So after hours of preparation, finally we get the chance to sit down and write, but what happens? We do something else. E-mail is checked, the journal gets flicked through, paperclips require un-linking, plants need dead leaves removing etc.
Why? What happened to the writing?
The good old procrastination reflex has got us again.
So just what is going on in our head?
Surprisingly, it’s because it feels more comfortable and safer to procrastinate than to do what we should be doing.
“No!” you claim “That can’t be right. I will hate myself tomorrow for not doing this.”
Not true and true. Oh yes you will be upset at yourself later but all the personal recriminations in the world, about time being wasted and opportunity lost, will amount to nothing compared to the pleasure of not doing it at the time.
Quite simply if we have a choice of doing something that avoids risk and uncertainty then we will take the option that keeps us safe. Once we have made that ‘keep safe’ decision, our brains reward us with a momentary ‘good’ feeling. It is a basic survival response that has been etched into the primitive part of our brain.
I know this is incredibly hard to accept, but bear with me as I try to illuminate why and how our own brains mislead us. To overcome procrastination we have to accept that fear is the root cause before we can successfully overcome it.
What is there to fear about writing?
When we sit down to write we are setting ourselves up for a bad time. Will it be good enough? Is the plot strong enough? Are the characters shallow? Will an agent/publisher laugh me out the door? How on earth am I going to get it right? Danger lies behind every decision.
What if we are successful? Success means change, we would have to become more than we are now, we would have to deal with clever people who might see through us and we would be expected to be able to do it all again. The fear of change is a massive problem to overcome, in industry whole businesses are employed trying to circumvent it. The trouble is that in most cases, people simply do not realise that the fear of change is controlling their actions.
So what happens as we start to write? We sit down, take a deep breath, fingers hover over the keyboard, we look at the screen… and have two decisions, either start writing with all its incumbent dangers or do that little something that suddenly seems more important, more comfortable to do. Did you notice that it suddenly seemed more important, it wasn’t important earlier or we would have already done it.
It is a classic ‘fight or flight’ response. Our brain selects two options for us, the task in hand or a safer task. When we choose the safer option, the primitive part of our brain, rewards us with a little ‘well being’ feeling to ensure we will make the same safe response next time. This is why procrastination becomes a habit.
This also explains why once we are past that decision and are immersed in our writing we can then work so well, since we are now figuratively in fight mode. That is until the first distraction and we revert back to the write or flight decision.
In the above paragraphs I hope I have made it clear that it is at the point of the decision to do something, at the point of no return, that the fight or flight response is invoked. Not before and not after. This is true not just of writing but of all procrastination, we have a choice and we decide on the SAFE choice. Notice the word ‘safe’ used here, it is important and I will keep coming back to it.
The point of no return
Having read this far down I hope you are having a degree of acceptance of this instinctive response that controls our actions. That you can remember a time or times when it seemed more comfortable to fiddle or tidy or do anything other than what you knew was important. Try now to remember a time when you fought procrastination, nearly won but then lost. Remember how you felt, how your mind was going back and forth between the choices. Hold that memory. It was the point of no return.
It is hard but necessary to accept that our fear manifests such subtle control over our actions.
Much of what is published on procrastination lists that the first step to stopping it is writing a list. Then set targets, set rewards and finally build up a “work the list” habit. The trouble with this approach is that writing a list is a rewarding habit, it makes us feel good that we are starting to get organised. We can make lists for days, long lists, elaborate lists and then after a short while discard them as out of date and make some more. Most habitual procrastinators cannot keep a list going for more than a few weeks before they lapse back into old habits.
A list in itself does not address the fundamental problem which is; at the point of no return the SAFE choice is ALWAYS the preferred choice.
To break the cycle we have to somehow make the task the safest choice. How we do that will vary from person to person but for most people it would normally run along the lines of making failure unacceptably uncomfortable. There has to be some accountability for failure, whether it is personal or social. We will do something for a boss, here disapproval becomes the unsafe option. People do things for friends, but fail to do the same thing for themselves. Here the embarrassment of letting friends down is the unsafe option.
Ever wondered why people work better under pressure? They are focused only on the safe choice, the required task.
Try setting word targets against dates and tell them to everyone you know, make yourself accountable for your failure. Rope partners in; introduce some risk into the event of failure, loss of the car for a week, an embarrassing talking down, anything at all that would be disliked.
If at the point of no return the safest choice is writing then the primitive parts of our brains do not generate the fight or flight response and procrastination is never an option, we just get on with it.
Earlier I requested that we remember what the ‘point of no return’ felt like. Once it can be recognised as it occurs, then we can ask ourselves “What am I scared of?” Aloud is best. Sometimes all we have to do is give ourselves a stiff talking to at just the right moment.
Photo My Procrastination, cc gingerpig2000