I’ve been writing about how we get to work, and how we don’t. The number one thing I see as standing in the way of getting the creative projects we want to be making actually made is procrastination. And when we procrastinate, we beat up on ourselves, which only makes it worse. We tell ourselves that procrastination as a character flaw. like, “oh I’m just a procrastinator.” In doing so, we not only needlessly berate ourselves, but we reinforce the cycle, leaving us feeling as though there’s truly no end to the procrastination.
Anxiety can feel like the default state of the narrative artist. There are so many “shoulds” that we lay on ourselves.
- I should be finishing my book,
- I should be taking a class,
- I should be writing blog posts,
- I should be posting my process on Instagram,
- I should be publishing every six months,
- I should post on my Facebook page,
- I should be pitching publishers,
- I should, I should.
And if that looks a bit like your list (it looks a lot like mine), and you’re procrastinating, hey, I understand. Those jobs, in that form, are completely undoable.
What does “pitch publishers” even mean? It’s a ball of wax. It’s a black box. On this side, there’s you, with your story idea. On the other side, there’s you signing a book contract. What happens in the middle? How does that idea—sign a book contract—go from notion to reality?
How could anyone not procrastinate with a list like that?
Procrastination is not about your character.
It’s a manifestation of anxiety.
When I’m in the flow of doing work, I lose my sense of my physical self to an extent. I feel deeply connected to what I’m doing and time slips by. That doesn’t mean I’m necessarily doing excellent work, it just means that one thought or action leads to the next in a natural way—I know where I’m headed, so I never have to focus on the path.
The black box
When I don’t have a plan, when I don’t know what my next steps are, that’s when sitting down to work feels like gazing into the void. I sense all the pieces I need to pin down are floating around me, and my anxiety rises. I feel this pressure in my throat, my center of gravity rising, the opposite of that rooted feeling I get from being in flow.
It’s a hell of a lot easier to go fold laundry at that point than it is to sit with my anxiety and feel it. That is procrastination.
Anxiety is energy with no place to go.
Key word: energy. You want to act. You want to make things. You have that energy in you. You just have to tap it. You have to create a path for it to flow through.
We spend so much time thinking about the end result we desire—I have a published book—that we completely fail to work out all the steps that will get us there, and to put them on a calendar, and get them done. So time passes, and no book is made.
If you procrastinate, it not because you’re broken. It’s because you’re facing unknowns.
And all that means is that you need to figure out what those unknowns are, what questions you need to answer, and you’ll start moving forward.
And if you’re a creative person, brace yourself: each new project you start will bring you to this place where you want to procrastinate. Because you have questions you haven’t answered, that you don’t even know to ask. And that will cause you anxiety. But if you gaze into the black box and allow yourself to think about it, you’ll find the questions, and eventually, that will bring you to the answers. And if you know this part is coming, that you’re going to feel it, you’ll be braced for it, and you’ll know what to do. The impulse to put things off will always be there (sometimes big, sometimes small), but you have the tools to end the procrastination. You just have to let yourself do it.
Let’s take one more step towards cracking open your black box.
In my last blog post, I suggested you to start tracking your time, to see where it really goes. This time, I invite you to design your time more intentionally, and as importantly, acknowledge where you are in your life, and how much time you actually have in a day. There’s no point in imagining that you have three hours to write when you actually only have 20 minutes. That just leads to depression and less writing.
Print out another blank week calendar (I’ve made a template for you here) and mark out all the times you know you’re already committed. Sleep, getting kids out the door, work, in the shower, cooking dinner, eating.
And this is important: Mark out times to relax and be with people, your friends and family. Those time commitments reflect your values, and whatever your choices are in that arena, if they align with what you want out of your life, treat them as non-negotiables. Don’t waste that time worrying about what you’re NOT doing (i.e. your creative projects).
Mark things like your commute differently, because that’s time you may be able to use more efficiently (listening to a podcast, for example, if you’re driving, or doing reading/research or even writing if you’re on public transport (and not packed in like a sardine).
Once you can see what’s time is potentially available, and you see what you’re actually doing, you can start to mindfully make decisions about how to spend your time. Even if you find you’ve only got 15 minutes a day that’s uncommitted, that’s a start. You can get real work done on projects if you actually use that time well.
This post is part 4 of a series on getting your creative work unstuck and putting an end to procrastination. Check out part 1 on not waiting for the muse, part 2 on the dark scary forest of the creative process, and part 3 on saying “hell yeah”—and saying no.