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My friend has a T-shirt that has a logo from the University of Procrastination, which proudly claims to train tomorrow’s leaders…tomorrow. Or maybe the day after.
Procrastination seems like such an ideal solution for creating a better today. Of course, that means the next day is rushed, stressful, and panic-ridden, so it’s not that great of a solution. Not every writer is a procrastinator, though. Some are very orderly and regimented. Some are super-focused on being productive. Whichever kind of writer you might be, you all have something in common: you’d like to be able to write faster.
Get more writing done, in less time. You’d like to have a system for writing blog posts that works every time. And you’d like to fine tune your editing procedures so you get a great post, from start to finish, in as little time as possible.
There’s a way to do it, no matter whether your style is to put off until tomorrow or to drown in to-do lists. It’s just a matter of you finding a tailor-made solution to your style of working.
Just today I finally checked an item off of my highly vague “To Do Eventually” list, an item I had put on the list more than a year ago. I tried to make myself feel less guilty by titling the list with “eventually” but really. A year. It took me a year to do it. That stupid task had been “nibbling at my conscience“, as writer James Surowiecki aptly put it.
Let’s get one thing clear: procrastination isn’t bad. We assume it is, because it puts us in a high-stress rushed state when it’s finally time to pay the piper for deadline projects; but procrastination is merely another working style, and not merely an example of a bad working style.
Guilt-ridden procrastinators (of which I am one, and terribly) spend much of the time they aren’t doing their work reading about how to stop procrastinating. They look for methods to be more productive, to be the early bird that gets things done in a flash and can’t stop checking things off of the list. They buy books, organizers, and apps.
And still procrastinate. And are frustrated.
There are two ways to approach your procrastination: fight it or work with it.
In a broad sense, procrastination has a funny way of getting our priorities straight.
Look at your to-do lists. How many of them did you start with specific tasks that had specific dates until, in your eagerness, things got a little out of hand and soon you had a massive list of things you ought to do and should do and might do? Procrastination has a way of helping us not get caught up in what we subconsciously determine is unimportant. Procrastination allows perfectionists to get things done by forcing them to do “adequate” work under self-induced deadline pressure when they otherwise would be unable to do any work.
In that sense, it is good procrastination. It keeps us from sweating the small stuff. The unimportant things eventually disappear if you never do them. As long as your procrastination has you meeting deadlines and getting the big stuff done, it’s helping you out.
My solution is to use “triage” rubrics in different areas of life, and to hold my to-do list up against the rubric. For example, in my personal life, family always trumps work. In my work life, client deadlines before tweaking my own website. This is an over-simplification, but I know that if I have these ingrained, I don’t fret about the things I procrastinated on that fall into the category of unimportant.
Create your own rubric. Start at the top with the thing that will get you into serious trouble if it isn’t finished and go back from there. Train your mind to understand what is important.
You should work with your procrastination instead of fighting it if:
Of course, there are times when procrastination is a bad idea, such as putting off paying your taxes and ending up with a penalty because of it. If you’re missing deadlines or feeling high levels of stress because everything feels last minute, that’s bad procrastination. These undone things don’t disappear, they get worse.
For writers, bad procrastination means you don’t have time to proof and edit properly. You have to constantly deal with reminders and demands of clients wonder why your work isn’t submitted. Your work and reputation suffers.
This is where the Zeigarnik effect comes into play. Bluma Zeigarnik was a psychologist from Lithuania who noticed that restaurant servers could remember large amounts of information (without writing it down) for a limited period of time. Once the food was delivered to the table, servers forgot it all entirely. Through studies Zeigarnik learned that we remember interrupted tasks better than non-interrupted tasks.
For procrastinators, this is good news. Once we start a task, we gain focus. This is helped if we aren’t interrupted. The Zeigarnik effect reveals that starting anywhere on the task is the path to getting it done, even if it’s with an easy part. When we allow distractions and interruptions, that unfinished saved-for-later task nags at us relentlessly until we finish it.
Start small.If you are procrastinating on writing a post, start with a small thing first. Begin collecting reference links and doing research. Brainstorm ideas. Try free writing techniques just to get text on the screen. Go where you won’t be interrupted. Think of the restaurant server. You can’t bring the food to the table until you’ve taken the order and delivered the beverages.
Start easy.If getting started is proving impossible, try the Pomodoro technique. Break up your work into 25-minute timed segments with a five-minute break in between. After four work periods, take a 20 minute break. Once you get in that writing “zone” skip the breaks and go with it. This way, you know at the start you get breaks and you can ease into the project.
A great chef or line cook knows what mise-en-place is.
It means that before you even begin cooking, you have your station ordered with everything where it belongs. This way, when the rush begins, you are not scrambling for tools and ingredients. As a pastry chef, before I started actually making a recipe, I always got the tools and ingredients together first. It kept me from wasting precious time in a busy day, and it also kept me from starting something and discovering we were out of eggs halfway through.
Writer Ron Friedman describes the concept aptly: “…the single most important ingredient of any dish is planning.”
This concept appeals to writers who like to make lists. To-do lists, idea lists, project lists, supply lists, editorial calendar lists…these are the people who want things in order. These are the people who are constantly planning.
Friedman applies mise-en-place to any kind of work, asking a great question: what is the first thing you do when you start work? Do you check your email? Your Twitter feed? Your analytics from yesterday’s blog post? Your voice mail? These are activities that, according to Friedman, put you into a reactive mode. They make us lose our focus, and let “other people’s priorities take center stage,” Friedman said. “They are the equivalent of entering a kitchen and looking for a spill to clean or a pot to scrub.”
You’re not in a good place to write after you’ve started with these activities, but instead you’re in that no-win zone of reacting and catching up. The truth is, the emails never stop rolling in, the tweets don’t stop chirping, and yesterday’s analytics can be analyzed later. And people who make lists are prone to starting the day reactively.
Or, I should say, people who make lists without hierarchy are prone to starting the day reactively. Your lists of things to do will hamper you if you do not structure them with the idea of mise-en-place. How do you make a list that works?
David Allen, of the well-known “Get Things Done” system, suggests that you break down your tasks on your to-do lists, and start the smaller components with action verbs. Instead of:
Blog post due
Write 15 headlines.
Find 5 outside resources.
Outline blog structure.
Write first draft.
“Blog post due” isn’t mise-en-place. It’s “we have knives somewhere in the kitchen.” It’s vague. It tells you a deadline, and not what to do.
Your willpower is at its greatest in the morning.
This means that you should prioritize the things you have to do (not react to) by scheduling them first, in the morning. Leave the easier, less mentally challenging tasks for later. You can answer emails in the afternoon, when your mind is slowing down a bit, but you’d better use that morning mental acuity for writing your content.
Friedman has an excellent hypthetical question that should ask yourself when you first sit down and start the day’s work: The day is over and I am leaving the office with a tremendous sense of accomplishment. What have I achieved?
The answer to that question will help you prioritize what’s important.
When it comes time to doing the work on your list, get your tools in place all around you so you don’t have to wander about to find what you need.
This means have your research done, your references and notes handy, browser tabs open (only those you need), a fresh cup of coffee, and whatever else you need to make it happen. The first 5 – 10 minutes should be spent getting things in order. It’s time well spent.
Rethink tomorrow’s list. As a list-making writer, you already have a list in the works for tomorrow. Look at the list. Break large projects into small tasks that start with action verbs. Reorder the list so the most challenging things happen in the morning.
Make a word bank of action words, and keep it handy. The next time you find yourself writing down a non-action task, look at the word bank and use one of those words first. For example: write, look, review, send, plan, outline, design, create, draft, respond, call, mail.
Procrastinating writers work in a guilty panic. List-oriented writers work because it says so on the list. Productivity-focused writers have a different motivation: maximum done, minimum time. For the productivity addict (which doesn’t necessarily mean you are actually productive), finding the optimal way to get the most done is the Holy Grail.
Productivity is unique among the three in that while it seems fixated on time, it has the most variety in what time of day to achieve that sweet spot of max work/min time. It all has to do with when we work the best.
The awake/tired cycle varies for each person. I’m a night owl. You might be an early bird. The traditionally organized work day favors early birds, but that doesn’t mean it favors productivity. Productivity happens when it happens.
Productive people are more likely to skip breaks because they don’t seem like a good use of time. Taking a break isn’t going to get any work done, is it? This is a Catch-22 for the productivity-focused writer: without giving your brain a break, you end up being less productive because your brain slows down the more you ignore your body’s natural need for non-work time.
Writer Adam Sinicki, in talking about productivity and our brains, points out that trying to squeeze creative blood out of a rock won’t make you more productive in the long run. He advocates breaks, and choosing a specific time of the day when you “shut off mentally.”
No more work. No more thoughts about work. No more making notes about your work. No more work emails. Avoid anything that smacks of productive work. Leave your writing for the next day. Your ideas will be there.
For the productivity-focused, a list that gets you to start from scratch each day isn’t helpful, especially if you’re trying to implement a shut-off valve (which inevitably has you stopping mid project). Instead, start where you left off at the end of the previous day.
Sinicki is wise to point out that you need to be mindful of both how you stop and start your days so that you do not end them on a stressful note. These starts and stops are critical; mishandling them tends to throw a productivity-focused person back into a no-break constant-work grind which inevitably leads to burnout.
It’s OK to end your day in the middle of a writing project. You’ll start there again the next day, you’ll feel productive right out of the gate, and that kickstarts a productive surge. Just ask Ernest Hemingway:
You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. — Ernest HemingwayClick To Tweet
Don’t stop when you’re empty. Leave some to prime the pump the next day. Productivity isn’t about checking things off of a list, but about how you work best in the time you have.
Find your ebb and flow. You may not know yourself as well as you think you do. Take one week, and make notes on the times you find it easy to work, and the times it isn’t. Figure out when your mind starts to drift heavily away from work, and how you feel in the mornings and evenings.
Schedule your main writing during your best work times, and lesser tasks on down times. Be sure to start a project before the end of the day so you can start it again the next day.
October 20, 2014
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