How to Stop Procrastinating and Keep Writing

how to stop procrastinating - man with coffee

Do you want to know how to stop procrastinating ?

It’s taken me almost an hour to make a start on this post. First, I had to have a coffee, then I needed to check Facebook, then Twitter. Note the hyperbolic phrasing of that last sentence–had to”, “needed”–almost as if I had no choice.

And I’m certainly not alone in this attitude. Procrastination seems to have become an accepted, even acceptable, burden of the modern writer–something we must just deal with, like the weather, or editors. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Writers like Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut managed to follow exceptionally disciplined routines. I know, I know–they were writing before the age of social media.

Fair enough, the distractions these days are probably more insistent and pervasive, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be overcome, and there are plenty of highly productive contemporary writers out there to prove it. 

So how do you go about slaying the demon of delay and get cracking with that novel? As a seasoned vacillator myself, who will happily put off, postpone and defer until the cows are home and my editor has lost all patience, I’ve done some thinking on the subject (usually when I should have been writing).

After experimenting with different ways on how to stop procrastinating, I’ve hit upon a few strategies that really seem to help…

Establish a realistic routine

The aforementioned Hemingway and Vonnegut would get up ridiculously early and write for hours before breakfast. Among contemporary novelists, Haruki Murakami follows a similarly exacting schedule. This isn’t for everyone. You know better than anyone when you’re at your most creatively energetic.

Establish a daily routine based around your natural biorhythms, be it first thing in the morning or last thing at night. (For me, it’s from around 7 till 11 am.)  If you can do that, you’re much more likely to stick to it over the long term. 

Once you’ve found your productive sweet spot, give yourself a realistic number of hours at a stretch where you’re unlikely to be disrupted by physical needs such as food or caffeine. An uninterrupted four-hour session is just about ideal.

Have a clear plan

Procrastination is often just a symptom of something else that’s wrong. For example, you might be uncertain about where your novel is going or what the next stage should be, or you may be getting bogged down in a particular scene – you know it’s not right, but you’re unsure how to fix it.

Far easier in these difficult moments to retreat into something more immediately pleasurable such as Instagram or a game of Fortnite. 

You can prevent this sort of situation arising before you even start on the novel by having a clear and detailed plan. Map out each scene, so you know exactly what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it.

That way, when it comes to the actual writing, it should flow much more smoothly.

Set achievable goals

So you’ve established your daily routine and have a clear plan for how to write your novel. The next step is to decide how much you’re going to write each day.

The temptation is to write a full chapter or scene in one session. It looks like a neat and logical way of progressing, and it means you can follow through any thoughts you have about a particular scene while they’re still fresh in your mind.

There’s also the sense that the flow of your creativity matches the rhythms of novel itself. Author is in sync with reader. Perfect, right? 

Wrong.

Chapters or scenes are not only different lengths but also present writers with different kinds of challenge. This is why I’m not a fan of wordcount targets either. Writing isn’t the same as typing, or it shouldn’t be!

You write at varying speeds, depending on the scene. Consider each scene on its merits and make your own judgement as to how long it will take you, based on its complexity. Be realistic about what is achievable, because there’s nothing more demotivating (and likely to tempt you back to your old procrastinating ways) than missing a target. 

Keep the love alive

The trouble with writing a novel, especially in the later stages, is that your relationship with it becomes a little like a marriage. You love it, of course, but it’s a familiar, companionable kind of love, not the sort that sends you racing to your study, heart pounding, at the start of each writing session.

So you need to find ways to keep things spicy in the study. 

I’m not talking here about fantasy role play (like pretending your novel is an attractive young novella for instance…), but a different kind of tease. The way I do this is to make sure I end each session in the middle of an exciting scene. You know exactly how the next line will go, and you’re eager to write it, but you don’t. You save it for the next session.

Believe me, this really works. The following day, instead of idly checking a news website or watering the plants, all you can think about is getting back to your wife, I mean novel.

Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good

The trouble with novels, once written, is that they’re never quite as good as they were when they were still in your head. Something I sometimes do, and I’m not sure if other writers experience this, is compulsively write the same scene again and again.

My rationale, I suppose, is that the more I work at it, the closer I’ll get to my original, perfect conception. So like a mad sculptor I’ll chip away at it for hours, searching for some platonic ideal of the scene that probably doesn’t exist.

To any outside observer I would look like I’m working on my novel. In truth, it’s just another form of procrastination. I’m not making any progress, I’ve just got stuck in part of it and can’t move on. 

So these days, when I find myself obsessively rewriting a passage, I’ll get up and go and do something else for a while. Nine times out of ten, when I return to my desk I’ll realise the scene I’ve written is perfectly fine, and I’ll move on.

Avoid distractions and resist temptations

Before you begin your daily writing session, switch off the phone, email and all other electronic distractions. Lock the door on your family and inform them that that they can only disturb you in the direst of emergencies. If possible, try to minimise ambient sounds such as street noises.

Prior to your session have a refreshing beverage and/or meal, so you won’t be disturbed by your own thirst or hunger. Declutter your desktop (both real and digital) of documents or anything else that might distract you. In short, provide yourself with the best possible environment for focused creative work.

And finally… how to stop procrastinating for good

Writing is hard work. Struggling to fashion our thoughts and ideas into fine words takes effort. We may suffer from self-doubt, or fear that we have nothing original to say. The rewards of novel-writing are very back-loaded, with all the praise and money (if any) coming long after the effort of creation.

It’s therefore unsurprising that we sometimes long to be anywhere but at our desk, seeking more immediate rewards online or in the fridge. 

I don’t pretend that there isn’t a degree of self-discipline implicit in the strategies I’ve outlined above, but in finding and sticking to a daily routine, there should also be pleasure.

The real key on how to stop procrastinating is rediscovering the pure joy of creativity that led you to become a writer in the first place.

What are your tips on how to stop procrastinating? Let me know in the comments below.

About the author

Daniel Brotzel

Dan Brotzel, along with Alex Woolf, is co-author of a new comic novel, Kitten on a Fatberg (Unbound). As a reader of this blog, you can order Kitten on a Fatberg for a 10% discount – just quote promo code KITTEN10


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