Monday, June 23, 2014

The Fine Art of Procrastination



Victoria Chatham

I’ve been thinking about this article for nearly a month. The words, like the tide, have flowed into and out of my brain while I have been gardening, driving, doing laundry or
walking in the park. At no juncture have they actually made it as far as the page until now.
Oh, before I write anymore, just let me go and get a cup of coffee. And the mailman has just arrived. What could he have brought for me today? Caffeine fix and my curiosity satisfied, now it’s time to sit down at my computer but before I start writing I’ll just check my e-mails. A quick glance at the clock tells me I have time for one round of solitaire, spider solitaire that is. Recognize the pattern? Yup, it’s that painless, non-invasive but infuriating malady with which many writers are afflicted.
Why do we procrastinate? There is a plethora of suppositions as to why we do it. Fear of failure, fear of success, poor time management skills, being an adrenalin junkie and sheer hedonism are the most recognizable of them.
At one end of the scale procrastination can be no more than a nuisance but at the other end, and depending on the weight we give it, it can be so frustrating it results in depression. As with many habits, procrastination may well have its roots in childhood. The more authoritarian the household, the more possibility there is that at least one of the offspring of that household will rebel from the strict rules with which they grew up. Once free of parental restrictions, and never having been taught how to make structured choices, procrastination then becomes a habit as that person constantly puts off doing things simply because they can. Personal procrastination is one thing but a habitual procrastinator, particularly in the workplace, can become highly unpopular if their habit constantly shifts responsibilities on to others.
Procrastinators are frequently perfectionists and perfectionists can be highly self-critical. Their fear of failure holds them back because, if they can’t write to the best of, if not beyond, their ability, then they won’t write at all. Or, their first line, sentence, paragraph, page, chapter has to be perfect so they will diligently write and re-write usually to the point that they never finish what they began.  They may consider that they do not or cannot write as well as someone else.  Sadly, it might never cross their mind that the authors they so admire may have started out from the same point as themselves but instead of saying ‘I can’t’, they said, ‘I can’, and so took the first step on their particular writing pathway.
Fear of success can be as debilitating as the fear of failure for some writers. They know success in the form of getting their first book published will take them out of their comfort zone, and do they really want that? As much as they might yearn for professional recognition and the thrill of holding their own book in their hands, they know their time will then not be their own. There will be revisions and copy edits and galley proofs. There will be deadlines to meet and editors to answer to as well as making time for parents, husbands, children, pets, jobs and friends. The prospect of juggling all that, and possibly jeopardizing relationships in the process, can be too daunting for some so, again, fear gets the better of their ambition and halts it in its tracks.
The question must also be asked, ‘how fast can you really write?’ Time management skills become crucial for a writer, especially if the writing has to be sandwiched between the daytime job and family life as previously mentioned. How long does it actually take you to walk your dog? Do you allow enough time for the weekly trip to the grocery store? How long does it take you to read and revise your work? Some writers have mastered the skill of being able to write in a small block of time, even twenty minutes or less.
One writer I know uses her twice-daily commute to write, scribbling diligently to the rock and roll motion of the train. During her lunchtime she transcribes her notes at her office and then e-mails them to herself to add to her manuscript at home in the evening. She devotes her week to her job and her writing and then relaxes and socializes at the weekend. A procrastinator, on the other hand, may well take the view that they can write nothing worthwhile in twenty minutes. If they can’t sit down at the keyboard for four (or more) hours straight, then they may consider it is just not worth the effort so they do nothing.
We all know the adrenalin junkie. That’s the person who lives life on the edge. The person who barely makes the bus stop on time in the morning, who scrapes into the office a whisker past their start time and with some tale or other as to why they are late, the person who hands in their project at the last possible moment or, for reasons best known to themselves, begs another hour or two because ‘a light bulb just went on’ and they have just had their best idea yet and they know the boss is going to love it.  Then there is your typical ‘pantser’, someone who just sits down at the computer and lets rip with a furious burst of writing because they just have to finish this chapter or get that article out and with precious little time now in which to do it.
Hedonism is my particular brand of procrastination and it’s taken me a long time to admit it. A glass of wine and a lively discussion with a friend or group of friends beats the loneliness of the long distance writer. A clear blue sky and balmy breeze beckons irresistibly. I love the great out doors whatever the time of year. I get my best ideas when I am walking or working in a yard with my fingers deep in the soil. I find research fascinating, digging up some obscure fact that may or may not be useful at some time or another. Shutting myself off to actually sit down at my computer and write is almost torture but there is enough of the writer in me to keep me at it.
Is there hope of overcoming procrastination? As with any problem, recognizing it is the first step in dealing with it. Procrastination is a habit and one habit can be replaced with another although, as Dr. Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D, associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago says, ‘Telling someone who procrastinates to buy a weekly planner is like telling someone with chronic depression to just cheer up’. Buying a planner might work for some and clearly not others but there are many tricks and tips to re-program oneself and develop new work habits.
Can’t work in a messy environment? Clear just enough space on your desk or tabletop and work there. Ignore the fact that the living room needs vacuuming, there’s a pile of ironing in the basket or the bathroom needs cleaning. If you must clean or iron, do it after you have completed your writing project. Consider you haven’t done enough research? Work with what you have got. If you do research for the sake of it, however interesting it may be, you will end up with far more information than you need. Believe me – on this subject I know well of which I write. Don’t have enough time? Decide for how long you will write and on which day. Set a timer if necessary. Make the decision and stick to it. Holding yourself back because you’re not sure how to set up a scene or make the most of dialogue? Get a good craft book or ask your peers. Be kind to yourself as you progress. Reward yourself for each successful step you take, whether it’s a walk in the park, a glass of wine, decadent chocolate or a candlelit soak in the tub.
And for this procrastinator? Right now my reward for completing this article is a glass of red wine.

Victoria Chatham's latest release is On Borrowed Time, Book Two in the Buxton Chronicles Series. Find this title here:

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