One of my favorite writer quotes is from humorous sci-fi author Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
I recently took stock and had to admit, once again, that my time management skills rank somewhere between a two and a negative twenty-two. Since high school, I’ve been a perpetual procrastinator, with my best work happening at the last-minute, just as the deadline looms over me in all its black-shadow gloom.
That’s not all bad. There’s research that suggests procrastination can help the creative process. Putting off a task allows your brain more time to mull over the possibilities and hone your concept — so that by the time you finally get in front of the page, your best ideas flow.
Besides, consider these famous procrastinators:
- Mere hours before meeting with his client, Frank Lloyd Wright finally sketched some plans for what became one of his masterpiece houses, Fallingwater.
- The night before the opera Don Giovanni was scheduled to be performed, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had not written the overture. He stayed up all night and delivered the famous piece to the copyist at 7 a.m.
- Faced with a seemingly impossible deadline for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo locked away his formal clothes, forcing himself to stay at home and wear only a large gray shawl until the novel was finished.
So maybe I'm not in such bad company!
That said, there’s a difference between procrastinating and not finishing. A long writing career is comprised of completed books!
Some of us have manuscripts in various stages of completion that would be nice to finish, edit, polish, and hey, even publish. How can you embrace your procrastinating ways while getting yourself to The End?
1. Set a personal deadline. Whether an agent or publisher is waiting, set your own completion date on the calendar and take it seriously. I finished one of my books by setting the Golden Heart contest deadline as my must-finish moment. Frank Lloyd Wright’s meeting was his own personal deadline too—which forced him to get the drawings done.
2. Ask others to keep you accountable. Get in a critique group, find a partner, enter NaNoWriMo, and/or engage in writing sprints to keep yourself going. If you have to report to others what you’ve accomplished, you’ll accomplish more. And if you don’t report in, they’ll let you know. Positive peer pressure can be a wonderful thing. Mozart set an appointment with the copyist to deliver music by 7 a.m., and that accountability forced him to finish the overture.
3. Introduce positive and negative consequences. Tell yourself things like, “If I finish this scene, I can ___, but if I put it off, I have to ___.” Yes, it’s best to have both rewards and punishments, though punishment should never be harsh. Rewards should outweigh the downside, since we’re more motivated by wins! Still, had Victor Hugo not kept himself in a dismal shawl and rewarded himself with clothes and leaving the house, maybe he wouldn’t have written The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Demi Moore would never have voiced Esmeralda.
4. Limit distractions. Shut off diversions best you can. Many a procrastinating writer has fallen into the black hole of the Internet, with portals ranging from YouTube channels to Pinterest boards to Facebook feeds. But lest you think we are a new generation in terms of gadgets competing for our attention, author Virginia Woolf wrote this in her diary in 1920: “Such a good morning’s writing I’d planned, and wasted the cream of my brain on the telephone." Darn Alexander Graham Bell and his seductive invention! Become ruthless about your writing time, turning off everything that doesn't feed directly into getting the book done.
5. Allow for breaks. That said, permit yourself a break, will ya? If you set up entirely unrealistic demands on your time, you'll be even more motivated to chuck it all aside and take a nap. Schedule in breaks for yourself. And remember that procrastinators may need more time to mull, meaning it's okay to temporarily set aside the Word doc, go out for a walk, and let your brain work through a plot point. Mystery author Agatha Christie was said to come up with plots while taking a relaxing bath and eating apples.
6. Stop fiddling with every detail. Some of us put off finishing, or writing, a novel while we research everything down to the exact shoe buckles used in 1834 or read and re-read scenes to make sure that not a single word could possibly be improved. Guess what? It can. If you're a perfectionist, your manuscript can always be improved, but stop it already! Your procrastination is keeping you from meeting your goals. Yes, George R.R. Martin is a bestselling author, but he still gets flak for taking forever to write a book. And unless you're an NYT bestseller with a highly rated TV show to boot, I don't think you have his kind of time.
Do you struggle with procrastinating? What are your tips for moving from procrastination to finished?
And if you're not procrastinating or need to stop, here's a great offer:
Are you thinking about participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Are you getting ready for your next novel? If so, then you might want to visit Fiction University. Janice Hardy is giving away her Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure ebook for free until October 15 just for subscribing to the site (and if you want to learn more about writing, you'll want to anyway). Check out the details here.
Julie Glover writes mysteries and young adult fiction. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®. When not writing, she collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for good grammar and the addition of the interrobang as a much-needed punctuation mark.