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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When you’re afraid to go there

It was a perfect day for a beachside BBQ. A cool breeze was blowing in off the Pacific. The sun was shining full and warm. I’d awakened with the sun at about 6:30 a.m., an hour earlier than my alarm, and made pancakes and eggs. I had enough time that I’d even considered going to a 10 am yoga class before meeting with a new friend to go to her co-worker’s BBQ party.

Then I reconsidered. I was overcome by an urge to stay in, to gather myself. Not understanding the urge, I started to gather things. I began putting what I would need for the day in a pile on the corner of the couch: towel, sunblock, a change of clothes, phone charger, a cooler full of sodas, snacks. Then I remembered: I was taking my bike, so I started to rethink, unpack, and regroup.

IMG_2356The closer it got to “go time,” the more I felt like I should stay. Something wasn’t quite right. I tidied the bathroom. I put away some clothes in the bedroom. I organized the files on my desk. I started double checking things. Was there enough food and water in the cats’ bowls? Did I close the refrigerator door all the way? I was now officially late.

“Go,” I told myself aloud. “Stop fucking around and go!”

But my resistance was strong. I considered texting my apologies and staying home and watching movies.

“What are you doing?” I said again out loud. “You’ve been looking forward to this!”

I stopped for a moment and took a breath. I paid attention as the inhale expanded my body — my neck, shoulders, and chest were tight. And that’s when it hit me… I was afraid! I didn’t know these people. I didn’t know if I’d fit in, or if I’d be physically comfortable there (too hot, too cold, too hungry, etc.), and that was enough to create unconscious fear. (When this happens chronically, it’s called anxiety.)

What’s weird is, I’m constantly told how brave I am. People say to me “I wish I had your courage” because I travel alone, because I play my guitar and perform in public, because I’m willing to try new things – improv comedy, spoken word, sailing, sky diving, entrepreneurship.

People assume that because I do these things that I’m not afraid to do these things. They are wrong.

I’m afraid a lot. But the fear involved in the “big stuff” like jumping out of planes and into new things is easier to deal with than the everyday fears of the “little stuff” like the beach party. The big stuff is easier because I know I’m afraid so I can face the fear, but with the little stuff it’s easy to overlook the fear. When I don’t see it, I’m not able to challenge it; then, I’m unconsciously controlled by fear.

Writer’s block is just like this. Like the beach & BBQ outing, writing is something I want to do. But deep inside, I’ve also been afraid. I dawdle and procrastinate when I am afraid “to go there.” For years, I was unaware of this fear, so I was really hard on myself for not writing more. I’d tell myself I was never going to amount to much (even when I was working as a weekly columnist) and I’d feel like a fraud around writers and artists who were prolific. In essence, I compounded my yucky feelings (fear) with more yucky feelings (shame).

And I wondered why I just couldn’t be more creative!?!

IMG_2005
I faced the fear of sharks, freezing, drowning, and loss of control when I learned to sail…but it’s still not as scary as writing.

Does anyone create well when they are afraid and ashamed? Self-actualization and self-expression are high on the pyramid of the hierarchy of needs and safety and acceptance are at the base. It’s difficult to deal with the needs at the top if we haven’t met those at the bottom. In fear and shame, I couldn’t build a happy, productive creative life.

My point is, “Just do it!” (or as my friend put it the other day “Just sit down and fucking write”) is not the answer for someone who is deeply and unconsciously afraid. I had to build a healthier relationship with my feelings and creativity. Awareness of the fear lets me begin to negotiate my way through it. Then writing is like sky diving: I face the fear, lean into the resistance, and take the plunge.

In case you were wondering, I also made it to the party. And I had a great time.

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!

Learning to love Monday

Poor Monday. Without fail, people bitch about it every week. And it’s not just people who hate their jobs. (If you hate your job, do one little thing every day to find a new job — you’ll feel happier just plotting your escape).  Even for people who like their work, Mondays can be difficult. After the weekend, it’s not easy to get back in gear for the workweek.

The thing is we expect 0 to 60. And that’s not good for us. And it’s not the sort of energy Monday carries. Monday is named after the Moon. Unlike the previous day, Sunday, charged with energy of direct light, Monday is meant to be reflective and sort of dreamy. It’s a good day for intuition and insights. It’s more mysterious and more subtle than the energy of Sunday. Which makes it a terrible day to get back to the grind. Grind energy is good on Tuesdays, which is why its traditionally the more productive day of the week.

Don’t fight Monday. It doesn’t mean you have to take the day off or you’re totally screwed if you have to report to work. Save the tasks that lend itself to this energy for this day. Know that you’re going to be a little slower, like you are moving through a dream.

Last week, excited about a new project, I jumped in on Monday, determined to learn a new software program and complete a project. Halfway through the day I was so frustrated that I updated my Facebook status saying that the project made me want to kill myself, my laptop, and the internet. (My sense of drama is strong every day of the week.) It didn’t occurmondaybreakup to me until later in the week that I’d picked a crap day for my project.

This week I’ve reordered things. Mondays are a good day to use intuition to explore ideas, imagine ways to develop projects, and to start setting up to jump in on Tuesday.

Planning your schedule to align with the mood and quality of the day will help you work smarter. It will also help you learn to love Mondays.

Sunday (Sun) Fame, Wealth, Success, Spirituality, Wishes

Monday (Moon) Reflection, Dreaming, Emotions, Intuition, Creativity

Tuesday (Mars) Strength, Courage, Passion

Wednesday (Mercury) Communication, Cunning, Excitement, Change, The Arts (It’s a wacky day. Work with its wackiness.)

Thursday (Jupiter) Expansiveness, Adventure, Abundance, Health. Named after Thor.

Friday (Venus) Love, Fertility, Birth, and Romance. Named after the Norse goddess, Freya.

Saturday (Saturn) Responsibility, Protection, Banishing negativity, Tasks

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F*cked up and tacky? Make these your super-powers.

Recently I had a conversation with a woman who used to work for the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles. Her job was to show dignitaries from foreign countries around L.A. to give them an appreciation of the city.

“What are the must sees?” I asked, since I knew I still had a lot to learn about the vast and complex city that I’d made my hometown only five years ago.

Watts Towers
Watts Towers

She named Watts Towers and Gamble House as two very different but distinctively L.A. experiences. Because I was familiar with neither, she briefly explained the towers in Watts that had been built by an Italian immigrant out of steel and broken dishware and the craftsman house built without nails or screws by the corporate tycoons. She also suggested a drive along Sunset Boulevard from downtown to the Pacific Ocean to see how the neighborhoods change. She began to talk about the character of the city as one that was represented by its diversity and startling contrasts.

“Of course these sorts of things could never happen in San Francisco,” she said. “People there have taste.”

What struck me about this was not that she was dissing L.A. but that what seemed like a drawback actually worked in the city’s favor as a distinguishing attribute – part of its character.

I thought about how that applies to artists, too. We often try to overcome what we perceive as our weaknesses rather than embracing them as parts of our character that contribute who we are and what we have to express. Maybe we could gain by seeing the value in our “flaws.” I think these could be our superpowers!

#whatsyourstory

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The “I” in “Writer”

True, there’s no “I” in “team,” but in “writer,” “I” is practically the focal point. In “writing,” well, “I” appears twice.

We are at the center of the creative process, pushing our stories and poems, our discourse and creativity, into the world. Which, of course, is all well and good when our writing is going well and we feel good about not only it, but about ourselves. But what about when we hit a wall and nothing comes? Or when what we produce is not so good at all?

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, provides an answer to this in her talk for Ted. She discusses how she can move forward with what might possibly be her greatest success now behind her. Her ideas encourage us to move beyond an ego based responsibility for the creative works we author and into an appreciation of what we have contribute to a divine collaboration.

Perhaps we took too much of mysticism out when we demystified writing as a process?