“So how’s the writing going?” my well-meaning friend asks me cheerily over an all-too-rare cup of coffee. “Are you still working on your book? And how’s that play doing?”
I feel my stomach plummet. “Um, yeah!” I grope for words. “The writing’s going well. Yes, really well. And ... uh ... how about you?”
The truth is, I haven’t written a word in days. I can go weeks, months – though admittedly not quite years – without writing a single sentence.
My astute friend sees the panic in my eyes. ““Ah, but you’re probably busy with the little ones, aren’t you?”
She’s throwing me a lifeline here. I could grab it and agree the obvious; with two young children under three, I have no time; what mother does? My day is segmented into bottles, breakfasts and nappies, nursery pick-ups and drop offs, the intricate calculations of naps and lunches.
And yet it’s amazing how I do make time to do non-essential rubbish. I manage to fill up the chinks of precious me-space with the garbage of social media discussions or watching YouTube videos. I make time to send indignant tweets on Twitter, text my friends or run out for yet another coffee.
This morning both my children were at nursery for a couple of hours, and instead of catching up on some much-needed research or throwing a couple of experimental paragraphs onto a blank computer screen, I spent the valuable time pottering. I washed up a bit and portioned up some food in the freezer! I did the stuff I HATE ... but didn’t prioritise what I wanted: write.
Because I didn’t have the “perfect setting.” A setting in which I would be simultaneously invigorated yet calm, in a tidy house with no chores to do, having bathed, dressed, eaten and washedup, with a strong latte and an unbroken length of time stretching before me.
AIN’T NEVER GONNA HAPPEN!
All the while, writing seems like a huge mountain, looming reproachfully over me, a vast task too complicated to be attempted.
And yet –time spent writing makes me feel refreshed in a way that the Internet never can. It makes me feel like me again, not a lumbering food-stained, milk-encrusted mammoth, veering from domestic crisis to domestic crisis.
So why do I avoid it so much?
There’s lots of reasons why we procrastinate and these differ from person to person: lack of confidence, interest or motivation; rebellion or resistance against expectations; fear of failure or equally fear of success. But the kicker for me – and absolutely the most devastating – is that I fear that it won’t be good enough, so often I sabotage myself. In the words of David Burns, cognitive therapist and writer of “Feeling Good”:
“The payoff for procrastinating is protecting ourselves from the possibility of perceived "real" failure ... You may often fill your schedule with busy-work so that you have a "legitimate" reason for not getting around to more important tasks.”
Well that’s Tess to a T!
I’m not a perfectionist in the way some people might understand the term. I don’t colour-code my wardrobe or alphabetise my DVDs. Yet I am a perfectionist in terms of writing, which is hilarious because no single piece of writing can ever be deemed “perfect.” Quite simply, I fear I will never live up to my own standards.
This lovely article on Why Being A Perfectionist May Not Be So Perfect outlines my particular dilemma;
Our desire to “perfect” everything makes us overcomplicate a project. What’s actually a simple task may get blown out of proportion, to the extent it becomes subconsciously intimidating. This makes us procrastinate on it, waiting for the ever “perfect” moment before we get to it. This “perfect” moment never strikes until it is too late.
OK doctor, diagnosis delivered.
But what do I do about it? The most valuable piece of advice I ever had was from a tutor on my playwriting course at the Royal Court Theatre, who used James Thurber’s quote: “Don’t get it right, get it written” as a constant mantra. We were encouraged just to turn in the first draft. It didn’t MATTER if it was absolute rubbish. It didn’t MATTER if it veered off topic or was inconsistent or had typos or was badly formatted. The point was that we faced our fears and DID it and once it had been done, we could work on it. And very often, it wasn’t too bad at all.
But as fellow sufferers will attest; procrastination is a constant; you might beat it once, but it will always be there at your elbow. So this week I’m using a number of strategies to overcome it.
By far the most effective to get me started is the 5 minute rule. No matter HOW uninspired I am, if I sit down and work on my book or play for five minutes, very often I find that five minutes stretching into ten, and the ten into fifteen. Life coaches use this strategy to inspire people into a habit of exercise. Flexing that muscle builds muscle memory, and the good habit of plunging right in.
The second most effective is NOT CHECKING EMAIL before I’ve done my writing for the morning. Or Twitter, or Faceb
Thirdly, setting a time limit. Parkinson’s Law tells us that work expands to fit the time available. I can do some really good stuff in half an hour, and making it three hours won’t necessarily increase its quality.
Lastly, breaking down the task into small steps – useful if it’s something like planning and doing the publicity for a show or a book launch. All perfectionists enjoy the feeling of ticking something off a list. You just have to make it the right list.
So by employing a mix of the above strategies, this blog post is now finally finished and I’m off to reward myself with a coffee and five minutes on Twitter!
But how about all you other procrastinators and perfectionists out there? What strategies do you use to get things done?