The Secret to Procrastination and How to Outsmart It

Filed in When Writing Is Hard by on August 14, 2017 • views: 1120

Procrastination is deadly to a writer.

Writing a book is simply too big a task to accomplish in one or two short spurts. We need consistent effort over a long period of time to make it happen. If we put off our work until tomorrow, and tomorrow put it off again, we may never complete it.

Unfortunately, many writers find themselves in the grip of procrastination and don’t know how to get out. It’s a difficult place to be because when you procrastinate, you usually feel guilty.

If you planned to write after dinner, for example, and then you don’t do it for whatever reason (you’re too tired, your brain is dead, or you decide you must do something else that seems more important at the time), it’s likely that you’ll feel badly about that decision, if not now, than soon.

Research shows that this procrastination guilt doesn’t help us “do better” next time. In fact, procrastination can be a stubborn thing that resists a lot of attempts at change. Why would this be?

Though psychologists note that there can be a lot of emotional reasons behind procrastination—and it’s best to talk to your therapist about those—the whole habit can be said to exist on one very large, very deceptive lie:

That your future self will be the superhero you need to solve your problems and get you back on track to your writing dreams.

Procrastination Destroys Lives

Procrastination is a destructive habit. Not only will it keep your writing dreams out of reach, but it could destroy your entire life, depending on how severe it is.

German researchers looked at data from 1,350 women and 1,177 men between the ages of 14 and 95. They found that across the ages, procrastination was associated with higher levels of stress, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and reduced satisfaction with life as a whole, including work and income levels.

In another study, researchers found that habitual procrastination could lead to an increased risk in heart disease. Those who had higher procrastination scores were also more likely to have high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. In a 2003 study called “I’ll Look After My Health, Later,” researchers linked procrastination to poor health, more stress, and fewer behaviors associated with promoting wellness.

So we get it—procrastination doesn’t lead to success and well-being. So why can’t we stop putting things off?

The Big Lie Procrastination Tells Writers

Sticking with a daily writing/marketing routine isn’t easy. It requires a good amount of discipline to work on that novel when you don’t feel like it, or to write that guest blog or put together that book giveaway when you’re really too tired to spend another minute at the computer. (For help, read our post, “7 Tips to Help You Write When You Don’t Feel Like It.”)

Procrastination now and then isn’t going to hurt your writing progress. All of us need to take the occasional day off. But if procrastination is a regular demon in your writing world, it’s probably because you’re believing its lie.

Procrastination convinces you that your future self—the one that will exist several days, weeks, months, or years from now—will be much better equipped to handle everything you’re facing.

When it’s time to write (or complete some other writing-related activity), for example, you may feel one or more of the following:

  • Too tired
  • Afraid that you’re not feeling motivated enough to write well
  • Distracted by something else that’s going on
  • Pulled to do something easier (because writing is hard)
  • Doubtful about your abilities to be able to make this story work
  • Fear of failure—that your story will not succeed on the market
  • Fear of humiliation
  • A resistance toward sticking with a routine (“you can’t make me”)

Procrastination convinces you that tomorrow, you’ll be better able to deal with all these emotions. Tomorrow, you’ll be stronger, more confident, more determined, more motivated, and more energized. Tomorrow, you’ll be that person you want to be, and the writing will come easier.

The problem is this lie creates a dangerous illusion for a writer—that all one has to do is wait until tomorrow for all to be well.

When tomorrow you feel all the same things as you did today, the lie pops up in your head again—and again, you are convinced that your future self will do better.

It’s time to part the curtain on this wicked wizard. How do you do that?

A Writer Must Clearly See His Future Self

Your future self isn’t here yet. Today, you have your present self, and echoes of your past self, but that person you will be in the future is simply a figment of your imagination.

Some people readily relate to their future selves, and may be called “future oriented.” They are the ones who take their vitamins and save money out of their paychecks every month to take care of their future selves.

Others, however, are more present oriented, and would rather make their current selves happy. That person in the future? She can take care of herself.

Indeed, researchers have found that people who are more likely to procrastinate are also more likely to separate their present selves from their future selves more definitively, seeing them as two separate people rather than as two versions of the same person.

Didn’t get your writing done today? That other person, the stronger, more capable one, can deal with it tomorrow. The consequences will be borne by that person, not by you. You get to enjoy goofing off instead!

If You Can Relate, You Won’t Procrastinate

Researchers tested nearly 600 undergraduate students, and found that those who could see their future selves as an extension of their present selves were less likely to procrastinate than those who saw less similarities between the two.

In addition, those who were better able to visualize their future selves were also more likely to get their work done on time.

People who feel disconnected to their future selves even use different parts of their brains when thinking of that person than do people who feel more connected. Scientists found in one study that certain areas of the brain activated differently for these people when thinking about their present selves than when thinking about their future selves. Instead of seeing that person as the same, the brain acted like it was imagining a stranger!

If you have a tendency to procrastinate when it’s time to get your writing work done, you may want to ask yourself how you see your future self. Does that person seem a lot like you, and do you feel a responsibility to him or her? Or does that person seem difficult to picture or imagine, like someone you don’t even know?

If you find it difficult to see yourself a few years, a month, or even a week down the road, you may have just found the key to putting an end to your procrastination.

Bring Your Future Self Closer to You

The solution is to find ways to more clearly imagine the future you. If you can see that person as being the same as the person in the mirror today—with the same doubts, fears, insecurities, and difficulties as you have, and lacking any miraculously powerful skills that you don’t have—you’ll be more likely to overcome your tendencies to procrastinate.

The next time you intend to write or do some other difficult activity, and part of you wants to blow it off, take five minutes to imagine how your future self will feel about that. Imagine the guilt, stress, and extra work that person will have to deal with. Ask yourself if you want that person to fail at his writing goals, or if you’d rather that person feel proud for sticking to his guns and getting his work done.

To help you better imagine that illusive future writer, try the following tips:

  • Realize things will never get better, unless you make them better. Stop yourself from imagining that tomorrow your fears, fatigue, self-doubt, and all the rest will be gone. Most likely, they won’t be. In fact, if you procrastinate, they’ll probably be even worse. Your future self will not magically become some super productive writer, unless you take steps to develop those skills today.
  • “See” yourself years from now. Thanks to the miracle that is the Internet, we now have access to several sites that can help you to actually visualize what you will look like in the future. You simply upload your photo to one of these sites, and then print out the aged photo and put it up somewhere you can see it. This will help you to better connect to your future self. Some sites to try: In20Years.com and i-Mockery.com. (If you know of others, please add them to the comments.)
  • Create a collage. Placing a picture of yourself in the middle, create a collage that represents where you want to be five years from now. Include pictures of your book covers, pictures of book signings, public speaking pictures, e-course pictures—anything that reflects your goals for yourself. Add them all to one page, either in print or on a computerized program that you can use for your wallpaper. Then put the finished product somewhere you can see it, so it will remind you of the steps you need to take today to be where you want to be tomorrow.
  • Write a letter to your future self. Sit down today and write a letter to that person you will be about two months from now. Arrange with a friend or loved one to have her send it to you in about eight weeks. (You can also use an app like “Future Me” to do this via email.) Write about what writing goals you hope to accomplish over the next couple months, what fears you hope to overcome, and what you like about yourself as a writer. Describe your faith in your own creativity, and add something about what writing means to you. Then fold it, seal it in a self-addressed-stamped envelope, and give it to your appointed person to send at the appointed time. When you receive it, open it and let it work its effect on you. Most likely, it will encourage you, and help you to better relate to your future self.
  • Try a visualization exercise. If you’re a fan of meditation and visualization, you can try this: simply sit down in a comfortable place, and take yourself on a journey to visit your future self. Start by visiting the you that exists a year from now. Imagine you have a time machine that takes you there. Open the door, shake hands with future you and describe what you see. What is that person doing? How does she look? What does she tell you she’s happy about? Is she disappointed or pleased with her progress? What advice does she have for you, her past self? After spending about five minutes with her, get back in your machine and travel ahead to meet the future you that lives five years from now. Sit down and have a cup of tea and chat. Continue the exercise with the you that lives 10 years from now. When you finish, write down your observations if you like.

The more often you do these and other activities to solidify the connection between who you are today and who you will be years from now, the more you will feel responsible for that “other” person, and the less likely you will be to procrastinate.

Imagine that other person as a good friend who’s relying on you, because that is the truth.

Do you have a hard time imagining the future you?

Read more about overcoming procrastination in “Overwhelmed Writer Rescue”—available now wherever books are sold! Order the book here (or anywhere books are sold), and get your FREE chapter here!


Sources
Beutel, Manfred E., Eva M. Klein, Stefan Aufenanger, Elmar Brähler, Michael Dreier, Kai W. Müller, Oliver Quiring, et al. “Procrastination, Distress and Life Satisfaction across the Age Range – A German Representative Community Study.” PLOS ONE 11, no. 2 (February 2016), e0148054. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0148054.

Blouin-Hudon, Eve-Marie C., and Timothy A. Pychyl. “Experiencing the temporally extended self: Initial support for the role of affective states, vivid mental imagery, and future self-continuity in the prediction of academic procrastination.” Personality and Individual Differences 86 (November 2015), 50-56. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2015.06.003.

Ersner-Hershfield, Hal, M. T. Garton, Kacey Ballard, Gregory R. Samanez-Larkin, and Brian Knutson. “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow: Individual differences in future self-continuity account for saving.” Judgment and Decision Making 4, no. 4 (June 2009), 280-286, journal.sjdm.org/9310/jdm9310.pdf.

Sirois, Fuschia, and Timothy Pychyl. “Procrastination and the Priority of Short-Term Mood Regulation: Consequences for Future Self.” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 7, no. 2 (2013), 115-127. doi:10.1111/spc3.12011.

Sirois, F. M. (2015). Is procrastination a vulnerability factor for hypertension and cardiovascular disease? Testing an extension of the procrastination–health model. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 38(3), 578-589. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25804373?dopt=Abstract

Sirois, F. M., Melia-Gordon, M. L., & Pychyl, T. A. (2003). “I’ll look after my health, later”: an investigation of procrastination and health. Personality and Individual Differences, 35(5), 1167-1184. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/222825931_I%27ll_look_after_my_health_later_An_investigation_of_procrastination_and_health

If you liked this post, please spread the word!
Share on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterPrint this pageEmail this to someone

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Comments (4)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Jeri says:

    I’ve been doing some writing on some of the prompts you mention here. Visualizing my future self has always been difficult, so finding a suitable direction understandably slow in coming. I’m a late bloomer in figuring out what I truly want to be when I grow up, I guess 😉

    • Colleen says:

      Oh cool, Jeri. I hope they work for you. I found it interesting that we can have different “brains” when it comes to how we imagine the future self. You definitely aren’t alone in needing some time on that.

  2. Such fascinating research, Colleen! Lord knows, none of us need more stress in our lives 🙂
    This just makes sense though, doesn’t it.
    And I cannot tell you how often people TALK to me about writing a book. Often in great detail. And I always say the same thing–quit talking about it and sit down and write. If only a paragraph a day. The point is to do it every day.
    I don’t want to hear people’s ideas for a book. I want to see it created on the page 🙂

    • Colleen says:

      Isn’t that the truth? Yes, I’ve heard those stories too. It makes sense, though, that people may continue to believe that the “other” person that exists tomorrow will get that book written! It’s time to pull the curtain on that illusion.