Thursday, February 26, 2009

Well, I Think I've Put This Off Long Enough...

Current Reading: Still nothing. Does that make me a bad man?

Inspirational Quote: "You may delay, but time will not." -- Benjamin Franklin

Note: I'm not a psychologist. I don't even play one on television. What I've done here is collected some information from web-published sources (much of it published by psychologists) and synthesized it into a whole that may or may not reflect effective treatment. If you have (or suspect you have) a psychological problem, stop looking for answers on the web. Contact a professional.

Since the causes of procrastination are not well understood, there exist a myriad of ways to combat the tendency with greater or less success. Some of them are quick fixes that rely solely on will power, the effectiveness of which I always doubt because you're fighting yourself and both of you are employing the same will power so it balances out. I'm also not a fan of the quick fix because, like duct-taping, it addresses the immediate consequences of the problem while doing nothing to actually address the problem. I prefer more in-depth treatments that work on the underlying causes of behavior. Unfortunately, changing habitual thoughts and behavior requires considerable time.

A lot of information about procrastination comes from educational institutions, since student procrastination is one of the most studied and documented forms of the problem. Most college/university counseling services offer informative cheat-sheets on how to overcome reluctance to finish a paper or study for a test.

A few actions can be taken to address mild forms of procrastination:

Break down a goal into sub-goals. These sub-goals need to be S.M.A.R.T:

Specific: No vague, "work on the story," type of goals. Get detailed and concrete: "Finish first draft of chapter 14" is good. There's no hedging there.
Measurable: You should be able to mark progress toward your goal either in a "pass/fail" sense, or in a fractional/percentage sense. Not only should you know when the goal has been achieved, but you should be able to tell how far along you are toward that achievement. Word count goals are great for this.
Achievable: Make sure the goal is something you can achieve, and not just wishful thinking. "Finish final draft of chapter 14" is fine, provided you haven't set a deadline of midnight tonight and you've just written the first sentence of the first draft. Setting goals you already know you can't achieve is just setting yourself up for failure.
Realistic: If you've never written more than 1500 words in one sitting, it's unrealistic to set a goal of 5000 words a day. Use common sense and your realistic assessment of your capabilities to set a sensible goal.
Timed: The previous four letters specified the WHAT of your goal, but a WHAT is not truly a goal until you also specify WHEN. "Finish first draft of chapter 14 before Saturday" is good. "Write 1000wds/day" is good. "Work on the story Saturday," isn't.

Start off with small goals, even tiny ones. Often, some of the anxiety that causes procrastination comes from fear that goals are unattainable, that your goals are beyond your abilities. The best way to combat that kind of thinking is to start accumulating evidence to the contrary. Small goals let you see results right away, and give you confidence in your ability to meet more challenging goals. 1500wds/day may seem daunting, but you can look at writing 500 or even 100 and think, "Even blind, arthritic Aunt Milly could do that." It may seem pathetically small, but consider that 100wds/day adds up to 36500wds/yr: a third of an epic fantasy, half a YA, or even a full MG novel.

Plan on a reward for achieving your goal. The nature of that reward is up to you, but it should be something you enjoy. Lunch out. A new book. Twenty minutes under an apple tree admiring the sky. The reward is often a supplementary motivation for success.

Psychology tells us that those who clearly perceive their own success are most likely to achieve it. Imagine yourself working on a goal. How does it feel? If the emotions associated with working are unpleasant, try to figure out why (see the bit on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy below). What changes can you make to your perceptions to turn those negative emotions into positive ones? Imagine completing each of your goals. How does it feel to be done? If your only emotion is concern about the next goal, then reconsider the nature of your goals and come up with something a little less challenging. Allow yourself to imagine feeling relieved, elated, deserving of congratulations. Every accomplishment is a victory and should be celebrated.

Keep Your Energy Up:
Life wears one down. Stress and responsibility consume spiritual and mental energy constantly. If you do nothing to replace that energy, you'll run out. Exhaustion of emotional energy is one of the triggers for depression, and no-one can do anything well when they're depressed. So make time to relax and do something for the joy of it. Read. Walk. Meditate. Play.

Set aside time to write. Schedule it the way you do all your other important activities. Make it as much a priority as the kid's dentist appointment or reporting for work. You don't skip out on those, and you shouldn't skip out on your writing time if you're serious about this. You don't need much time. How long does it take to write 100 words? Twenty minutes? Fifteen? Five? Don't ever tell yourself you can't set aside enough time. The time you require depends on your goal, and if you can't find enough time to achieve your goal, then your goal isn't realistic.

Once you have set aside time to write, commit to it. Put your tail in the chair. Fire up the word processor. Write. Another frequent component of procrastination is the expectation of perfection: the words have to be right, and there's no point in starting until you are confident that they will be. That's defeatist thinking, because perfection is not a realistic goal. What is realistic is that you write something: 100 words (or 500, or 5000) of whatever occurs to you. They don't have to be the right words. They just have to be. Everything changes in revision anyway.

Once your deadline expires, whether you've succeeded in your goal or not, take a look at your performance.

If you didn't achieve what you set out to achieve, congratulations. You're in the majority. However, step out of that majority by trying to figure out why you didn't succeed. Maybe your goal was too challenging to be achievable. Maybe you ran out of energy. Maybe you kept violating your writing time, or just stared at the screen instead of pounding keys.
Don't be hard on yourself, and don't criticize yourself. That you've gotten to this point is a tremendous step forward whether you're willing to recognize it or not. View the unachieved goal as an experiment and examine the results without taking them personally. Remember that you set the goal and the bar for achievement, and we're not the best judge of our abilities. If we were, we wouldn't need critique groups. In fact, it's unusual to set the bar at the right height the first few times as you explore your capabilities.

If you did achieve your goal, more congratulations are in order. Still, you need to take a look at your performance. Maybe your original goal was achieved too easily. You wrote 100 words in an average of ten minutes, and you had set aside thirty minutes for writing. Chapter 14 turned out to be only about 5000 words, and you'd given yourself a month to complete the first draft. Jumping over a high-bar that's on the ground is not really a challenge, and there's little emotional satisfaction in victory over trivial opposition. Next time, raise the goal a little bit. Don't set goals as high as you may think you can achieve given your performance this time, because initial enthusiasm tends to give a boost to production that quickly fades.

Examine your goals and, in light of your performance, modify them accordingly. Find the balance between challenge and achievement with which you are most comfortable.

If you did succeed in your goals, then enjoy your planned reward. Don't put it off. You've earned it just as you earned your paycheck, and you wouldn't put off collecting that. Your reward is now positive re-enforcement of your victory over procrastination. It's encouragement. It's short-term payment for work in a field where the usual, tangible rewards are often years away.

Procrastination is a habit that cannot be canceled by a single act. It must be eroded, replaced with other habits, and habits are only formed by repetition. Set goals, visualize, watch your energy, act, assess and reward. The positive cycle of achievement will give your subconscious evidence of your abilities that will reduce the anxiety that pushes you into putting things off.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy:
Again, I'm no psychologist. I do, however, have some experience with using the following technique to modify emotional responses (see Mind over Mood in the Reading List). It's excellent at bringing subconscious thought patterns up to conscious awareness and providing a method for changing them.

When faced with a strong emotional response, as when sitting down at the keyboard and suddenly needing to do anything other than write:

  1. Consider your emotions. What do you feel? Anxious? Afraid? Nervous? Write down every word that seems descriptive and accurate. Now rank these according to how strongly you feel them, and identify the dominant emotions.
  2. Listen to your thoughts. What are you thinking when you feel these things? "I can't do this." "It's not ready yet." "The words aren't going to come out right." Write these down as well. Don't stop to consider or assess them, just write them down as they occur to you. Once you've collected a bunch, rate them in order of contribution to your feelings. Choose three of the dominant thoughts.
  3. For each thought, gather some evidence to support it. When you have a few instances, gather some evidence to oppose it. "It's not ready yet." Go back into what you've written before. Find some examples of times when you wrote even though you didn't feel ready. Read them over. Can you tell you weren't ready? Can you fix them in revision? Do you think it will matter that you weren't ready at the time you wrote them? Try to be objective in your selection and assessment of evidence.
  4. Based on your assessment of the evidence, do you need to formulate some new thoughts more in line with reality as you now see it? If so, write them down. Repeat them a dozen times.
A list of web references for the curious:

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