Procrastination (it’s making her wait)

A friend of mine (no, honest!) has an assignment she really, really doesn’t want to do. I’m not using names here to protect the guilty. And distracted. And frustrated.

We’ve all probably been there, whether 9-to-5-ers or freelancers, but those of us without a boss have to provide our own motivation—at least immediately. She and I were chatting a few nights ago, and she asked what I do when unmotivated to work on a piece. “Besides think of the payment or look at the deadline?” I said.

Okay, that was glib. I’ve certainly had my share of less-than-enticing assignments, the kind that remind me of eighth grade and staring out the window at a gorgeous spring day, aching to be free rather than hunched over some miserable exam.

Part of it is what I touched on here last fall when discussing inspiration—how you have to grab those butterflies before they flit off and how “cooking” the elements of an assignment in your subconscious often leads to a partially or fully formed result the next day. But the problem here is more prosaic. My friend hates this piece, and I can hear her fear through the phone as the clock ticks down. Loudly.

I followed up my glib response by saying that my typical work hour includes five minutes to get a snack, use the facilities, do jumping jacks, etc. Also, it’s good to have what you need close at hand or you risk distraction when you get up to find it.

Not having time myself for more, I turned it over once again to the LinkEds & Writers group online. (Let’s give them a diversion from work, right?) Here are some comments:

—“Failure can be a great teacher. Experiencing the ‘or else’ once in a while is a great source of motivation on what not to do the next time.” (Harsh!)

—“I’ve found that in the late afternoon, as the available hours diminish, I often get a sudden burst of energy and discipline and can make some real progress. Usually it’s not so much of an issue the next morning, once I’ve gotten my teeth into it. Sometimes I offer myself rewards—if I work on it for X time, I’m allowed to do something I like.”

—“She has to learn which portion of her (creative) writing process is predictable and needs no difficult input. That is to just get started. Hopefully enthusiasm will come soon after that.” (This sounds like my “You don’t have to begin at the beginning” from a year ago.)

—“Sometimes it can help to take a short break, do something pleasant, then promise yourself a longer break and a bigger treat when you’re done. Or try to balance easy and repetitive tasks with difficult and creative ones (I often ease into a project by doing the references and an initial/tentative TOC check first, so by the time I have to grapple with the text, I already feel familiar with it). Or break it into smaller tasks and focus intently on one at a time, starting with something—anything—that you have less resistance to.

“It might also help to try to see what lies beneath (without turning endless navel-gazing into just another way to procrastinate, says one who knows ;-). When I get into that mode of helplessly watching myself procrastinate, fortunately rare these days, it’s almost always because I’m either (1) overtired (e.g., check my log and realize it’s been over a week since my last day off) or (2) intimidated by the project (in which case, just identifying the problem and giving yourself a monster pep talk can help—enough to get you going, anyway).

“Also, just changing your physical situation can help (e.g., walking around and gesturing and talking out a work task out loud, or lying down and talking to the ceiling). Or just getting started, and knowing that your first few minutes will produce junk but that’s OK.

“Above all, good luck, and she shouldn’t feel like the Lone Ranger!”

So there you have it. I checked in with my friend to pass along some of this advice, but she didn’t answer the phone. Uh-oh. I dropped her an email. A few hours later came a note. “Can’t really reply; sorry,” she said. “I’m really booking on this ______ piece.”

Good answer! I’ll have to find out what got to her. Meanwhile, I’ll save these suggestions for when she’s free—and for when I need them myself.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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