The Secret Life of Procrastination: It’s alive and it’s coming for you! (and what to do when it does)

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.

oliver

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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Making art can solve your problems and change your life

No matter what problem you have, odds are Samantha Bennett will tell you, “Make some art about it.”

Sam is an actor, the author of Get It Done: From Procrastination to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes a Day, and the CEO of The Organized Artist Company, which offers workshops and coaching to artists and entrepreneurs who want to get their shit together.

People like me.

Early in the year, I signed up for Sam’s 6-week Get It Done online workshop because I’d stalled out in my vision for Wholly Creative. I had an idea of what I wanted to do — teach people how to integrate mind, body, and spirit in their creative lives — but I didn’t know how to clarify my vision and implement a plan. Over the months, I’ve heard Sam tell those of us that get creatively stuck or are dealing with a problem to “Make some art about it.”

She says it so often, it finally sunk in.

Bad Art Good Results
My bad art yielded good results

Only, this time it was personal: a friend with whom I’d had a close but difficult relationship re-appeared after a long (and peaceful) absence. My ambivalence about his return manifested as intrusive thoughts. Whether working or playing, I kept thinking about him, and I was losing both focus and peace of mind.

WWSD?

I took out some paper and a pen, and rather than write, I start to draw. When I was done half-an-hour or so later, I had grade-school art to show for my efforts, but I felt like I’d gone through top-notch psychotherapy. My divided feelings had become a firm resolve to maintain my distance from this dear, but toxic, friend. My feelings of hurt turned to empathy as I analyzed my drawing. I could see his pain and fear disguised as toughness and cool detachment, and I could see the power in my transparency and vulnerability. He was walled in; I was levitating.

Something in me was healed, and I didn’t even need any artistic skill to do it.

Skill, in fact, may have gotten in the way. If I’d tried to write about the problem, chances are my ego would’ve stepped in and start editing and offering opinions before the words made it to the page. But in a medium where I’ve got zero talent? My ego didn’t even think to speak up. It was out to lunch while it thought I was goofing around with kid stuff.

I wondered what it was like for Sam’s other clients who followed her advice.

My Mind by Roxana Ramos
“My Mind” by Roxana Ramos

Roxana Ramos, a client of Sam who lives in Peru and works in the visual arts — including paper and bookbinding — made some art with India ink markers and paper after she and her boyfriend had an big argument. Unlike my metaphoric rendering, Ramos expressed her feelings abstractly.

“Once my feelings had form, I was able to analyze them,” Ramos said.

She understood from the colorful loopy doodles that she’d had an imbalance that contributed to the argument: “I was too analytical, concentrated on my practical side, so when it was time to feel, I got overwhelmed and exploded.”

For her, another up side to this therapy is that it also contributes to her oeuvre and provides a source of income. (This blog’s featured image at the top is Ramos’s “Us”).

The simple creative practice has helped Ramos overcome overwhelm, the problem that brought her to Sam in the first place. Artists, especially those who are in full-time jobs while pursuing their art “on the side,” often face overwhelm. Other times, the problem stems from too many options. Whatever the cause, overwhelm shuts artists down.

MK Piatkowski, a Canadian singer, dancer, playwright and director, also conquered overwhelm. She quit her full-time job and set out on her own thanks to Sam’s advice to “make some art about it.”

“The practice reminded me that I needed to be an artist again,” Piatkowski explained. “So I’d work and then think, ‘Ok, dance break!’ or “Ok, now let’s do some writing.’”

Piatkowski also used the art of writing to remove a “grief block” that was keeping her from moving forward after the death of a friend, and she incorporated the work into her one-woman cabaret show-in-the-making. She also makes art to clarify her vision for One Big Umbrella, her business that serves theater professionals and creative entrepreneurs.

And it’s not just artists. Even cowgirls get the blues and can benefit from art-making.

Sisam whirlpool
Sisam’s whirlpool

Jane Sisam, a veterinary scientist in New Zealand working “to improve animal health and productivity through on-farm workshops, teaching and demonstrations” was having trouble naming her business. Her indecision, she said, “was just like being in a whirlpool, just going round and round, and not getting anywhere.” Sisam wrote and drew pictures about the problem, and finally settled on the name The Pink Cow Company, which satisfied her desire for a right-brained name that would help her business stand out and a feminine name that would represent the “ladies”– both the cattlewomen and the cows – that she works with.

Sam’s explanation for her directive is that art explains our feelings to us. “The other part, I think,” she says, “is explained by the immortal words of my friend Bill Baren [a coach who teaches The Art & Science of Conscious Success]: ‘Feelings just want to be felt.’ And once they know they’ve been felt, that energy can be released and resolved.”

For some, that resolution creates a domino effect. Unblocking in one area leads to movement in other areas. Says Piatowski,“I didn’t move forward in the business until I started writing the play.”

I know that for many years I underestimated the power of my emotions, trying to bulldoze through blocks with sheer will power rather than addressing their causes, which was both exhausting and unreliable. I’ve developed a deep respect for what I once saw as frivolous. Integrating mind, body, and spirit, also means integrating work and play, business and art.

Watch my free webinar Practical Magic for Writers to learn other approaches to move through resistance and enhance creativity or click on the button to get my guide to overcoming procrastination, How to Get Started and Keep Moving.

GET STARTED AND KEEP MOVING ON YOUR WRITING!