Posts Tagged ‘procrastination’

You Are Not Busy Enough

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to any artist, literary or otherwise, is procrastination, particularly for a writer who is not already getting paid for their work.  Having been (and soon to be again) a student, I’ve read numerous articles and essays on the subject of procrastination and time management, and I’ve started to detect a pattern.  Most of the books or articles that I’ve read suggest the same sort of ‘cures’ for procrastination: post-it notes, planners, starting early, proper time-management skills, and the like.  These books seem to indicate that the reason why our responsibilities are not taken care of is because we simply have so much going on that we’re overwhelmed.

I don’t think that’s the case.  If my own experience has taught me anything (and let’s be fair, it hasn’t taught me much), it’s that procrastination or time management problems rarely happen because of an excess of activity.  In other words, our time concerns are not ones of too much to do, and not enough time, it’s actually too much time, and not enough to do.

Take the classic deadline for a college student, for example.  When given, say, three weeks to finish an assignment, our mind starts to focus on the due date.  We think, when considering whether to work on the assignment, “I have three weeks until that assignment is due.  I don’t need to work on it yet, because I will have plenty of time to finish it.”

Of course, we’ve forgotten all about that mindset when it’s two weeks and six days later and we realize we have to cram three weeks’ worth of effort into one single all-night project.  What happened? Surely we were not so busy when the assignment was given that we couldn’t have finished it at a reasonable pace, and perhaps even completed it a day or two early.

For a student who is swamped, though, there is no time to consider waiting until the last minute.  They have already accounted for every minute between now and the due date.  Their question is not a matter of when they can sit down to finish the entire project, but how can they fit the project into what meager spaces are left in their already busy schedule.  Ultimately, that proves to be the more productive method, because it does, in effect, what should be done anyway: spaces the assignment out, and ultimately may result in its completion in a timelier and probably higher quality manner.

I’ve known people who, I kid you not, have taken the entire month of November off from their real jobs to work on their NaNoWriMo novel.  A large percentage of those people never end up finishing their books.  Sure they start out in a rush, but because they have so much time available for distraction, such sidetracks come more easily and they cripple more of the writer’s time than before.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you fill your schedule with inane activities and worthless time-fillers.  But, if you find that you have times where you sit around and think, “what do I do now?” then you should probably consider adding another hobby, or else, just sit down and write, and make your novel a full-time part of your life.

Clearing the Slate

Tabula Rasa.

Literally, it means ‘blank tablet.’  There are any number of cliches I could throw around to get the same point across, but for your sake and mine, I won’t.  The exciting thing about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is the opportunity to start completely fresh with a brand new story.  It’s not necessary to revisit old work.  In fact, it’s discouraged. There are no real expectations other than sheer output.

Okay, there might be some expectations, like basically sound sentence structure and probably a modest grasp of English vocabulary. But, aside from that, all that matters is that 50,000 words are penned over the next month.  It may sound daunting, but also, it’s very freeing.  I get to write about whatever I want for thirty straight days.  Now, I have a ‘plan’ in place already for that novel, but I don’t have any deadlines, expectations, or goals, except for finishing.  It’s all about getting it done.

With that in mind, there are a few things to take care of first:

Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, has said that the biggest reason most aspiring novelists never progress past, well, aspiration, is that a grumpy old man (or woman) has taken up residence inside their brains.  His name is Ed(itor), and it is his life’s work to ensure you are never happy with whatever sentence you have just written.  He derives no greater satisfaction than to wile away the hours, pondering whether that one word is just… perfect.

Well, Ed is taking a vacation this month.  It doesn’t matter where, though I imagine he will find something wrong with any place he ends up.  I, on the other hand, will be perfectly free over the next thirty days to write whatever I want, without Ed’s constant feedback, derision, and overall dissatisfaction with the quality of my work.  Now, Ed will be back December 1st, but I’ll be ready for him with a nominally completed manuscript for him to mull over and critique and ultimately, shred to pieces.  For the next month, though, he and I will not be on speaking terms, not even a short phone call,  text message or IM.

With Ed safely out of the way, we run into public enemy number two: Procrastination.

It applies to homework, working out at the gym, mowing the lawn, and yes, writing a novel.  ‘I can work on it later’ is the oft-heard mantra of the unpublished writer.  It’s hard enough to publish a finished work, why complicate things by never letting yourself get that far?  Unlike your inner editor, though, procrastination has friends.  They are responsibility, fun, and Facebook.

The key to defeating procrastination has two parts: time management and motivation.  Time management is usually the harder of the two.  For many in my particular age cohort (fancy demography term alert), our lives outside of work are not particularly regimented.  We go out when we want to, watch television when we want to, and when we don’t want to, we don’t do it.  Unfortunately, we tend to fill up the empty spaces with… nothing. And, yes, folks, Facebook is nothing.  (I love Facebook, but I recognize the dangers that it poses as a temporal black hole, sucking away your life and your time in huge chunks.)

So, the first step is to make time for writing.  Set aside a certain amount of time each day, preferably at the same time if you can.   Second, when you’re bored, instead of facebook, try working on your novel, even if it’s only for ten minutes.  See how much you can do, challenge yourself. It’s amazing what the results might be.  Also, remember to pay your rent, feed your dogs, and pay attention to your spouse/girlfriend/boyfriend/neighbor’s cat who spends way too much time in your backyard.  Prioritize, and make writing your novel something near the top of your list.

Finally, find a way to motivate yourself, or get other people to do it for you if you’re not particularly adept in that area.  Some easy suggestions are to do fun things with your writing, like Word Sprints: giving yourself five minutes to write as much as possible, then doing it again to try to beat your previous records.  Post a chart of your current word count somewhere where other people can see it.  Tell people you’re writing a novel in 30 days, then allow them to ridicule you if you don’t follow through (fear of shame is a pretty strong motivator!)  Seriously, though, tell people what you’re doing, and keep them updated throughout.

If you’re still finding it difficult, nanowrimo.org, has ways now for you to raise money for student writing programs, just by writing your novel and asking for sponsors. It’s fantastic!

The most important thing, though, is to just sit down and write. Do it now, and don’t wait until tomorrow.  Give your editor a month off without pay, and finish a novel without fear.

I’m doing it, and I can’t wait to see what happens.