Writerly Procrastination: Why It Happens & How To Break Free of It

I don’t mean to brag, but procrastination is my superpower, one that I’ve honed through years of dedicated training. In the course of writing this post, I’ve come up with an idea for another post (and made notes on it), made myself a sandwich (and was compelled to tidy up the kitchen while I was there), decided the vegan jambalaya recipe I made last night is not an experiment I should repeat, considered whether I should trim my nails (then decided against it, cause, y’know, that would be procrastinating) three times, and stared out the window for fifteen minutes reflecting on how much I procrastinate.

Then I trimmed my nails.

The truth of the matter is, to be human is to procrastinate, but I think writers take procrastination to a level that non-writing homo sapiens would be in awe of. The reasons writers are so awesome at delaying, deferring, or dithering is multifaceted. First of all, we often don’t have a hard and fast deadline. This is particularly the case for first time authors or self-published authors. There’s no cranky boss frowning and threatening unemployment as that external motivation to keep your head down and pen-in-hand. Second, writing is an uncertain and objective art. We have no guarantees that our hard-working efforts are going to be liked or popular. Finally, writing eighty thousand odd words takes time and effort. What’s more, some of those words flow like a fountain…others feel like you’re trying to dig them out of the Sahara.

What’s more, our brains don’t like uncertainty or discomfort. Take away those external incentives, and you’ve got even less reason for our grey matter to want to spend time in that space.

Let’s look at the four top reasons why writers procrastinate so you can develop an understanding of your own reasons for avoidance.

  • Perfectionism: Setting the bar for the realms of perfection is like inviting procrastination to come and live with you. The prospect of trying to write the perfect prose, the perfect paragraph, the perfect masterpiece of literary fiction is pretty intimidating. It’s much easier to go and scoff at reality TV shows.
  • Self-doubt: We all carry a critical inner-editor that likes to voice its opinion on our faults and weaknesses. Some days, that snarky pessimist concludes we don’t have what it takes. Sitting with uncertainty and disbelief in our talent isn’t a pleasant place to be—it’s much easier to take a load off your freezer by cleaning out all the ice-cream.
  • Fear of failure: We’ve all tasted failure, and it’s a bitter, nasty slap that stings long after we faced it. Our brain isn’t stupid—it knows that you don’t want to repeat that little exercise—which means that just the whiff of a misstep and it starts pointing out how awesome your garden would look if you actually spent some time in there…
  • Low energy levels: Pushing yourself past your “I’ve had enough for today” point is hard. When we’re tired it’s harder to focus, it’s harder to stay motivated, and it’s damn well harder to figure out if our character arc is heading in a convex or concave direction! Those are the days where the prospect of reading or TV or mindless scrolling through Facebook are pretty seductive.

If you look for a common theme among those four dot points, you’ll notice that it’s an avoidance of discomfort. Whether it’s the present unpleasantness of self-doubt or unachievable standards; or the projected prospect of failure; or having to write when we least feel like it; avoidance is your brain’s immediate solution. And it’s pretty effective to—if you go and find something better to do, the uncomfortable feelings go away.

It goes without saying that whilst you’re ridding the garden of weeds, your books aren’t getting written. And we’ve demonstrated enough times what not writing is going to mean for your writing career. We’ve all been there. We all know.

To write even when your brain is suggesting otherwise, consider the following:

  • Remind yourself why you write. Our passion is driven by something bigger and better than the immediate rewards of TV or food or Facebook. Write down why you write and put it somewhere prominent. Next time you consider procrastinating, read it and consider which is more important.
  • Make room for the uncomfortable feelings that writing can evoke. All those discouraged thoughts, the thorny feelings, all the pessimistic predictions are going to come along for the ride whether we like it or not. Ask yourself, can you make room for them as you write?
  • Incorporate some rewards for your achievements. I know Nica does this—when she hits a target of so many words, she buys herself a treat (I asked if it was chocolate, but she said it’s usually a book). Give yourself the gift of external motivation for your efforts in overcoming the very human desire to procrastinate.

How do you bust through the procrastination cycle? Let me know in the comments!

Tamar Sloan

Resident Writing Coach

Tamar is a freelance editor, consultant and the author of PsychWriter – a fun, informative hub of information on character development, the science of story and how to engage readers. Tamar is also a USA Today best-selling author of young adult romance, creating stories about finding life and love beyond our comfort zones. You can checkout Tamar’s books on her author website.
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This entry was posted in Focus, Goal and Milestones, Goal Setting, Motivational, Resident Writing Coach, Time Management, Uncategorized, Writer's Attitude, Writer's Block, Writing Time. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Writerly Procrastination: Why It Happens & How To Break Free of It

  1. Lindsey Russell says:

    Be wise to-day; ’tis madness to defer;
    Next day the fatal precedent will plead;
    Thus on, till wisdom is push’d out of life.
    Procrastination is the thief of time;
    Year after year it steals, till all are fled,
    And to the mercies of a moment leaves
    The vast concerns of an eternal scene.

    Edward Young (Night Thoughts)

  2. Bob Boeck says:

    Reminded me of a poem from years ago.
    Procrastination is my sin,
    It causes me great sorrow.
    I know it shouldn’t practice it,
    Perhaps I’ll stop tomorrow.

  3. Sonja Brow says:

    As I read this I am procrastinating about writing a Cover Letter by doing pretty much every other task on my to do list (and some I’ve invented this afternoon). Even FlyLady’s 15 minute increments are not working for me today!

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Doesn’t our brain go to some pretty extreme lengths to avoid this stuff (Cover Letter’s are almost as painful as synopses!).

  4. Often, when I find myself procrastinating, it’s because my brain is putting up a wordless sign saying the next bit needs work before it’s written (or rewritten) – in other words, “think before you act!”

    But other times it’s just tiredness, for which the logical solution for some reason seems to be scrolling through funny pictures online, instead of putting my feet up and actually resting for a moment or two.

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Our brain does like to rationalize procrastination! Make it legitimate that way… And yes, entertainment online is a slippery slope that sucks you down!

  5. Excellent post! The idea of procrastination as a means of avoiding negative emotion reminded me of this article https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/25/smarter-living/why-you-procrastinate-it-has-nothing-to-do-with-self-control.html

    • Tamar Sloan says:

      Great article, Jennifer! It articulates exactly why we procrastinate. Some psychologists call it ‘experiential avoidance’ – avoiding our current experience (which is negative). It’s why connecting with why we write is so valuable – we ope ourselves to being willing to be uncomfortable in service of what’s important to us 😊.

  6. Jay Hicks says:

    Hi Tamar. It’s so nice to read how good at procrastination other writers are. Like me. When I’ve got a big task and a deadline, I have the neatest cupboards, tidiest sock drawers, gleaming-est kitchen. Jigsaws, catch-up tv never felt so naughty but nice. Yesterday I tried something different. I was examining my plot points and got reading my closing chapters. I’d forgotten that excitement, the emotion in my ending, how well I’d written, how satisfied my readers will feel. It was the kick in the pants in needed. So my thoughts line up with yours – why do I write? Because I have a story to tell and it’s tragic and compelling and lovely. Find scenes which are working, find the gold, take heart, and dig for more. So much more compelling than facing a mountain of rocks and dirt.

  7. Joan says:

    I love that it narrows down to avoiding discomfort. That’s really what it’s about. I like to write about why I’m procrastinating in my notebook. I want to get to the heart of it so I can move on. Also, it’s a sneaky way to keep writing.

    • Jay Hicks says:

      Great idea Joan. All I can say is I’ll be keeping the notebook close at hand. A search could become a tidying mission.

  8. An avoidance of discomfort! I love this summary of the reasons why we procrastinate! I’ve never heard it put this way before, but I believe it makes sense. Thanks for sharing this perspective, Tamar!

  9. I though that I was the worlds super procrastinator. Guess that I am not alone

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