The Organized Writer: Procrastination

by Jeff Abbott on December 18, 2008

We’ve all done it. Put off what seemed most important to us (our writing) in favor of doing another activity decidedly less important and even trivial. Procrastination. It’s getting much more attention these days and as outlined in an excellent cover story in Scientific American Mind, it comes with an extremely high cost. As Trisha Gura writes:

Contemporary society offers a surfeit of distractions, including computer games, television and electronic messaging–not to mention cars and planes to take us to more stuff to see and do–all enticing us to move off task.
Succumbing to such enticements can be costly. Experts estimate that 40 percent of people have experienced a financial loss because of procrastination, in some cases severe. In 2002 Americans overpaid $473 million in taxes as a result of rushing and consequent errors. And Americans’ dearth of retirement savings can be attributed, in part, to people putting off putting away cash.

What struck me in reading the article was that taking a time map style approach–when you actually schedule time to work on specific projects  like I’ve suggested before–can help fight procrastination:

Smart scheduling can also thwart procrastination. In an experiment published in 2002 Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely, then at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and marketing professor Klaus Wertenbroch of INSEAD, a business school with campuses in France and Singapore, asked students in an executive-education class to set their own deadlines for the three papers due that semester. Ariely and Wertenbroch set penalties for papers turned in after the self-imposed deadlines. Despite the penalties, 70 percent of the students chose deadlines spaced out over the semester, rather than clustering them all at the end. What is more, those who set the early deadlines scored better, on average, than did students in a comparable class in which Ariely set one due date for all three papers at the end of the semester. Such planning can buck any inclination to put off the work. “The deadlines made them better performers,” Ariely says.

Yes, I love being scientifically validated.

Obviously what works for one may not work for another. But I have always found that procrastination, at least on writing, comes when I am not feeling confident. It can rear its head when you’re having to make a difficult choice. The best thing you can do is to simply forge ahead. Just sit down, grind it out. Don’t kid yourself that daydreaming or going to Facebook or calling your cousin is going to help you get your work done. 

Just do it. It’s become a cliche, but it’s one that works. 

    { 3 comments… read them below or add one }

    Ann Victor December 18, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    Oh I am SO guilty of this one! :(

    Meg Gardiner December 23, 2008 at 4:21 am

    I’ve been meaning to read this post for days. Glad I finally did.

    Kristan December 23, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    LOL to the irony of Meg’s comment.
    Yeah, I’m super guilty of this, but I’ve been working on refining my own system of productivity and it’s helping a lot! Basically “No Internet Till Noon” combined with Daily To-Do Lists. Great for short-term productivity.
    This deadline issue is one I struggle with, since I’m not with an agent and thus don’t have someone professionally breathing down my neck. (If they don’t actually do this, don’t tell me! I need the myth.) Setting my own only sort of works, since I know there are no repercussions if I fail to meet them. That’s what I’m working on right now…

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