Dear Stewie, How Do I Stop Procrastinating On Long Term Goals?
A reader asked, How do I stop procrastinating? I have an MMA romance novel I desperately want to write, but I keep putting it off. I haven’t written a word in 6 months. How do I overcome this?
First things first, procrastination is not a moral failing, nor a character flaw. Your subconscious drives your procrastination. Moreover, if you don’t learn how to steer your subconscious, you’ll never write your novel.
That’s a lot to take in and accept, I know. But here’s the good news: You can control (or heavily influence) your subconscious, and all published authors have done this.
Let’s explore how this works.
Understand your subconscious
Your subconscious mind is complex, and I believe it drives 90% of your actions. Hard to believe, I know. It’s easiest to think of your subconscious as having three departments, each with its own set of motivations:
1. The Department of Pain and Pleasure pushes you towards pleasure and sprints you aways from anything that remotely resembles pain. Its theme song is “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be).” Think of a starved stallion galloping away from a flaming whip and toward a barn full of Fuji apples.
This department exerts disproportionate influence when you’re tired, sick, or intoxicated.
2. The Department of Habits spurs you to keep doing what you’re used to doing. It provides good feelings whenever you complete a routine (aka habit) and thrashes when something throws off your groove. Its theme song is “The Song That Never Ends.” Think of the college freshman who brings their childhood blankie with them, and the moviegoer who must have their popcorn and Red Vines, while sitting in an even-numbered row.
Habits drive most of our activity each day. And you can convince yourself to accomplish nearly anything through focused habit building.
3. The Department of Peer Pressure is like a radar station, continually monitoring the actions of everyone you see. 30,000 times a day, it frets: Do I still fit in with everyone? You feel relief when you fit in and distress when you don’t. Think of a teenager (or an adult) who modifies their wardrobe and behavior to avoid ostracism.
Of the three departments, this one is often the most insidious because its influence is difficult to detect. Left unchecked, it can drive us to form destructive habits.
Steer your subconscious
The only way to get yourself to stop procrastinating is to work with all three departments so that writing your novel aligns with their motivations.
My three suggestions:
1. Use peer pressure. Surround yourself with folks who regularly write and publish, even if it’s just blogging. You could:
- Join a writers’ group.
- Attend a writing retreat.
- Follow the publishing schedules of favorite authors and columnists.
- Join a beta swap group where writers review each others’ work.
You want to normalize the idea that writing is something that everyone does. You want to feel left behind when you don’t write. If you’re the only writer in your circle of friends, you’ll face a steady stream of reasons not to write.
Of my three suggestions, this is the most underutilized and the most fun.
2. Set a daily goal to review the last 100 words you wrote and write an additional two crappy words. This goal here has nothing to do with the words you write—it’s all about building a daily writing habit. Pick a time and place where no one will disturb you. Reading your last 100 words and adding two more is trivial, and therefore won’t rankle (or set off the fire-alarms!) in the Dept. of Pain and Pleasure. You can do this!
After seven consecutive days meeting your goal, bump it from two words to 25. And gradually move toward 500 words a day. The Department of Habits will propel you to write each day. Each time you do, the Dept. of Pain and Pleasure will say, This feels good—let’s do more!
Here’s the best part: 500 words/day over 180 days equals a 90,000-word first draft!
3. Use carrots and sticks to direct the Dept. of Pain and Pleasure. Carrots include rewarding yourself with a favorite drink, tv show, or time playing video games when you meet your daily goal. These rewards act as a catalyst and provide the activation energy you need. And know, that small, daily rewards are far more effective than large end-of-the-haul ones.
You can also use sticks to drive behavior. For example, visualize lying on your death bed, and you have yet to publish anything. Or even write anything. You grab a pen and frantically begin to scribble ideas, but your unsteady hand keeps dropping it. Imagine being submerged in regret and remembering the thousands of hours you spent on stupid stuff. Envision a shelf of books that you never wrote and watch as a swaggering flame slowly disintegrates each volume.
This kind of negative fantasy creates tremendous pain for your subconscious, and it will plead with you to write, so this scenario doesn’t become your future.
Give yourself a reason to write. Remember the words of Nietzsche, He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.
How Stewie applied these ideas
In August 2019, I started this blog and knew I’d need to steer my subconscious to maintain my motivation.
Here’s what I did to surround my myself with writers:
- Started meeting with a writer and an editor, weekly.
- Followed writers/editors on YouTube, like Diane Callahan and Ellen Brock.
- Joined TL;DR Press’ writing community
Peer pressure drove me to work toward a goal of publishing 1,400 words a week. And to accomplish that, I scheduled 7 - 9 am for writing, 7 days a week.
Now, I’ll miss a day on occasion (especially since the Covid-19 pandemic began), but most days, I’m in my office at 7 am.
You probably noticed that I didn’t mention any carrots or sticks, and there are three reasons:
- Peer pressure provides plenty of motivation.
- I built a steady habit and feel something is missing when I don’t write.
- At 7 am, my mind is clear, and I have enough energy to write. If I wrote late in the day, I’d need a bushel of carrots and sticks.
In less than a year, I published 46,000 words on my blog, while working full-time. I also completed a handful of flash pieces (1,000-word stories). And I feel good about this, especially when I consider the turbulence of the last six months.
If you still can’t find the motivation
If the above methods don’t work for you, consider that writing your novel is just a dream right now. And that’s ok. Writing a book is a test of endurance and requires hundreds or thousands of hours. It’s not a marathon but more akin to the six months of training to run a marathon. And that’ll only get you the first draft.
Is this something you want to tackle right now? It’s understandable if the answer is a resounding No.
Perhaps you just have too much going on right now. You may not have the energy or stamina to handle anything else today. And that’s ok, too.
As I write this in June 2020, I’ve had a rough six months. My father-in-law died unexpectedly. My employer fired its CEO, and the company was acquired by a private equity firm. Many friends at work lost their jobs in the first big layoff. I recently lost my job in the second large layoff and have the privilege of looking for work during a recession and a pandemic. My son had to finish second grade at home without friends or basketball practice. And I worry about how the upcoming school year will be structured for my son and daughter (she’s going into kindergarten).
Some days I’m too exhausted to write. Or read. Or do anything beyond coping with the situation. And that’s ok.
This too shall pass.
When I was in junior high, my family said, Don’t give in to peer pressure! You need to do the opposite: spend time with fellow writers and succumb to peer pressure. Let it work its marvelous magic!
Also, use carrots and sticks to help you build a daily writing habit. It will feel pointless at first since you won’t write much, but you will condition yourself to show up at the proverbial typewriter and put words to paper. And with the right habits, you can accomplish anything.
- How to Motivate Yourself to Write Every Day - Diane Callahan
- Forget big change, start with a tiny habit - BJ Fogg
- How to Stop Procrastinating - Matt D’Avella
- The only way to stop procrastinating - Mel Robbins
Thanks to Annie Percik and Todd Ericksen for reading drafts of this.