There is no real, direct “cure” for procrastination, but there might be ways of better understanding it so that we can all use procrastination to our benefit in the long-run.
The ideas that you can just “sit down and write” or that “procrastination is a lack of willpower,” undermine themultitude of factors that affect writers. For example, some writers have more resources and privileges to avoid procrastination than others, whether it’s having an editor to keep you accountable for deadlines, or even just a quiet space to write. Additionally, there are several motivational factors involved with prioritizing writing. In my own experience, I’ve had an overwhelming urge to procrastinate because of perfectionism, suffering from the fear that a piece of writing might not turn out the way I hoped it would.
Perhaps there is another important question to ask: How can we be better interpreters of our own procrastination habits? In their article “Procrastination and the Extended Will,” Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson describe a common feature of procrastination: offloading. This is the ability to “transfer segments of our working memory onto the environment.” What they mean by this is that we can transfer our responsibilities onto other things (or people) in our environment to lessen the burden on ourselves. When we’re thinking about our writing lives, this could be as simple as having a calendar notification for every writing session or finding an accountability partner.
This idea of “offloading” moves away from the idea that procrastination has solely to do with a person’s willpower. It’s not just the innate desire to get writing “done,” but a constellation of supports that make writing a priority. For me, this idea has helped me crystalize the ways in which I can “offload” certain responsibilities such as scheduling, withdrawing money into my savings, and texting my writing group every week, so that I can truly prioritize my writing time.
Additionally, as a college writing instructor, I’ve often included self-reflection in my own pedagogy. From having students write annotations at the end of their essays to reflecting on their writing goals mid-semester, using reflection during all steps of the writing process has ultimately helped tackle students’ procrastination.
Some of my colleagues have taken it a step further and have implemented flexible deadlines and contract-based grading, meaning that the student makes a case for their own grade. Students are able to select their own deadlines, but with the knowledge that they will have to complete all of their projects at some point. These practices can help to open up the conversation about self-accountability and ask each individual to consider how they might prioritize their own work. More importantly, these conversations can help us get into our heads and interrogate the inner voice that nurtures our procrastination.
How can we be better interpreters of our own procrastination habits?
In his book Chatter:The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, & How to Harness It, psychologist Ethan Kross describes how our inner voice “helps us control ourselves by evaluating us aswe strive towards our goals.” That inner voice helps us stay on track, but can also speak to us when we’re most distracted. I try to wrangle this inner voice when I’m procrastinating. I ask myself questions such as: “Am I actually being productive while avoiding this task?” and “Is my perfectionism killing my writing?”
Thinking about not writing brings up feelings of guilt, shame, and avoidance. And thus a cycle is born. As Jane Burka and Lenora M. Yuen note in their book Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now, procrastination is a highly emotional process that perpetuates various “cycles of procrastination,” which are inner thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Even academic institutions and writing blogs have articles about how to tackle procrastination and get out of this cycle. But as I’ve thought more about procrastination, I’ve found myself asking: Should we be trying to eradicate procrastination, or are there some merits to letting projects sit for some time?
The time spent lingering on procrastination might be productive in the sense that it allows us to brainstorm and reflect on solutions that might actually help us in the long run. It might motivate us to take initiative and find a working “flow.” Many writers say that they produce their best writing under pressure, and that some of the most brilliant ideas come after periods of procrastination.
Creatively, what comes out of writing under pressure? The assurance that you can produce something adequate for the workshop that week? Or the patience to let a piece gestate for some time before looking at it with fresh eyes?
Perhaps what is most important is to acknowledge that writers from all backgrounds procrastinateon and prioritize various aspects of their writing. Learning what we prioritize aswriters can lead us down intriguing paths and help us to understand our “inner voice.”
I believe it isworthwhile to analyze our relationship to procrastination and writing, and to learn more about our own inner voices and methods. Procrastination humanizes our writing process. It allows us to stop and breathe for a second, sometimes giving ourselves the grace and patience to continue onwards. And it allows us toacknowledge the beauty of waiting to write and the beauty of not writing.
There is no real, direct “cure” for procrastination, but there might be ways of better understanding it so thatwe can all use procrastination to our benefit in the long-run. Learning to reflect on moments of procrastination can prompt us to ask ourselves why we procrastinate. Are you feeling burnt out? Are you afraid to start your next writing project? Learning to differentiate these moments of procrastination will not only make you a better writer, but it might give you the inspiration to start something—one word at a time.
Alyse Campbell is a Michigan-based writer and poet who explores the worlds of academia, Chinese American womanhood, and adoption narratives. She is a graduate from the University of Washington's creative writing program and is currently pursuing her doctorate at the University of Michigan. You can find her online @alysemeilan.