The how-to-stop-procrastinating hack

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Do you need to learn the art of stopping procrastinating? Here is a three-step hack that should make it relatively easy….

I frequently work with writers who procrastinate and delay. They want to write faster and better, and they may even be highly motivated to do it (as a result of pressure from a boss or their own career aspirations). But, still, they delay and postpone. Endlessly.

If you behave this way, too, here is my three-step hack that I guarantee will work, if you can force yourself to do it. That’s not a small “if,” by the way. The steps are easy and straightforward, but you may still have to force yourself to follow them, at least when you start.

1-Set yourself a very small goal for writing. You can measure this goal by number of words (50?) or by time required (5 minutes?) but make your objective so small that you will have no difficulty hitting it out of the park every day. When your inner editor starts to say the following to you:

  • That’s too small and too inconsequential
  • I’ll never be able to succeed this way
  • If I were a serious writer, I’d be able to accomplish 10 times more work than that

….tell it that you appreciate the feedback but you have to ignore it for now because you’re just conducting an experiment. Then, when the internal editor starts judging the quality of your work — and, trust me, it will — say that quality is not the point of the exercise. The idea is to see if you can develop a writing schedule, quality be damned. If you’ve produced your words or met your allotted time, you’ve succeeded. That is the only measuring stick.

2-Maintain this goal for five days a week for at least three weeks. The purpose of this experiment is to establish a writing habit for yourself. Once you fix the habit — so that it feels comfortable and even easy to you — you can think about making it more challenging. You might not need the full three weeks — or, you might need more— but at the end of three weeks you’ll have a better idea about whether it’s safe to increase your time/word-count commitment. Note that it’s always essential to take two days off per week. You are not a slacker because you do this. Instead, you are taking the time to relax and recover and build up your reserves of energy for future writing. I know this may feel ridiculous when you’re writing only five minutes (or 50 words) per day. Who would need a break from that? But the idea is to set yourself up for the future – when you’ll be devoting much more time to writing. Even if you want to write on your “off” days, then understand that you’ll need to wait until a writing day. This pent-up demand to write is actually a desirable emotion because it will make your next writing day so much easier. Enjoy it.

3-Set the same time and place for writing — and try to do it first thing in the morning. I hesitate to be dictatorial about writing in the morning. I know some people are night owls and find they accomplish their best work after 10 pm. I have been both a night owl and a morning lark in the course of my life (and I had no choice in the matter — my body decided without consulting my brain) but there are several reasons why writing in the morning is usually better:

  • We all have more willpower in the morning. Research by social psychologist Roy Baumeister has shown that we awaken each morning with the maximum amount of self-command that we will ever have and that it gradually runs out as each day wears along. Why? The diminishment of willpower is a result of the numerous small decisions that we make every day. It’s as if our bodies will allow us to make only x number of decisions per day and, after that, our decision-making mechanism starts to run down. This is why some famously busy people (Steve Jobs, Barack Obama) seriously limited their wardrobes  —black turtlenecks with jeans and identical blue or grey suits, respectively — so as to reduce the number of decisions they had to make daily.
  • If you accomplish something important first thing in the day, it will invigorate you. Your habit of writing first thing in the morning will set you up for success later in the day: you’ve done something you thought was difficult — the rest of your work will seem easy by comparison. Note that the morning-writing habit will also become a self-enforcing strategy: you’ll feel cheered by your record of writing success (remember: measured only by word count or time) that it will make you happier about working to continue it.
  • We are all more creative the closer we are to the dreaming state. If you wake up and write, that’s as close as you’ll ever get to dreaming while awake. Write in the evening, and your dreaming is many hours in the past.
  • It’s usually easier to keep morning writing times consistent. The phone usually doesn’t ring, and we seldom have other obligations that will get in the way of morning writing times before 9 am.

I am not denigrating night owls! I have been one myself, and I know how tough it can be to wake up in the morning. If you have to write at night, so be it. But if there is any way you can write in the morning — even for just a few weeks — it will help you establish the writing habit.

If you want to improve the quality of your writing, that is a different question entirely. To accomplish that, you need to look into deliberate practice. (I am currently coaching several writers seeking to achieve this goal.)

But you need a first draft, first. And to get that you simply need to produce a small amount of writing each day, day after relentless day.

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My video podcast last week addressed the value of inspiration. See it (or the transcript) here and consider subscribing. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

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I was recently interviewed by Jim Posner for his “Conquer Your Inner Critic” seminar. Jim is a former Wall Street Exec turned Mindfulness Meditation teacher. He interviewed entrepreneurs, executives, creatives and others about how a mindful life can lead to a better life. My interview goes live on May 5, but sign up if you want daily updates as each of the expert interviews is made available.

How much do you procrastinate? What do you do about it? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Kelly Hennessey, the winner of this month’s book prize, Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Wolff  for an April 20/17 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by May 31/17 will be put in a draw for a copy of Metaphorically Selling, by Anne Miller. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.