The other day procrastination loomed. It cast its dark shadow over my newest creative project in the form of my black, three-legged cat Oliver; then it plopped down and took the pen out of my hand, purring while it chewed on the pen. This was certainly a lot cuddlier and cuter than what I was doing. But dammit, I was finally starting to get somewhere!
When I was a columnist with a weekly deadline, I hardly ever had a problem with churning work out, even when I wasn’t particularly “feeling it.” I knew the drill: investigate/research on the weekend, write Mondays, revise Tuesdays, wake up at the crack of dawn Wednesday and make final revisions and edits. Some columns were more inspired than others, true, but my column was popular, and I met my deadlines.
Back then, if a cat sat in the middle of my copy, I just pushed it out of the way. There was, after all, an illustrator who needed the copy so that he could do his work before the layout people could do their work and the issue could go to press, and everyone could get paid. A lot of people were counting on me, including my daughter, Oliver and his four-legged counterpart, Sappho, all of whom had gotten used to living indoors and eating food.
After a couple of years, I’d burnt out. I’d pushed a lot of things out of the way to get the column done, including a desire to express myself authentically in a way that was meaningful to me, which editors kept striking from my copy. At first I resigned myself to the constraints, then exhausted and uninspired, I resigned the position. After I was on my own, however, my writing foundered. I had a bunch of half-written projects lying around and no real sense of urgency to get anything finished. Clearly I knew how to get things done; that wasn’t the problem. I worked, but at a slow pace. Some months I got nothing done at all.
Deadlines, accountability, and incentives: yeah, but…
These helped some. I wrote deadlines down, joined writers groups, and offered motivators like telling myself I could redecorate my bedroom after making my first $1,000. But those weren’t entirely effective. My brain isn’t dumb. It knew these were artificial motivators. Technically, no one needed the writing, my writers group might have thought I was a slacker, but they weren’t harmed when I showed up with unfinished writing, and if I really wanted to redecorate my bedroom, I already had the funds to do so.
A mentor suggested writing a check to a cause I loathed and then giving it to a friend and telling her to mail it if I had not accomplished my goal by the deadline I set. This could work, but it is coercive rather than motivational, and it’s not the relationship I want to have with my creativity.
Instead, I got busy looking at the investment I’d made already in my project (that is, the money in education, the sacrifices, and the time I’d put in). Clearly, the project was important to me, or I wouldn’t keep coming back to it. Then, I connected with the value of what I was creating. This included a monetary value of a completed project, but more importantly, the social value of how my project would help others. The latter had always been an incentive that inspired me. Inspiration, rather than coercion, was how I finally got myself going and what keeps me going.
Procrastination: It’s ALIVE!
No one likes to be told “No.” or yelled at to “Stop it!” I’ve watched people dig their heels in when what they want or what they are doing is negated. Children will throw outright tantrums. So will cats – this is where the term “hissy fit” comes from, after all.
I like to think my creative process is no different. When I get hung up in procrastination and I start resisting it, it acts out. Procrastination, like everything, WANTS TO SURVIVE. When it feels threatened, it gets defensive. Like a cat, it puffs up and creates drama. And I get even less done.
The secret is to overcoming procrastination is not to try to overcome it. Don’t make it a power struggle, which will only drain your energy. It sounds counterintuitive, but embrace the procrastination!
Instead of thinking of procrastination as not getting started, I think of it as Step #1. When I teach writing, I have my students put it on their “To Do” lists. No sense in ignoring it – procrastination wants to be a part of things. So include it, and then cross it off when you are ready to move on to Step #2. It’s win-win: Procrastination is happy because it’s gotten some attention, and you are happy because you’ve gotten something accomplished, ironically, by not doing anything. (You’ll learn in my classes and workshops how this sort of re-framing of ideas will change your whole world.)
Saying “hello” to my little friend and making space
As Oliver chewed on my pen in the middle of my project, I stopped my work for a minute and stroked his soft fur and said hello. Then I took out a few pieces of blank paper and put them next to those I was working on. I slid the furry distraction over on top of them. “Here,” I told him. “This is your project.” He sat on his pile of empty pages, batted at pen and bit it a couple more times, and then curled up and dozed off. While he napped contentedly, I got another pen and got back to work.
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