I had a bad bout of flu in the week running up to the writing of this post – but by Friday, I was feeling human again. Not human enough to actually sit down and start writing, though.
I dithered and told myself I needed a nap, or a cup of tea, or that there were more important things I could be doing.
But I thought about my future self, the one who is going, on Monday, to be highly irritated that previous Renee couldn’t just sit down and write the damn thing.
So I set a timer for 15 minutes, promised myself I could have a cup of tea at the end of the 15 minutes, opened a Word document and started typing.
Why we put things off
Procrastination is one the great human failings – everyone puts things off for later.
I’ve read a lot of articles about the psychological underpinnings of procrastination, but the most persuasive argument for me is the idea that we just aren’t very good at thinking about how things we do now will affect us in the future.
(I just stopped myself from going off on an hour-long hunt down the rabbit holes of the Internet to find the article that said that, which I probably read five years ago. The timer is running, I will keep writing).
As I’ve started to gain the rudiments of wisdom, I’ve learned to take care of my future self. I take time to make food for the days when I know I won’t have time to make proper lunch (that would be all of them); I lay out my working clothes the night before; I plan my week and my months and my year so that I know what I should be doing even on days when all hell breaks loose.
The writing thing though – that trips me up every time. The actual moment of having to sit down and commit thoughts to screen is somehow terrifying.
(I just stopped myself from an hour-long hunt for articles that explain why writing in particular is so daunting).
But I do have some tricks up my sleeve. Here’s my arsenal of just-do-it manoeuvres (which I can’t spell, but I stopped myself from looking it up the first time I wrote this):
Think about your future self: This works well for short pieces of writing, particularly those that have a deadline of some sort. Really picture how you are going to feel on the day of the deadline, with other demands on your time, and an article not yet written. Let the pain sink in. And do some of the writing right now.
Break it into smaller tasks: Do the research on one day, and then the writing on the next day. This gets at one of the great causes of procrastination – the feeling that the task is so big that it is insurmountable.
Tell yourself you can do anything for 15 minutes: I owe this life hack to Flylady, a decluttering guru in the United States. As described above, actually set a timer for 15 minutes and just start doing the dreaded work. Often, once the timer goes off, you’re in the flow and just keep going. And even if you stop at 15 minutes, you’ve done something.
Tidy your desk – a bit: The tidying your desk things is a great way to not get things done. But sometimes, a messy pile of papers can truly be the thing putting you off your stroke. So set a timer for five minutes (are you sensing a pattern here) and do a 7-fling-boogie. The “boogie” is another Flylady trick – you throw away or put away a set of items, usually an odd number. Make it a 23-fling-boogie if you must, but set a limit on the tidying.
(The timer just went off for my 15 minutes, and I am 640 words in. I’ll just keep going).
Start your writing with the second sentence: You’re actually at your computer, you’ve opened the file, you have your topic at hand, and you just don’t know where to start. This can be paralysing. Do what a veteran journalist told me once: write the second sentence, and keep writing. Eventually, you’ll know what the first sentence was supposed to be.
Don’t go on the Internet to look things up: Just write. You can do the referencing and linking and backing up of arguments later.
It doesn’t have to be perfect: If you have managed to start writing well in advance of your deadline, you can write it out rough and ready. And then rewrite a day or two later.
And that, in one smooth swoop of writing, is how I got this done.
Main picture: Tungsten Rising, Unsplash
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