You’re a writer. You also have a job that’s not writing (probably). You have kids, hobbies, volunteer activities, household chores, and on and on and on.
In other words, your writing time is extremely limited, and you need to make the most of it.
But even though we all recognize this fact, we continue to squander large swaths of writing time. We know what we want to write, but instead of buckling down and banging out few a hundred words here or 1000 words there, we get caught up in distractions.
We make excuses for why we “can’t” hit our goals.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. By making just a few small adjustments to how we work and how we think about our writing, we can start to move past these self-imposed obstacles and get or words flowing again.
To wit, here are 10 simple ways to overcome procrastination in your quest to become the author you know you can be.
Schedule Your Writing
One of the biggest mistakes that authors make is not treating their writing time as something sacred. This is especially true for writers who hold down full-time jobs other than writing and who have busy lives all around.
When you view writing as little more than a hobby and feel guilty about taking the time you need to complete your writing projects, it’s pretty easy to push it to the bottom of your priorities list. And, while the end result may look like procrastination, it feels and is a lot worse.
It’s nothing less than a devaluation of something that you hold dear.
Now, think about some of the less important aspects of your life — taking out the trash, watching your favorite TV show, going out for dinner or drinks with friends on Friday night.
Do you put those off? Do you often miss out on doing them altogether?
And the reason you keep your dates with the garbage, Homer Simpson, and your former frat brothers is that you schedule them. Whether you actually write down those appointments in your calendar or not, you know that Tuesdays at 6 am are reserved for trash detail and Fridays at 7 pm are for the Delts.
But with writing, too many of us hope to “fit it in” when we can “find the time.” The problem, of course, is that you’ll almost never “find” time for anything: you need to get it on your schedule.
So sit down right now, open up your calendaring system of choice (I use Google Calendar), pick out several time slots each week that you can devote to writing, and create meetings for yourself.
Finally, the most important parts of this exercise are also the toughest — you must keep your writing appointments just like you would any other important commitment and not allow anything else to infringe on those precious time slots.
Put your writing on the pedestal it deserves, and your procrastination will melt away.
Staring at the first blank page of a novel or the empty canvas of your next blog post can be daunting when you know it’s going to take you hours or weeks or months to finish.
But just because everything you write requires a lot of hard work — if you’re doing it right — that doesn’t mean you need to do the work all at once. In fact, trying to do it all at once is a great way to burn out or never even get started in the first place.
A much better approach most of the time for most writers is to sit down at your keyboard not with a specific word- or page-count goal for your session, but with a very definite time frame in mind.
Knowing that you’re only going to be writing for, say 25 minutes, is a whole lot more palatable than agonizing over the prospect of spending the next three hours tied to your keyboard. And, if that first “sprint” goes well, what’s to keep you from trying another?
A simple process to follow when you want to get off your writing butt is …
- Set up your writing space and tools.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes (or 30 minutes or 15 minutes).
- Start the timer.
- Don’t stop to edit.
- Don’t get up.
- Don’t stop.
- When the timer goes off, then stop.
When you’re done, you can just be done. Or you can take a five-minute break — get a snack, take a walk, go to the bathroom — and do it all again.
Chain together a few of these, and your urge to procrastinate will vanish.
Write Flash Fiction
Another great way to overcome the daunt involved with writing large pieces is to simply write something smaller. And, if the words just aren’t forthcoming for your main project, you can do something altogether different.
A wonderful choice in many cases is to tackle a piece of flash fiction.
You’ll find different definitions of “flash fiction,” but for our purposes, let’s call it any story that is 2000 words or less and that takes the reader through a full story arc. You need a beginning, middle, and end of some sort, or it doesn’t count.
Working with these constraints forces you to be economical with your words and creative with your devices. With so few syllables available to you, there is no way you can afford to get sidetracked on some trivial bit of character development.
And, since flash fiction is so short, it won’t take forever to write. There is little danger of chasing your tiny new story for weeks while your current one languishes, although your flash just might provide the bones for something more comprehensive down the road.
The best part about flash fiction is that it gets your mind into “story mode” quickly. If I haven’t written any fiction for a while, a few pieces of flash fiction will have me drooling to create in no time.
You can find flash fiction prompts all over the web, but here are few sources to get you started:
- Flash Fiction Writing Prompts from Story Butter
- 100 Days of Flash Fiction Prompts from Eva Deverell
- 30 Flash Fiction Prompts from Nancy Stohlman
Chunk Your Work
And, speaking of writing something smaller, there is no reason you need to be overwhelmed by your book even when you’re sitting down to write your book.
Instead, think of your unfinished novel as a series of independent yet interconnected stories … you know, like chapters.
Find a way to break up your larger work into chunks that roughly correspond to the time blocks you know will be available to you. Then, in each of those chunks, leave yourself some breadcrumbs to follow when you come back to actually do the work. A sentence or two of synopsis usually works well and lets you jump right into the story even if you’ve been away for awhile.
You should also physically separate these sections from each other in some way or another. In Scrivener, for example, make each chapter or block an individual text file. In Word or Google Docs, put each chapter in its own file or tab, or at least give it a new page with clear markers to set it off from the larger work.
Of course, breaking up your large projects like this requires some planning. That can be a tough pill to swallow for the “pantsers” out there, but if you’re having trouble with procrastination, isn’t it time to try something different, anyway?
Outline Your Book
One of the best ways to break your book into chunks is to first develop an outline of what you want the finished product to look like.
Now, I realize that when most people hear the word “outline,” we flash back to the horrors of high school English class and cranky old Mrs. Stimpson in Junior year. The context was usually preparation for a term paper.
We remember the pages and pages of multi-indented discussion points punctuated with capital and small Roman numerals, Arabic numerals, letters of all sorts, and a dizzying array of bracket types. We remember getting dinged for phrases in the same sub-groupings that weren’t quite parallel, and we clearly recall having that one dangling sub-sub-sub-point that didn’t have a match no matter how hard we squeezed our ideas or source material.
But outlines don’t have to be so complicated … in fact, to be effective, they shouldn’t be complicated at all.
Here are the simple steps for creating your own compelling outline.
- Begin by writing out your basic plot in a paragraph or two. What’s the big idea, what major actions will drive the story, and how will it conclude? You’re not committing to anything concrete at this point, but you should at least have an idea of where you’re going. Write it down in a couple hundred words at most, and you’ll have your destination. The rest of the steps here will be your map for getting there.
- Start a numbered list and write down the structure points of your book, one per numbered bullet. So, if you’re following the seven-point scaffold, your list will look like this:
2) First Plot Point
3) Pinch Point 1
5) Pinch Point 2
6) Second Plot Point
- Now, read your blurb and think about what will be happening in your story during each of these parts. How will you hook the reader? What will your protagonist’s turning point be? How will you resolve the story? Under each story point, start writing down these main ideas as sub-elements, but be sure to keep them at a high level. Include just enough detail that you can read down your list and get a flavor for the story you have in your mind.
- Take another pass through the outline you developed in step 3 and try to break down each point into a fairly cohesive unit. Think about how you would begin each part of the story, and how it would end. Is there a clear arc defined by each bullet point, or are they muddled? Anywhere you find multiple natural stop and start points, break down the idea into two or more mini-themes and put them in rough chronological order. When you’re finished with this step, you should have the list of main ideas that will drive your plot — these will be your chapters.
- The End
You should be left with a set of bullet points, each of which represents a chapter or building block of your overall story.
Ready-made chunks, all of them resistant to your best procrastination efforts!
Write Down (and Read) Your Goals
Why are you writing in the first place? What is it you hope to gain by finishing that novel or putting together an epic blog post on the best tools for making strawberry preserves?
If you can’t answer those questions, then you probably need to rethink whether writing is something you really want to pursue. You have to have a goal for anything you attempt in life or you’ll just be shooting at thin air.
Most of us do have goals, though, and we can use them to our advantage when times get rough.
It’s hard to justify wasting your writing time if, for example, you hope to someday make a living from your words. When every completed chapter and every short story is another chance for exposure and income, they become more precious in this context.
Even if your goal is more personal — maybe you view your writing as your legacy — it still should bring urgency to your work. You have only one life during which to tell your story. Do you want to waste it looking at a blank screen and then bemoaning the fact that you don’t have more time?
I sure don’t.
So goals are powerful fuel, but in order to take full advantage of them, they have to be real. Too many times, we have only nebulous versions of our objectives floating around in our heads.
It’s time to make them concrete.
Here is what you need to do in order to unlock the procrastination-busting force of goals:
- Pop open your favorite text editor or physical notebook.
- Create a new document or start a new page.
- At the top of the page, write this heading in big, bold letters: “I want to be a writer because …”
- Write down your writing goals, one per line, starting from the top. Put the most important ones first and work down from there.
- When you’re done, read through your goals. Do they resonate with you? Do they motivate you? If not, rethink your objectives and back up to the previous step.
- Repeat until you’re frothing with excitement about your writing again.
If you do this right, you should feel a burst of enthusiasm for your writing. You’ll remember why you wanted to be an author in the first place.
Now, the key is to keep these goals handy and review them regularly — once a day or at least once a week. Set aside a few minutes during the designated time and read through your list, really absorbing their impact. Soak in the rush of energy they bring.
Then, go write.
And, of course, if you ever do feel like putting off your writing, pull out your list again. The motivation will do you good.
Write Something Else
It’s been said that, after a while, even the most exciting job in the world becomes just that — a job.
That sentiment rings true beyond the office, too. How many times have you started a home improvement project, full of vim and vigor, only to find your energy levels flagging as the weeks wear on?
And this malady certainly carries over into your writing, particularly for major undertakings.
A novel, for instance, can occupy all of your writing bandwidth for months or years at a time — if you let it.
Some authors thrive on this kind of single-mindedness, and all of us would do well to avoid “Shiny Object Syndrome” as much as possible.
But no matter how enthused you are in the beginning or how dedicated you are to your goals, doing the same thing day after day for months on end can be soul-numbing.
That’s why it’s a good idea to have a few writing projects queued up at the same time.
Your main focus, of course, should be your most important major projects, but it’s perfectly fine to have some writing diversions on the side for times when you just can’t type one more word in your historical fiction novel.
Go write a blog post about your process.
Knock out a short story to read to your son at bedtime.
Enjoy the context switch and mental relief that taking a break affords you, and then come back to your capstone with renewed energy and fresh ideas.
Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder, and it can also help rekindle your writing passion.
Do Some Research
Sometimes, you put off writing because you just aren’t as enthused about your subject matter as you thought you were. And sometimes, you might just feel like you don’t know enough to write compelling copy about your topic.
Stepping away from your text editor for awhile and diving into some serious research can help you overcome both types of procrastination.
Even the driest of topics come to life when you know the history behind them, and you’re bound to find fascinating characters associated with all sorts of endeavors. For instance, did you know that journeyman baseball player Moe Berg was also a spy for the United States during World War II? That little factoid would certainly inject some excitement into any article about so-so athletes from the New York-New Jersey Area.
And you’re always going to feel more empowered in your writing if you know what you’re talking about. Spend a few hours reading about life on the American prairie in the mid-19th century, and your pioneer story will flow much more freely and feel more authentic.
You have to guard against using endless “research” as a crutch to never get around to writing, but a judicious helping of fact-digging can get your rearing to go again.
Get a New Toy
“Shiny object syndrome” is a real and serious problem for writers.
It’s all too easy — and common — for us to start a writing project full of enthusiasm and then get distracted by some new idea when the work starts to grind. It’s the reason so many authors move from project to project without ever finishing much of anything.
But if you have been working on a particular undertaking for awhile and are starting to feel stale, you can use this condition to your advantage. One tactic is to take a quick break and write something else (see the so-named section above).
Another option, one that might be less risky to your overall project, is to get a new writing “toy.”
If you’ve been using Word or Google Docs for all your work, splurge on a dedicated writing tool like Scrivener.
Buy yourself a new leather-bound journal and a nice pen.
Read a new book about writing.
The idea here is to give your mind something fresh to focus on that’s not a different writing assignment. Novelty tends to keep us interested and stimulate crisp new thoughts.
It can be just the fuel you need to get moving on your writing again.
Procrastination seems to be a normal part of the human condition.
No matter how much we want to achieve our goals, we’re adept at finding ways to waste time and put off doing the work we need in order to hit the marks we’ve set for ourselves.
For authors struggling to get words on the page, this can be a soul-smashing affliction since writing is so ingrained in who we are.
But you don’t have to settle for mediocre or non-existent results at the hand of procrastination. By taking active steps to move your projects forward, you’ll give yourself the best chance possible to fulfill your writing potential.
How do you deal with procrastination? Let me know in the comments section.