Viewing time: 3 minutes and 32 seconds
How to break procrastinating habits? The Write Question is a weekly video podcast about writing that I started in 2017 and that ran, more or less weekly, until April 2022. This is a republication of the issue #5, about how to stop procrastinating, which ran on Feb. 17/17.
Welcome to The Write Question, the video-podcast designed to answer your questions about writing. I’m Daphne Gray-Grant.
Today I have a question from Bethany Lynch from Seattle, Washington. She’s a Master’s student in English and her question relates to her desire to break procrastinating habit. Here’s what she wrote: “I have to write my thesis. How do I break my terrible habit of procrastinating about everything?”
When I wrote my own thesis back in 1979 it was a deeply traumatic event. I delayed and procrastinated and even sought an extension, which my professor refused to give me. I finally finished the project by locking myself in a room and writing for three days straight with no sleep. Even though I did it, I DON’T recommend that approach.
For anyone who struggles with procrastination, I have three tips:
#1: Do your hardest work first thing in the morning. This is because we all have the most willpower first thing in the day. Research by American Professor Roy Baumeister has shown that SLEEP resets our stores of willpower. I like to imagine our willpower as an hourglass that’s turned over after every sleep. And as soon as it’s turned over the millions of small decisions we need to make every day cause more sand to tumble through the hourglass. And I’m not talking major decisions! I’m talking about dumb little ones — like what clothes to wear, what to eat for breakfast and what route to take to work. So, if writing your thesis is going to take willpower then work on it first thing in the morning, when you have most of that precious commodity.
#2: Use mini-goals. Do you know the famous joke, “how do you eat an elephant?” Answer: one bite at a time. Writing a thesis is the same thing. I don’t know how long your thesis needs to be but let me guess you’ll require at least 40,000 words. You can’t write that in two days — no one can. Instead, give yourself a small and reasonable DAILY goal that you can do over a stretch of time. For example, if you write 450 words a day for 88 days you’ll have 40,000 words in three months. I know you’re an English student but get out your calculator and do some really easy math to make this work!
#3: Give yourself frequent rewards. Now, this part of your homework isn’t painful — it’s fun! But it’s also important. The rewards don’t have to be expensive, either. If you’re an English student, I’m guessing you enjoy reading novels. So you can reward yourself with an hour’s worth of free reading — something UNRELATED to your thesis! — for every hour you spend writing. Or maybe you can go buy yourself a latte. Or go to a movie with a friend. Or go for a walk in one of those beautiful Seattle Parks. There are lots of presents you can give yourself that don’t cost very much money but that will still feel like a reward. Just remember that you need to EARN the reward, so don’t give it to yourself until you’ve done the work.
Finally don’t forget the words of American aphorist Mason Cooly who said, “Procrastination makes easy things hard, and hard things harder.”
I’ll see you next week
Thanks for your question, Bethany. Good luck with your thesis. If YOU have a question for me, you can email, tweet, or skype me — details in the description. And don’t forget to like the video and subscribe so you can catch this podcast every week.