of procrastination, I’ll just sum it up for you: humans have been wasting time since the Greek and Roman era, and maybe even before that. (Even Chaucer procrastinated on all those Canterbury Tales.)
If it’s a thing people have done for centuries (and millennia), then we can’t really blame our smartphones or social media or TV for distracting us. There’s probably something else going on.
People procrastinate for a number of reasons, but the most common reason, even for really important things in their life, is the positive short-term feelings we receive while procrastinating, which seem to upstage the more distant feelings of achieving our long-term goals.
There’s even been a genetic component discovered; our genes can influence our productivity by making us prone to impulsive decision making, like choosing to watch a show on Netflix because, in the short-term, it’ll make us happier.
Scientifically speaking, psychologists have found that a major reason why people procrastinate is our capability for self-regulation and the desire to give in to our impulses in the moment. For example, if you have an article due in two days, but you have the sudden motivation to go out and run a bunch of errands, you might say to yourself, “Ah, I can write that article later.”
Sometimes we just want to put off an unpleasant task, like cleaning the house or tackling a writing project that we’re intimidated by, so we’ll do anything other than those tasks until the very last minute (like when family is coming over to visit, which is something that might inspire you to clean all the things).
For a lot of people (myself included), it takes an external motivation to really make us feel like we have to complete a task. It’s not just situations where money’s on the line (although knowing someone’s paying you to complete a project might motivate you to get it done sooner) — external motivations are simply anything outside of yourself, like a deadline or expectations set by your boss.
When you’re not able to manage procrastination in your writing process, though, it can become detrimental to achieving goals or meeting deadlines. Giving in to impulses, putting off challenging writing assignments, or requiring an external motivation can all prevent you from doing your best work, especially if you’re not aware that these things are driving you.
But if you enjoy writing (if you’re reading this Craft Your Content article, I’m going to assume you like writing or creating content in some capacity), then why do you procrastinate? Or maybe a better question to ask, how do you procrastinate?
Recent scientific studies have sought to disprove the idea that all procrastination is bad, and they’ve actually distinguished the difference between “active” procrastinators and “passive” procrastinators. When people think of procrastinators, they usually think of people who are lazy and just can’t make a decision, or who don’t act in a timely manner — these are the passive procrastinators, and this type of procrastination can be self-destructive.
Active procrastinators, on the other hand, are people who thrive under the pressure of an upcoming deadline. Even if they experience the impulse to do something else, or they need external motivation, they’re choosing to procrastinate because they know it’ll help them produce better writing.
Their awareness of how they lack self-regulation means they often have stronger decision-making and time management skills, making them a little better at self-regulation than they might realize.
Wait, what? Procrastinators can have good time management skills?
When you’re aware of your impulse to put things off, and you admit that you do this, you can actually make active decisions to procrastinate at the appropriate time. In this way, you still feel the positive effects of doing something enjoyable, and you’ll also create the most efficient work environment for yourself (in terms of having the motivation to complete a task).
Let me preface this by saying that procrastination isn’t necessarily healthy or helpful if you’re missing deadlines or letting your editorial team down. It can also indicate bigger things going on in your life that you may need to address.
If you’re more of a passive procrastinator and you find yourself not using procrastination to your advantage, don’t fret — these tips can help you reclaim your habits in ways that will actually help your writing.
If you’re an active procrastinator (or you suspect you might be one), learning to see procrastination as a productive part of your writing process will hopefully help you build confidence in yourself as a writer.
Returning to Lamott’s idea of writing a “shitty first draft,” the first step in figuring out how to manage your procrastination impulses is sitting down and thinking about your own writing process.
Whether you’re writing an article, a marketing email, or a manuscript, what’s your checklist of things you do throughout your entire writing process, from start to finish?
If you feel like your process is too organic and fluid to be nailed down by a checklist of items, then you’re definitely not paying enough attention to your writing process.
Do you always start by brainstorming with your editor or your marketing team, or do you brainstorm by yourself? Do you prefer outlining, or do you like free-writing all your ideas? Are you incredibly efficient at cutting and revising your piece once you’ve gotten everything written out?
Once you get an idea of your own writing process and writing habits, it’s time to ask yourself the hardest questions: When do you procrastinate? What part of your writing process seems to take the longest?
One of my favorite TED Talks is by Tim Urban, the creator of the blog “Wait, But Why?” In his talk about being a “master procrastinator,” he uses fun metaphors, like the Panic Monster and the Instant Gratification Monkey, to talk about how the panic of deadlines, or disappointing others, is often what sparks us as writers to start writing.
If you experience the Panic Monster at any point of your writing process, and you find it happening over and over, pause there — this may be the part of your process where you succumb to procrastination.
Figuring out the place in your own process where you procrastinate can help you plan ahead for the next piece of writing you’ll produce. Being prepared to face the inevitable and recognizing, “Hey, I’ve done this before,” can also help you feel less nervous when you find yourself in the same boat you were in with a previous piece of writing.
It can also help you determine if procrastination is actually helping you or not. Analyzing your own actions and knowing when you start to feel the panic of a deadline may help you figure out if there’s a different way to approach procrastination within your writing process.
Frank Partnoy, in his book Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, argues that the best decision-making comes from actively not making a decision until the very last moment. In other words, he believes managing procrastination will help you be more successful.
While his examples mostly pertain to business, sports, and dating, Partnoy has an interesting point: managing delay of doing something gives you time to make a more thoughtful decision, if you’re managing it well.
If we apply this to the writing process, writers can schedule procrastination time and manage it by carving out a specific amount of time to do nothing before doing something (writing, brainstorming, revising, etc).
Once you’ve started to recognize your own writing process and procrastination patterns, start to figure out when you feel like you’re producing your best ideas and your weakest ideas.
Is it better to procrastinate during the drafting or the revising process? Do you feel more or less inspired when you’re writing whatever’s on your mind? Do you always need a break between brainstorming and outlining in order to come up with a clearer organization of ideas?
In my case, I feel that my writing is stronger when I’ve given myself some time to procrastinate after brainstorming for an hour, because I need that space between the ideas stewing in my brain and writing out the actual sentences that’ll express those ideas. If I’ve got a week or two to write it, I’ll carve out a day or so of “procrastinating” (but really, I’m just prioritizing other items; it’s not like I spend two whole days watching Netflix… ah, wouldn’t that be awesome?)
When you’ve got a tight deadline, this can be a little trickier to do, but since you know you’re going to procrastinate no matter what, try to place a limit on that time. Maybe it’s just two hours, or once you’re done with a short task, like running a quick errand, cooking dinner, or watching an episode of something.
Manage the delay and keep control over how long you’re delaying the act of writing, and you may feel better about the piece you produce; you won’t feel so guilty about it because it’s in your schedule.
After recognizing how procrastination functions in your writing process, and you’ve scheduled procrastination time into your calendar, you may still find yourself putting things off more than you’d like (or you might feel like it’s not helping your writing process at all).
If that’s the case, another trick to is to give yourself a personal deadline that’s at least a few days (or even a week) before the due date.
This isn’t a revolutionary statement — there are plenty of people who promote this trick as a way to break procrastination.
But what I’m suggesting is that if procrastination is part of your process, and if it works for you, why break the habit? Why not figure out a way to make it work even more in your favor?
Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, recommends mentally placing things on your to-do list (like writing your next article) in the “present” rather than in the “future” to shift the way your mind thinks about timing and deadlines. Creating “now” statements for yourself (“I need to start writing this now”) can help you feel the immediacy of completing a task, rather than thinking you’ve got all the time in the world to start or finish something.
When you make your own deadline for a project that’s a month away, and you set the deadline for two weeks before the real deadline, you’re placing that task in the “present,” tricking your brain into thinking that you need to complete the project “now.” And even if you put it off up until that personal deadline, it’s okay — you’re still two weeks ahead of schedule.
Sometimes procrastination can have a pretty strong hold on you, and it might be hard at first to effectively manage it. Start with setting fake deadlines for yourself — once you achieve that personal deadline ahead of the real deadline, you’ll feel so much relief from accomplishing your task. That feeling can help reinforce your decision to use procrastination in a more effective way.
This method is much easier said than done, though. If you’re the type of person who needs accountability or external motivation, ask a friend or colleague to badger you for that draft once your personal deadline comes around.
As I mentioned earlier, people procrastinate for many reasons. Whether you do it because you’re a perfectionist like me, or you’re just not feeling motivated, it doesn’t make the situation better to berate yourself.
In a psychological study on procrastination and self-forgiveness, researchers found that forgiving yourself for procrastinating can actually help reduce instances of procrastination in the future.
Even though I’m all about embracing your own writing habits and owning them, it’s undeniably helpful to do less procrastinating overall, since it means you’re one step closer to being less of a perfectionist (or being less lazy, if that’s how you see it).
Forgiving myself took me much longer than I wish it had — looking at my habits without judging myself was one of the hardest things to do. It was even harder than breaking some of my most unhelpful habits (like forgetting to pay my bills because I put it off until the deadline… whoops).
In my own writing process, when I’m starting to write my first draft, I always find that some of my best ideas pop up when I’m not actively working — it’s similar to how, for some people, inspiration strikes them while they’re sleeping or taking a shower. If I’m feeling relaxed, I’m more likely to produce creative ideas because I’m taking a break from thinking too hard about what I want to say… so really, procrastination is absolutely necessary for me to fully process my ideas.
It may take some introspection and talking it out with other writer-friends, but if you recognize that procrastinating is what helps make your writing great, then you can start looking at your habits in a more positive light. You’ll probably start feeling more confident in your writing, too!
A tip that might help when it comes to changing your mindset is changing the way you procrastinate.
Maybe you find yourself coming up with great ideas while you’re out with friends — in the midst of a few drinks, you have a really cool thought that you want to incorporate into your next article or your next book. But since you’re putting off writing, you forget to write down that idea, and then it’s lost forever.
Start bringing a small notebook and pen, or use a Notes app (like Evernote) on your phone, so that while you’re out, you have the opportunity to also do a little brainstorming if inspiration randomly strikes. Forming this habit can help you see your procrastination time for what it really is: extra brainstorming time, rather than “wasted” time.
You can also procrastinate by reading or watching material that’s relevant to your subject — I listened to different podcasts on writing to keep my brain thinking about the topic for this article.
When you choose to procrastinate, you can also choose to see it as part of what makes you productive as a writer. Giving yourself some space from your writing, or letting your ideas stew for a while, will feel better when you acknowledge that procrastinating can directly translate to more creative ideas.
Sometimes people procrastinate because they always feel like they’re “on” — in other words, they feel like they never take a break, even though they’re checking social media constantly while they’re working.
Pausing every ten minutes to scroll through Twitter or Facebook actually results in spending longer on a task, making you feel like you need to take a break, even though you’ve kinda been procrastinating on your article or project the whole time. (I’m guilty of this, too.)
Factoring in break time during your writing process is just as important as recognizing how procrastination can benefit you. And I promise, taking breaks from your writing doesn’t make you lazy.
If you’ve been typing and looking at a screen for three (or ten) hours straight, stepping away for a little while can help you return to your ideas with fresh eyes and inspiration.
If you have a tendency to be a workaholic, try the Pomodoro Technique developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. It’s a strategy of managing and maximizing the time you spend working on a task to prevent feelings of burnout and produce stronger writing. (You don’t even need a tomato-shaped timer to do this!)
The basic steps are: pick a task, set a timer for 25 minutes, work on the task until the timer goes off, and then take a 5 minute break.
Sounds pretty simple, right?
If procrastination is getting the best of you, you may find it hard to focus and resist distractions. Allotting specific times to take a break can help you train your brain to focus on your work when you’re “on,” even if it’s only in short bursts at a time.
It’s hard to analyze your own writing process and think more deeply about your own habits. Don’t be afraid to stir up your routine — it’ll help you figure out how to write more efficiently and grow as a writer.
Next time you find yourself procrastinating on a piece of writing, pause and consider some of points from this article:
But remember: Once you admit procrastination is part of your process, you can’t use it as an excuse for why you didn’t meet a deadline. You have to own it.
Just try not to put off managing your procrastination until tomorrow!
Julia Hess graduated from California State University, Fullerton with a Master of Arts degree in English. She has worked as a college writing tutor and instructor, a contractor at a major tech company, and a freelance editor and writer. An avid podcast listener, Julia provides editorial feedback, consultation, and detailed show notes for CYC’s podcast, Writers Rough Drafts.