Writing can be intimidating! It’s no wonder that writers tend to procrastinate. It doesn’t matter whether you are a seasoned writer or whether you are building your writing skills in a college English class, being faced with a blank page and a blinking cursor can be akin to standing on the edge of a cliff. “If I jump,” you ask yourself, “will my parachute open? Will my mind be able to string together a coherent message?”
What if your English grade is depending on it? What if your boss is expecting genius marketing copy from you? What if your publisher is breathing down your neck for the next bestselling title?
That blank page and blinking cursor are as frightening as the blank gaze of H.A.L. 9000 from 2001 Space Odyssey. Watch this clip, and tell me that blank, red eye doesn’t bear a striking resemblance to the blank, white document taunting you now.
The blank page is obstinate, it seems to have a mind of its own, and it wants you to fail. If you allow it, the blank page will stare you into submission and melt you into a frightened mess of unproductive goo.
Okay, so I think I’ve established that writing can be scary. So how can you learn how to stop procrastinating with your writing? The answer lies in tricking your brain into thinking that writing really isn’t that bad. It’s not like it’s going to hurt you. You won’t even get a paper cut.
This post will cover five steps that will teach you how to stop procrastinating and start writing.
How to Stop Procrastinating: Step 1, Use Structured Procrastination
A lot of the reason people tend to procrastinate with writing is that it’s the biggest, scariest thing on their to-do lists. Oliver Emberton explains procrastination very well. He writes, “There’s an impulsive baby reptile in your brain, and unfortunately he has the steering wheel.”
The thing is, you have to trick this baby reptile into cooperation.
So how do you trick your reptile brain into doing important tasks?
Step one is to use the concept of “structured procrastination.”
Basically, structured procrastination says that you should always keep something scarier than your writing project at the top of your to-do list—something that feels pressing and urgent and that you’d rather avoid doing at all costs, even if that means starting your writing project instead.
John Perry explains, “The procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important. Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact.”
For me, at the very top of my to-do list I have “write novel.” It’s definitely the biggest, scariest thing on my list. And I feel a great deal of pressure to get it done.
The trick is, all that pressure is an illusion since there is no real deadline and no one is counting on me to turn it in.
So I haven’t finished my novel (well not yet) because I have all these blog posts to write and other work to accomplish instead—work that is infinitely less intimidating, yet work that is attached to very real consequences.
Consider my baby reptile brain tricked.
Think of structured procrastination as setting your clock 5 minutes ahead: you know you did it, but with time, you start to forget. And when you’re really in a rush and glance at the clock, chances are you won’t remember that you did it at all.
So ask yourself now, what can you put at the top of your to-do list that is more frightening than this writing project?
Once you have a task that is even more formidable, you might find sitting down to write that much easier. However, what if this writing project is the number one worst project on your to-do list right now? Well, it might help if we make writing a little less intimidating. Let’s work on that now.
How to Stop Procrastinating: Step 2, Conquer Your Fear of Writing
Are you afraid that you are a terrible writer?
Even the best writers struggle with the constant fear of producing something terrible. If the fear of being an awful writer is holding you back from writing, the first thing to remember is that all writing starts out as terrible.
In the article “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators,” Megan McCardle writes, “Students are rarely encouraged to peek at early drafts of those [famous] works. All they see is the final product, lovingly polished by both writer and editor to a very high shine.”
To combat the fear of writing something awful, you must reassure yourself with the fact that everyone’s first draft is horrible.
Your first draft is supposed to be horrible.
That’s why professional writers have editors; they need someone to help make their writing shiny and perfect. That’s also why it’s not a good idea to publish (or turn in to your teacher or boss) any writing that is still in its first draft form—and why it’s not a good idea to procrastinate a writing project until the day before it’s due.
When you write, let go and allow yourself to be completely and wholly imperfect in your drafting. If you do this, you will never stare at a blank page in fear again. And when you are ready and have created a completed draft, you can feel confident that Kibin editors are here to help you pick up your draft and make it shiny and perfect.
Now that you have permission to write a horrible first draft, writing should be somewhat less scary. But let’s talk about other ways to make your writing project less intimidating and teach you how to stop procrastinating.
How to Stop Procrastinating: Step 3, Schedule and Stick to Your Writing Sessions
The day you receive your writing assignment, do the following (don’t worry, this is not scary):
- Block off time in your calendar. Open your calendar, and enter several two-hour blocks of time to write between now and your due date. Ensure your writing blocks span over several days and that they don’t happen all in one day (obviously, this method won’t work on timed essays and one-day assignments). Just as you would schedule time for work, consider these two-hour blocks to be wholly non-negotiable. This time is for nothing else besides your writing project.
- Divide and conquer. Label each of your two-hour blocks with the type of task you will be doing:
- Research & brainstorming
- Rough drafting
- Reviewing & revising
- Final edit
I’ll explain this part more in the next section.
Then, when it’s time for you to actually sit down for your first session, follow these two simple rules to set yourself up for success:
- Avoid distractions. Turn your phone to airplane mode, shut your door or go somewhere quiet, use a website blocker app if you must, and play some non-distracting music. I can’t listen to anything with lyrics when I write—my writing music of choice? Dramatic scores from movies, such as Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.
- Set a timer. Use a timer app like Toggl, or simply use your cell phone timer. Set your timer for two hours. Whatever you do, don’t get up to do anything else during that two-hour session. No eating, no cleaning, no texting, no social media. NOTHING ELSE. This is where the discipline comes in that will take you to the finish line. If you ever get antsy, remind yourself that you are only committed to working for two hours. That’s it! Piece of cake.
When it comes time to developing the discipline you need to sit down for these two-hour sessions, remember, you just have to start. If two hours seems unrealistic for you, then start easy with the two-minute rule.
Set your timer, and commit to writing for a full two minutes. Give yourself a two-minute break, and then sit and work for another two minutes until your two hours are up. You may find that inertia takes over, and you end up writing for the full two hours you blocked into your schedule… or maybe even more!
Now, let’s elaborate on the divide and conquer concept. It’s incredibly important to the procrastinator’s ultimate writing success.
How to Stop Procrastinating: Step 4, Divide and Conquer
Ask me to go out and do the monumental task of “writing a blog post,” and I’ll soon be cleaning my toilet or folding laundry (and I never fold my laundry).
Remember how procrastination is like an impulsive baby reptile in your brain? Dividing tasks into smaller pieces is a great way to trick that baby reptile into doing a series of less frightening tasks. None of which involves the vacant gaze of your word processor.
First, break your writing project up into four distinct sessions. I like to do each of these sessions on a separate day, if possible.
For longer projects, block out a longer time frame (perhaps several sessions over several weeks instead of days), and for shorter projects, use a shorter time frame (perhaps over a few hours).
Session One– Research and Brainstorming
To get started on writing, block out a session solely dedicated to researching and brainstorming. It’s a lot less intimidating to face a blank page when your only task is to plop down some notes, quotes, ideas, and links in no particular order.
If you like, you can even use this great brainstorming app to get your impulsive brain to start focusing on work.
The idea behind session one is to start getting ideas down without any concern for quality or structure. I just copy and paste things from my research into my empty word document (always including a link back to the source so that I know where I got it later). I’ll even jot down some weird, random ideas.
For example, in my research/brainstorm session for this blog post, I wrote this:
“Blank page reminds me of that red eye “Al” what was that?? freaking thing is intimidating. Why? because it’s blank. We don’t like blank things.”
Obviously, that little bit of writing makes no sense, but it eventually led me to the metaphor of the H.A.L. 9000 being like a blank page.
*Warning* Because you will likely be using the Internet during your research session, you may have a tendency to wander off topic—reign yourself in as needed. Whenever you catch yourself wandering away from your topic, look at your timer, and ask yourself, “Is my writing time up?” If the answer is “No,” assure yourself that you can return to your distraction after your time is up, but for now, you must go back to work.
Session Two– Rough Drafting
During session two, review your notes and research, start organizing your ideas, and begin writing complete, rough paragraphs.
Your goal is to have a rough draft by the end of your second session (again, if you are working on a longer writing project, you may have to expand the timeline a bit).
It’s really important during your rough drafting session to remain nonjudgmental about your work. It’s okay if it’s not that great, if some parts don’t make a lot of sense, or if you have spelling errors or whatever.
Instead of worrying about high-quality writing, focus on getting all of your ideas down and finding themes and a structure to work with.
Session Three – Reviewing & Revising
When you come back to your project for your third session, you’ll be delighted to see that you have plentiful content.
Now is the time to go through and read and revise what you have written. Cut and paste your content as needed to generate flow from idea to idea. Revise confusing sentences, cut unnecessary information, further develop anemic ideas, and refine your word choices. By the end of this third session, you should have a fully completed draft that is ready for editing.
Session Four – Final Edit
This session is dedicated to finding any grammar errors or mistakes in your writing, smoothing out word choices, and checking for any other potential flaws.
I always, always use a Kibin editor for this part of my work. I find that after I have read my own writing many times over, I develop a sort of immunity to the “stupids” (as I like to call my errors). It’s always best to have someone help you with session four by giving your work a read-through with a fresh perspective.
By breaking up your writing project into sessions, you take a lot of the intimidation out of the writing project. You can say to yourself, “Today is easy because I only have to do the research,” only have to “organize my rough draft,” or only have to “revise and edit.” All three of these tasks are way easier than the mega-task of writing a paper, blog, or book all at once.
So why do I suggest spreading out these sessions over several days? It’s all about the incubation period. This brings us to the last step of how to stop procrastinating and start writing.
How to Stop Procrastinating: Step 5, Enjoy Your Incubation Period
My favorite part of not procrastinating is taking advantage of the incubation period.
This is the time during which your brain is actively considering your writing project and coming up with amazing ideas—while your body is doing something else.
For me, my best incubation occurs while I’m sleeping. When I wake up, I’ll usually have the answer to my writing conundrum at hand, making it easy to finish the writing project that had frustrated me the day before.
Psychologist Dr. Jeremy Dean explains this phenomenon. He writes about a scientific study where two groups were asked to come up with creative uses for a chair. One group took a break, knowing they would come back to the task, while the other group did not know they would come back to the task.
He writes, “Unconscious processing is important in the incubation effect. It seems that for the group who knew they’d be doing the task again, their unconscious was working away in the background thinking up more solutions.”
Inspiration is a real thing, but you have to actually start the project to find it. It won’t come from staring at a blank page or from procrastination.
You might find that inspiration strikes in the shower, while you’re exercising, or even while watching the latest episode of Game of Thrones. The point is, if you start the writing project and then take a pause to do something else, your brain will continue to process the project while you’re doing that something else.
To find inspiration, you must start writing first. Not the other way around.
The lesson? If you don’t start the project, you’ll never give your brain the opportunity to work on unconscious processing. It’s a big mistake to think that inspiration comes out of nowhere.
Stop Procrastinating and Start Writing
So enough procrastinating already! Get back to your writing project. You are now armed with the tools you need to meet your next writing deadline with confidence.
If you use structured procrastination, conquer your fear of writing, make a schedule, divide your task into smaller pieces, and plan for time to incubate your next great idea, you’ll find that when faced with a blank screen, it won’t leave you lost in space.