I know you’re serious about your creative work. Whether or not that work is your job, your self-generated projects are the key to your future self.
Which is why it’s so crazy that when you sit down to face that work (if you even get that far), you squirm and end up on social media or watching some TV show, just wishing that you would stop procrastinating.
You feel like you “need” to get stuff done on your self-generated creative project so you say no to something you actually want to do with family or friends… or you go, but then spend the whole time angry or anxious, thinking you should be off in your writing cave or whatever.
Why is it so freaking HARD to stop procrastinating?? You’ve got the notes app, the post-its, the bullet journal… (I mean, it’s here somewhere, under the unopened mail, maybe?), the Day-Timer, the habits tracker, the kitchen timer, the carrot, the stick…
All those tools can work when you use them in the right place and the right time. But these tools are each treatments for one small manifestation of your avoidance of your creative work. In order to figure out how to stop procrastinating, you have to tackle the larger reasons you’re doing it in the first place.
Treat the underlying problem, not just the symptoms
Imagine you went to the doctor with fainting spells, a pounding headache, spots in your vision, and a fever, and your doctor says, “well, take some aspirin for that fever, and the rest of it will probably take care of itself…”
You would find a new doctor.
But what that Bad Doctor did is exactly what you’re doing when you download a new to-do list app because you feel totally out of control of your time. A shinier to-do list will not fix the underlying problem.
But how do you do that?
You need to uncover exactly what’s stopping you, so you can put in place a plan to address those specific obstacles and stop procrastinating.
The core principle I teach to creative people struggling to stop procrastinating is CONSCIOUS DECISION.
There are two parts to this concept.
Part one: Conscious. Know what is in your life and what your goals are.
Here’s a little story about how my lack of conscious decision hobbled me…for years.
When I was 28, I moved to Mexico City with my now-husband, the cartoonist Matt Madden. We moved as curious young artists, not for jobs, but for the experience of living abroad. It was an amazing time. I loved learning Spanish (most of the time), exploring the city, meeting our amazing friends.
I also loved that the small amount of freelance illustration and comics work I’d managed to find while working full time in Chicago could pay for my life in Mexico. The exchange rate meant even small dollar incomes would stretch a very long way. I got to quit my job for the first time since I’d started working at 15.
That fact had many consequences, both good and bad. One of them was a bit of both: Suddenly, my habit of sleeping teenage-late on weekends could happen all week long.
And it did. I would frequently sleep until 11 a.m. or noon, noodle around until late afternoon, do a bit of work, eventually eat dinner around 9 or 10 p.m., either go back to work or go out with friends, and get to bed at 2, 3, or 4 a.m.
I had forgotten this fact for a long time, but recently I was looking at Matt’s book 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, which takes place in our Mexico apartment and revolves around the question, “What time is it?”
In the comic, it’s 1:15. But I looked harder, and I finally realized, it’s 1:15 a.m.
Matt and I are both at work at our desks, as though it’s midday, but it’s the middle of the night. For the last ten years or so, I’ve gotten up around 7 a.m. every day, so this was kind of a shock.
Then I thought back: We loved to cook and eat and drink and go out with friends. That meant, in our schedule, that we often knocked off work at 7 or 8 p.m.…which, given our start time, was more or less the equivalent of “noon.”
No wonder I got so little done and felt so terrible about it. On other nights, I had to skip the fun in order to work, and I was pissed off to be missing out.
Part two: Decision. Use what you know about your life and goals to face and make the necessary decisions.
If I wanted to have nice dinners and a social life, and also to get my creative work done, I had to actually get my ass out of bed at a decent hour and get to work before lunch.
Maybe a lot before lunch.
Getting there took years, by the way. I pushed the needle bit by bit (and then had a baby—bingo).
Honestly, it took many too many years. If I’d been a lot more conscious about how my schedule was a huge part of what caused me to procrastinate, how it was interfering with both my work and the rest of my life, I would have felt empowered to make the necessary tradeoffs, and I would have done it. I just didn’t get how much my unconsciousness was affecting my quality of life!
Realizing that you are capable of making conscious decisions about your life is a powerful force for happiness.
But “consciousness” alone isn’t really enough. You also have to face the fact that most of your heaviest lifts feel that way because they hide a dilemma inside.
Why can’t you stop procrastinating? A dilemma.
Late-20s me faced a major dilemma: I loved to live the nightlife, loved to sleep in, and more importantly, I wanted to squeeze all the juice out of the incredible experience of living in Mexico City.
I also had a ton of work to do for clients and major, huge creative goals that would take me to the next level. I’m not just speculating about that. Achieving these goals did, indeed, take me to the next level professionally (for example: creating my first full graphic novel, La Perdida).
They also took me several extra years, and a hell of a lot more angst, to finish than they actually needed to.
All because I was unwilling to make the tradeoff.
No, that’s not right.
The problem was that I thought the tradeoff was life experiences vs. creative goals. That tradeoff I was unwilling to make, and for good reason! But because of this, I suffered from guilt when I was out and resentment when I was in the studio, and took way too long to do anything (when I finally did stop procrastinating).
If I’d only known that the REAL tradeoff was everything I wanted vs. teenage sleep schedule… I’d have made that tradeoff in a hot minute!
Which is not to say it wouldn’t have been painful. Believe me, it would have been very painful.
This is called a “dilemma.”
What I realized as I was writing my new book, Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in your Daily Life, is that this framework could really help us understand why we procrastinate.
A dilemma, narratively speaking, is not just a decision to make; it’s a situation where there are several options, all of which carry serious, non-negligible, competing tradeoffs. Meaning, when you choose one option, you specifically lose out on the other options.
Narratively, dilemmas are very useful. Characters facing dilemmas grab our hearts and attention, and we feel along with them as the struggle with how to move forward.
Dilemmas in real life are a lot less fun.
The reason we love to see characters grappling with dilemmas is because our own real dilemmas are so freaking hard. We want to know how others deal with them, to help guide and gauge our own decisions.
Every choice you make, every time you prioritize one thing over another, there are corresponding sacrifices you make. Opportunity cost, certainly. But sometimes the tradeoffs are financial, emotional, or relational.
Whether you are willing to address those tradeoffs explicitly or not is beside the point. They exist.
What dilemmas look like in real life
Continuing to work versus staying home with small children is a dilemma many people face. Either choice involves both great benefits and painful realities.
Choosing your job over being home with the kids? You might experience guilt, worry, difficulty managing child care providers, the high cost of child care, lack of flexibility, and missing your kids.
Choosing being at home with the kids over your job? You’ll miss out on money, quiet, prestige, and feeling effective and appreciated as an adult with an advanced skill set.
Even if you attempt to solve your dilemma by picking a third way—working part time—that choice also comes with tradeoffs, requiring you to find child care for when you’re not available while also suffering from limitations on your job prospects and reduced income.
The decision whether to work on your novel or watch Netflix sounds like a no-brainer, yet if you drill down and realize it’s truly a dilemma, that minimizes the guilt and anxiety of choosing. There are real benefits and real costs to each choice.
Choosing writing over Netflix? You make progress that will give you a sense of pride. But you have to live with the discomfort of facing your work and all the feelings that come with that.
Plus you’re giving up your “free time.” Major willpower depletion.
Choosing Netflix over writing? It’s a nice break and it allows you to share in the social bonding that comes with watching the new shows, but now you have to live with guilt and self-blame for the writing you haven’t done.
The problem is not enduring the discomfort of the tradeoffs that come with the decision to stop procrastinating. You’re tough. You can handle it.
The real problem comes when you don’t decide
…When you don’t at all understand and face what sacrifices your actions (or non-actions) will entail, and instead let whatever happens, happen.
In other words, your worst problems result from when you have a dilemma before you, and you don’t face that fact and make the hard decision; instead you just close your eyes and do whatever occurs to you…which will almost certainly be neither of the competing choices at the heart of your dilemma.
The reason a fun activity like watching Netflix can lead to feeling horrible about yourself is not because you don’t deserve free time. It’s because you feel out of control of your choices, and that’s because you didn’t consciously choose anything.
(And yet you did choose, by watching instead of doing something else.)
The reason you’re not making your creative work isn’t because you have no time…
… And I’m not saying you’re not busy.
It’s because you’re like me.
I was living in a fantasy world in which I imagined one day I’d wake up and have a room of my own, or a month off from work, or an amazing new laptop, and those external things would miraculously give me a personality transplant, and then I would just painlessly make the work.
But fantasies just keep us from the real work, the hard work, of making decisions and moving forward.
The process of uncovering and facing your personal dilemmas may be challenging, and it may involve painful tradeoffs. But the clarity and empowerment that come from taking control of those decisions is the source of true joy…