24 ways to beat procrastination for writers
Have you ever stared at your screen or typewriter or notebook and couldn’t force yourself to write? You had the time block set aside for writing, and you can’t force yourself to get started. Maybe you didn’t even make it as far as the computer. You know what you should be doing, but you just can’t do it.
Instead, you go chat with friends, check social media, clean the house, watch the news, answer emails, play with the dog, pick a fight with housemates about dishes — anything to avoid having to write.
Maybe you even sit down and write an article about how to beat procrastination.
A friend recently asked me for advice on how to stay focused, motivated and avoid procrastination when writing, and fortunately I’ve had more than twenty years of personal experience to draw on, plus advice from I’ve heard from various members of my writers groups about what worked for them.
Here’s my list of top anti-procrastination strategies, some of which may work for you.
1. Make a plan
Sometimes, you procrastinate because you just don’t know what to do. It seems daunting. So make an outline, or a to-do list or a writing plan.
It could be as general or as specific as you want, as long as it gets you going.
I often find that when I’m just thinking about writing, it seems that there’s just too much to do. But when I write down the tasks, it starts to feel a lot more manageable.
Having a plan or outline can also help you overcome writers’ block.
If you’re procrastinating because you’re stressed out over something, address that stress. Sure, you can’t fix the world’s progress with the snap of your fingers, but there’s usually a small step you can take to address the problem.
If you’re stressed out about politics, you can make a small donation to a cause you support. Now you’re doing something about the problem instead of just worrying about it.
If it’s a personal issue, there’s usually some small step you can take to move things forward, like writing an apology note, or making a phone call or sending a supportive text. Maybe scheduling an action will help, like making a date with someone to exercise, or signing up for a healthy cooking class.
You can also ask your doctor for a referral to a therapist, or join an online support group, or call a supportive friend or relative and tell them what’s on your mind.
Do the smallest possible step you can that lets you get back to work. Sure, a day-long hike can help you destress, but if just calling your friend and scheduling the hike for the weekend is enough, then do that instead.
Otherwise, your mind can start playing tricks on you, stressing you out just as you’re about to start writing, so that you spend the day dealing with the stress instead of doing anything productive.
As to why it’s doing that — why some part of your mind is actually trying to sabotage your life — well, that’s a question for your therapist.
3. Clear your mind
Sometimes, you procrastinate because you know what you have to do next, you just can’t think of how to do it. So you’re stuck.
For some people, some kinds of procrastination can actually help get them unstuck. For example, going on a walk, or taking a nap, can make ideas appear. For me, that only works when its intentional. Before lying down, I write down the question I have to answer. Or before going on a walk, I tell myself that I have to figure out the answer to my question.
Sometimes a five-minute meditation or some exercise can help.
Many times, my subconscious obliges and an answer turns up, but it doesn’t always work.
4. Turn your shoulds into wants
You know you should write. You must write. You have to write.
For some of us, when we’re told we should do something, or must do something, or have to do something, we immediately resist. I don’t want to and you can’t make me.
Unfortunately, setting aside time to write can feel as if your calendar is ordering you to do something. Well, you’re not the boss of me, calendar! What are you going to do to me if I don’t do this?
One solution is to reframe the issue.
Instead of saying, “I should write for two hours today,” say, “I want to write for two hours today.”
Instead of saying, “I must finish my chapter,” say, “I want to finish my chapter.”
Instead of saying, “I have to write!” say, “I get to write!”
It might help to write it down before you start. Something like: “Today, I want to finish my chapter because I have so many fun ideas for it. I want to really make the reader feel something when they read it. I want to get closer to completing the book, because then I’ll be closer to seeing in published and holding it in my hand. I want to write because I enjoy writing. I enjoy being creative, and I love the fact that I get to do this.”
You might also take the opportunity to reconnect back with your primarily motivation for writing the book. Do you want to change how your readers think about something? Do you want to give them a break from their stressful lives? Do you want to give them hope? Do you want to scare them? Do you want to tell a story you’ve been holding on to for years?
5. Ask for advice
I often ask people in my writers’ group for advice, or whoever is around my house. Often, just saying the question out loud kicks something in my brain into gear and the answer becomes obvious.
And there’s always the chance that the person you’re asking will have a good suggestion.
But sometimes they don’t, or the friend you turned to for advice is your dog or your plant and they’re bad at communicating.
What almost always work for me is brainstorming.
I write down the question, then start coming up with possible solutions. At first, obviously, I can’t think of any. After all, that’s why I’m stuck. So I start with crazy ones.
My character is stuck in a dungeon and can’t get out. What if a meteor crashes down on the castle? What if a wizard blows it up? What if there’s a solar eclipse, and everyone panics, and all the guards run away?
Open the dictionary to a random page — or use a random word generator — to spark ideas. For example, I did it and got the word “orchestra.” An orchestra could start playing and distract the guards. One of the musicians could sneak in lock-picking tools in with their musical instrument. The cell bars are made of crystal, and the right musical note could shatter them. Fill up a page with ideas then pick one that resonates with you.
Now keep going. Look at each of those ideas and come up with ways to make it funnier, or make it scarier, or make it more dramatic.
That example of the lock-picking tools in a musical instrument could be funnier if the musical instrument was, say, a set of bagpipes that someone else really, really hates and steals so the musician won’t play them. It could be scarier if the attempt to escape, if discovered, could results in both the musician’s and the prisoner’s death — and all the instruments are being examined by guards. It could be more dramatic if the musician is in love with the character, but the character refuses to accept their help. And then you can keep going, ramping up the humor, horror, or drama even further. The musician isn’t just in love with the prisoner — they’re so in love that they plan to kill themselves if the prisoner isn’t released.
7. Mind map
If you’re less of a list person and more of a visual thinker, get a large sheet of paper — or some mind-mapping software — and create a mindmap. Put the core problem in the center, then draw lines in different directions leading to different solutions, and keep going until you fill up the page.
Or you can use your favorite graphics, word processing or spreadsheet program.
8. Use prompts
If you Google “writing prompts” you’ll get endless lists. Pick one and find ways to apply that particular prompt to your particular dilemma.
For example, when I did this just now, I landed at a writing prompt that said “Write a scene or story that includes a character who is a talking animal.” Well, that would probably not have come up if I’d done a brainstorming or a mind-mapping exercise. Talking animal? Really? How would that even work?
Well, if this is a fantasy novel, I can add a talking mouse or rat that lives in the dungeon and can help my prisoner escape.
If it’s a more realistic setting, maybe the prisoner is losing his mind, and thinks that the mouse that shares the cell with him can talk. Or maybe he knows it can’t, but decides that talking to it can help keep him sane. Then these conversations, whether sane or insane, help the prisoner come up with an escape plan.
9. Make a decision
You know your character can do one of two things next. Or you’ve narrowed down your brainstorming ideas to the top two or three, and now you can’t move on. There are pros and cons to every side. You go back and forth, back and forth, and can’t move ahead.
One solution is to toss a coin. If you’re disappointed when the coin lands, then that means that you really wanted the other option, and go with that.
If you’re equally committed to each one then each one is probably just as good as the other, and you can just pick one randomly and move forward.
For smaller decisions, that don’t matter much — or that are easy to fix later if I find I made the wrong decision — this can be a very practical approach.
For bigger decisions, I usually make a chart.
Which option aligns best with the themes I’m trying to address in my writing?
Which option aligns best with the character?
Which option has the best potential for story development?
Which option requires the least rewriting?
Which option is most surprising?
Which option is the most dramatic? Most emotionally satisfying?
Depending on the kind of writing you’re doing, some of these answers will have more weight than others. In some books, you want to pick the most common-sense, grounded, realistic alternative, and in others you might want the craziest, most off-the-wall one.
10. Be a devil’s advocate
Still stuck? Pick the worst possible option of all the ones you’ve come up with. Then figure out how to make it work.
Let’s say that aliens blowing up the castle is somewhere on the list, and is the least likely alternative. It’s a fantasy setting, and aliens have made no appearance in the novel so far. Bringing them in now would be crazy.
Or would it?
Maybe they’re not space aliens, but visitors from another fantasy world. Magical beings from another dimension. And if you want to avoid them coming in at the last minute out of nowhere, plant little clues earlier in the book that this might be coming.
Maybe have a character casually mention other dimensions at one point, and another character can mention that the castle has been attacked before, but nobody knows by who or why. And then the main villain could accuse our prisoner of being allied with mysterious powers that have no place in this world. A few minor tweaks and there you go. Aliens just blew things up for you.
11. Don’t worry about finding the right answer
There is no one right answer.
In fact, for any writing problem you might be facing, there are an infinite number of solutions — and a smaller, but still infinite number of “right” answers.
If your protagonist in trapped in a dungeon in a sword-and-sorcery setting, then maybe “rescued by aliens” isn’t one of the possibilities. But there are a lot of solutions that would fit. Some will fit your novel’s themes better than others. Some readers might prefer some alternatives — but other readers will disagree. Even you might disagree about what option you like better, depending on your mood or what’s happening in the news lately.
Pick one that’s good enough, and move on. Don’t obsess. Don’t second guess.
Like the song says, let it go.
If new information comes up that affects that decision — maybe you find out that sword-and-sorcery books can have have aliens after all — then you can go back and revisit that earlier decision and consider whether it’s worth the rewriting time to go back and change things.
12. Change your mood
Maybe you know exactly what you should be writing, or know that if you just sat down and started the words would come. But you can’t force yourself to do it — you’re not in the mood.
Change your mood.
For some people, music can change your mood. Some writers have custom playlists for their books that put them in the right frame of mind.
Some jogging in place could do the trick. Or some caffeine.
Or moving your laptop outside, or closer to the window. Or putting on a favorite old sitcom that always makes you laugh, but in the background, just close enough to make you feel better, but not so loud that it distracts you from the writing. Bring the cat over to sit on your lap.
I like to use Coffitivity, which is a website that generates a constant stream of cafe background noise.
For some writers, a writing uniform can help them get into the right frame of mind. A special hat, a suit and tie, funky glasses — anything that helps you feel creative, or helps reinforce the idea that you’re a real writer to your subconscious mind.
Some writers have a particular ritual that they go through that helps them get into the right mental place. That could be as simple as getting your coffee and all your writing supplies in one place and shooing out the kids or a whole complicated process involving candles, mantras and headstands. Hey, whatever works.
13. Get better lights
I have seasonal affective disorder, so I’m always mindful about whether I have enough full-spectrum light where I’m working.
But many people see their energy levels go up when they’re exposed to sunlight. If getting some real sunshine isn’t an option, invest in some full-spectrum light bulbs for you lamps.
I used to buy mine at Home Depot, but with the quarantine, I’ve been ordering them online. I have desk lamps and floor lamps pointed at me while I work. I also have this light therapy lamp. For desk lamps and floor lamps, I either buy full-spectrum LEDs or ones that use these fluorescent bulbs.
As an added bonus, having multiple lights pointed at me makes me look better in Zoom meetings!
14. Find a quiet place to write
If having other people around keeps you from writing, find a quiet place to write. That might mean moving to a different room of the house, or going outside, or to a library, or writing at a time of day when other people aren’t around.
If you’re under quarantine, going to a library might not be an option, and you might need to get creative. Some people write in their cars, for example.
15. Work with other writers
If you have people around who are also writing, or doing something similar, it might help to work in their general vicinity — if you’re the kind of person who likes working around others. I didn’t think I was, but after COVID-19 hit, I found out that, in fact, I do work best when other people are around and being myself all day every day kills my energy levels.
So what do you do if you don’t have other people around?
You can turn the TV or radio on low, if that works for you.
What I do is turn on my daily writing Zoom meeting. Yup, I forked over a few extra bucks for the unlimited subscription to Zoom. Now each morning when I sit down at my desk I launch my zoom meeting.
You can see the little Zoom videos in the image above, on my left-hand monitor, on the far right of the screen. Sometimes there are so many people on the call that the vertical window gets filled all the way up.
I think some of the writers on the call pull up the Zoom on their phones, and have it sitting next to their desks, so that they can see us working, and we can see them.
We have the audio on mute, and the chat open. That way, if someone’s dog barks or their phone rings, it doesn’t distract the rest of us, but we can still check with each other in the text chat.
If you want to join our daily Zoom call, email me at [email protected] and introduce yourself. The link isn’t public so that random naked people don’t drop in. If you’re looking for a public meeting, check out my Sunday afternoon Zoom writers group, where we talk about our writing projects, find beta readers, and share advice.
16. Write by hand
If you normally type, trying trying out a draft by hand. Or, if you’re editing or rewriting, print out the pages you’re working on — with wide margins — and make corrections in the margins.
Working with a physical pen and paper uses a slightly different piece of your mind than typing, and could help make it easier to get into it.
Google Docs and Microsoft Word both have a dictation option, and it’s pretty good. Way, way better than the dictation systems we had a few years ago.
And if you like dictating while driving or walking, check out the Otter.ai app. It’s free, works on both Androids and iPhones, and doesn’t drop out of dictation mode each time you pause to think. It even works over engine noise. I used to use it all the time when I drove places.
18. Talk to your characters
Another thing you can do is if you’re the kind of person who thinks when they talk is to have a conversation with your protagonist or your antagonist, or whatever other character that you’re having problems with.
What do they really want? What are they struggling with? How do they feel about how the story is going? What do they think they should do next?
19. Write for five minutes
Set a timer and write for just five minutes. Everyone can write for five minutes.
Then, at the end of those five minutes, if you feel like writing more, keep going.
It can feel a lot less stressful to think about five minutes’ worth of writing than to think about a day’s worth of writing, or even an hour’s worth of writing.
But it’s often that first step that’s the hardest. Once you start, it’s a lot easier to get going.
And even if you stop after five minutes, at least you can say that you’ve written something. So the day is not a total waste!
20. Write in blocks
Another timer-based approach is to set a timer for, say, two hours. Clear off all the other distractions — email, phone, social media — and just focus on your writing for this one uninterrupted time period.
According to Parkinson’s Law, work expands to fill the time available. But the opposite is also true — according to Horstman’s corollary, work contracts to fit in the time we give it.
Set a stretch goal, but a reasonable one. Enough work for two and a half hours, say, and challenge yourself to complete it in two.
21. Find a different way in
You have your to-do list, you’ve sorted it by difficulty, urgency, and how long each task takes to do. But you really don’t want to do that first task.
Maybe what you’ve got is a mismatch between your energy level and what you’re trying to force yourself to do.
You might be in a creative state of mind, but your next task is to look for misplaced commas. Or maybe your biggest challenge today is to tackle the villain’s motivation, but you feel like writing humorous descriptions.
Skip ahead. Do whatever it is that you’re most inclined to do at this point in the day, or the week, or the year.
The important thing is to get started and to make progress.
Once you get into it, and the flow is a-flowing, you might be able to get to the other items later. Or you might save them for a different day, or trade them with another writer, or hire an editor to do them, or even decide that they’re not worth doing at all.
No point in forcing yourself to do something that is very difficult at that moment when something else could be easy and fun.
22. Embrace the horror that is the first draft
I finished my first novella two years ago when a writer friend gave me the best piece of advice ever. She said, “Your writing is shit. Everybody’s writing is shit. Just go with it.”
What she meant is that with the exception of a few lucky people, most first drafts are nightmares. They’re horrible. They’re unreadable. The few people who think their first drafts are great are probably psychopaths who are lying to themselves.
But you can’t have a second draft until you have a first draft. You can’t fix your spelling mistakes until you make your spelling mistakes. You can’t punch up your scene until you’ve got a scene to punch up.
What I discovered after finishing my first draft was that it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. While I was writing it, what kept going through my head was, “This is awful. This is terrible. I can’t believe anyone would ever read this.”
Yes, I was saying this even though I’d been making a full-time living as a writer for more than twenty years at that point. The difference was that I wrote only non-fiction before and this time I was writing fiction. The other difference was that at my day job, I’d long ago developed a thick skin about editorial criticism. Every piece of writing is going to have opportunities to be improved. It doesn’t say anything about me personally, or about my ability. I still get articles back from copyeditors covered in red correction marks. The difference from when I started out, though, is that the corrections are better — instead of fixing blatant grammar problems, the copyeditors are now fixing more nuanced style issues. But the total number of corrections is probably about the same as it used to be, since editors have to earn their keep. And oh, yeah, they’re still finding blatant grammar problems. Because humans, all humans, make typos.
In fact, if I get an article back at my day job that has no corrections in it, it’s usually a bad sign. The editor didn’t have time to go through it, and are just running it without looking at it. If it keeps happening then invariably that means that my writing will stop improving and will even start to slip.
23. The last draft will be the worst
But as bad as the first draft is, it pales to how you’ll feel about the third, fourth, or fifth draft.
It’s just a fact of life. The more you read something, the worse it sounds to you. I’ve made the mistake of re-watching my favorite show too many times in a row once. The first time I watched it, I thought it was genius. The second time, it was trite and predictable. Of course it was predictable — I knew how everything was going to turn out, since I’d just watched the whole thing. The third time, all I could see were the plot holes, the loose ends, and the out-of-character dialog.
The same thing happens when I re-read my favorite authors. If I don’t have enough time between readings, then the book gets worse and worse and worse. Finally, I can’t even see how it was ever published at all. The author made so many mistakes!
If you read the same sentence over and over again – try it now — it will lose all meaning. The letters themselves start to go wobbly. I see this happen all the time when I’m picking a font and go to a font selection page, type in my phrase, and see it written out 200 different ways. After I’ve scrolled through a page or two, the phrase will lose all its meaning.
What that means is that even as your writing gets better with each draft, it will feel to you like it’s getting worse.
Some writers deal with this by giving themselves time between drafts. They put the book away from a month, or a year, and come back to it with fresh eyes.
Of course, you can’t do this when you’re on deadline.
At work, I deal with this problem by not reading my drafts at all. Instead of reading, I look for specific things. Did I spell people’s names right? Is this section in the right place? Do I have too many commas?
I never just sit down and re-read my article. If I do, I develop an instant urge to rewrite the whole thing because it’s so horrible. It’s not horrible. It’s just something that I’ve seen already — because I literally just wrote it. To other people, it’s going to be perfectly new and fine.
It’s like looking at yourself in a magnifying mirror. Yes, you can see every tiny little imperfection and you look like a monster. But everybody looks like that in a magnifying mirror. The minute you see yourself with fresh eyes, you’ll look fine. Or maybe you won’t look fine, but you’ll look a lot better than you did in that mirror.
Another thing you can try if your procrastination is caused by the fact that the more you look at your own writing, the more horrible it looks, is to trade off copyediting with another writer in the same position. Writers’ groups are a great place to find people like that.
24. Ignore all the advice
Every writer has their own approaches, often the result of long and painful experimentation to find what works.
And many of those writers are convinced that their way is the only way.
Write a few minutes every morning, they say. No, set aside two whole days each week to do nothing but write. Write long-hand. No, write with a typewriter. No, write with a goose-quill pen. No, use Scrivener. Create really detailed outlines. No, never write with a plan — that stifles your creativity. Listen to what your characters tell you. Never listen to your characters — show them you’re the boss. Wear a hat. Write outside. Write in an attic. Write standing up. Get really really drunk and then inspiration will come. Do drugs. Smoke cigarettes, lots and lots of them.
The advice is all contradictory. Some of it is just really bad. Most of it is just irrelevant. Just because it worked for one writer somewhere doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you.
If it sounds like something that might fit your style — or you’re desperate and have tried everything else — give it a go. Well, except for smoking, driving, and doing drugs. But all the other stuff.
If you give it a fair shot and it doesn’t work, let it go. Just because something that worked for another writer doesn’t work for you doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. Don’t punish yourself over it.
And about that one guy who claims to get up at 4 in the morning, run ten miles, and then write 10,000 words every day — you do know he’s either a liar or suffering from some serious mental issues, don’t you? Don’t listen to him.
And now I’m going to stop procrastinating by writing about how to stop procrastinating — would that be called procrasti-ception? — and get back to my real work.
Got any other ideas that I’ve missed? Let me know! Email me at [email protected].
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