open the black box

Open the Black Box to put an end to procrastination

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.

end procrastination

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.

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Author. Cartoonist. Teacher. Coach.

I help people whose imagination and creativity are the ultimate source of everything they do in their professional life stop grinding and start carving out the deep focus needed to finish—and launch—the game-changing work they want to be known for.  Discover my Courses, Join the FREE Creative Engine Workshop or find out more about me.

10 Comments

  1. Stila on November 28, 2015 at 11:56 pm

    Totally! I think it’s really important to understand why we procrastinate.

    Two things that have helped me break up projects, and therefore work more efficiently:

    – Gantt charts/graphs. A quick google search will show you. They are super simple, and a great exercise to help you get from start to finish. They also translate well into iCal.

    – I am reading a book called Getting Things Done by David Allen. It’s a book that has a little bit of a cult-y reputation around it, but there’s some phenomenal advice that has been really helpful in breaking down tasks. My favorite so far: if something takes less than two minutes to do, do it as soon as you think of it! It sounds silly and too simple, but stops your task list from piling up with small items.



  2. Jessica Abel on November 29, 2015 at 12:16 am

    Oh my god, GTD changed my LIFE! So, so crucial to offloading my work anxiety to lists and systems. Glad you’ve found it!



  3. Kathy Bailey on November 30, 2015 at 1:01 am

    Thank you, Jessica. I just finished a project, am at a crossroads, and reluctant to start anything Over The Holidays, which is the biggest excuse ever. I like your suggestion to spend time with family and friends. I’m a “Seven Habits” girl and Stephen Covey calls this “sharpening the saw.” We all need to find out what refreshes and stimulates us; for me it’s going to Boston for the day. I don’t know why, but I come back revived.
    My daughter does GTD and it has helped her a lot.
    Thanks for a good post.
    Kathy Bailey



  4. Jessica Abel on December 1, 2015 at 1:36 pm

    Yes, building in rest and even just zoning out is great for the soul, and for creativity!



  5. […] This post is part 2 of a series on getting your creative work unstuck. Check out part 1 on not waiting for the muse, part 3 on saying “hell yeah”—and saying no, and part 4 on how to face down procrastination. […]



  6. Rebecca Petruck on February 3, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    Seconds after reading this post, I opened a newsletter, and the top ad was for Hour of the Bees, featuring the line “Things are only impossible if you stop to think about them.” !!! Spooky perfect.



  7. Jessica Abel | A Person You Should Know on February 23, 2016 at 11:12 am

    […] procrastination isn’t about your character, it’s about anxiety and it can be […]



  8. Josh on February 26, 2016 at 2:37 am

    Great post. I have never thought about it this way. Makes sense.



  9. Sonia on December 13, 2018 at 2:16 pm

    Thank you so much, Jessica! You always make me laugh, there is no one else that I know that explains so well what is going on. I followed your time tracker for many months I even made it as an Agenda daily, I was so pleased until I decided to start a new project, wrote down all the steps, broke it down into little goals but then I got stuck, felt it was too difficult, I was too tired and …. a long list. I have been completely stuck for months not knowing what to do! At least now I feel like painting again and have picked up a brush!!



  10. Jessica Abel on December 13, 2018 at 3:28 pm

    Thanks, Sonia! So glad this is helpful to you!



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