An earlier version of this post appeared at One Night Stanzas in September 2008.
Procrastination. You know, that thing where re-cataloguing your record collection or washing all the skirting-boards in your house suddenly seems really important? Here’s how to beat it.
When you have a task or tasks that you’re avoiding, for whatever reason, it’s often just the thought of getting started that’s daunting. It may be hard to do, but just sit down, shove everything else out of your mind, and start. Even if you can only write a title, or the first sentence, it’s something… you’ve given yourself something to work from. Get something done; knowing you’ve started can make all the difference, because that task is no longer “to do”, it’s “in progress” instead.
2: Make a timetable.
When I had my PhD thesis to write, I found I couldn’t empty my head of all the other stuff that I “should” be doing — laundry that I’d previously been happy to leave spilling over the top of the washing-basket, sorting out my bank-statements, writing to people I hadn’t been in touch with for years, etc. Of course, none of these things were essential, but my brain wouldn’t let me focus on my essay-writing until I’d removed these distractions. In the end, I made myself a timetable. I wrote up a mental list of all the “other stuff” I needed to do, and then spent a full morning completing these tasks. At 1pm sharp, forced myself to start writing. And eventually, I’d get into it… or maybe I just ran out of “other stuff.”
3: Unplug the internet.
Just about anyone you ask will tell you that the internet is one of the worst distractions there is. It doesn’t just eat into your writing time… all too often it disguises itself as a writing “aid”, so you feel justified in surfing when you should be working. If you’re reading writing blogs or other people’s poems, then surely that’s just research, right? That’s just helping? But you know, deep down, that it’s just not true.
Stop it! Pull the plug! Disconnect your internet… or move to another room, the garden, or anywhere out of range! If you don’t need the internet to do what you’re doing (and chances are, you really don’t), then there’s no reason for it to be accessible. For some people this feels like severing an arm, but try it, and see what a difference it can make!
4: Bitesize it.
As a tutor, I constantly get pupils complaining that they can’t concentrate for long enough to get their revision done properly, and I always send them in the direction of Bitesize. You can browse it by a subject - say, English Lit - and it will break your subject down into its modules: in this case, Reading, Close Reading, Speaking, Writing etc. The students find that it makes their essay-writing and revision sessions so much easier, because they are given managable amounts of work to do at once.
When you find yourself procrastinating, you have to do the same thing. Think about your task. Do you need to write an essay, put together a poem, do some editing? Think about how you could split the task into several smaller tasks. Could you edit a stanza at a time? Write your essay paragraph by paragraph? Doing something slowly is better than doing nothing at all.
5: Don’t go it alone.
You might think that having other people around would be even more distracting, but in fact, working in someone else’s presence can really focus you. Get together, have a cup of tea, talk things over, and then get to work. If someone else is keeping an eye on you, you’re less likely to leap up and say “I think I might just wash the car / clean out the kitchen cupboards / bake a cake” or whatever… and if the other person is working away diligently, you’ll feel the need to keep up. If you can’t concentrate with someone else sitting next to you, or if you can’t find anyone who’s willing to come and work too, just get your partner to look in on you every so often to see if you’re still working, or get a friend to text you for a word-count at the top of each hour. It might feel a bit like being in detention, but it’ll keep you going!
6: Take breaks.
I nag and nag and nag my students constantly about this. Your brain only works at its best for 45 minutes at a time… after that, your concentration starts to flag and the task you’re working on gets less and less of your attention. For that reason, you should only ever work for one full hour maximum before you take a break… and your break should be a proper break, where you set aside at least ten minutes to do something other than the task at hand. Not taking breaks can encourage procrastination, because if you work and work until you’re sick and tired of working, eventually you’re going to get to a point where you walk away from your task and don’t go back to it.
7: Go against your habits.
You may not like working in the evening (or in the morning, afternoon, whenever), but that’s tough luck if your deadline is looming. Your favourite library or internet cafe may be closed, your favourite writing pen might have run out. Deal with it! Don’t let these things become excuses not to complete your task! Procrastination is pressure enough without you placing further limitations on yourself. Even if you do have to work in the evening / in your living room / with a different pen, you’ll be glad you soldiered through once the task is finished!
8: Give yourself an incentive.
For some people, just the idea of getting a project finished is incentive enough. However, telling yourself that “eventually I will have a finished poem” or “some day I will get paid for this commission” or “perhaps this poem will get into a magazine once I edit it” might not be enough to get you worked up to the task. If so, you need some incentive, so think of a way to reward yourself once you’re done. Resolve to treat yourself to a takeaway, a long soak in the bath, a new book or whatever you think will make it all feel a bit more worthwhile. Sit down to work with your reward in mind, and you may well find that you suddenly feel more like putting your nose to the grindstone. No cheating though - don’t let yourself dial for a pizza or step into a bookshop before you’re done. Get the task finished… and then you can mix the relief of finishing with the sweet taste of a celebratory tub of Ben and Jerry’s!
You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!