Procrastination can manifest in many forms
Remember the story of the The Boy Who Cried Wolf? It’s one of Aesop’s Fables in which a lonely boy who is tending his sheep repeatedly cries “Wolf!” to seek attention. The first time his cries of alarm are heard, the villagers arrive. The second time it works again, yet the villagers are a little more dubious. However, shortly after this a real wolf arrives and begins attacking his flock. The boy again cries “Wolf, Wolf,” even louder than before. But this time the villagers, who have been fooled twice already, are certain the boy is lying again and is flock is eaten.
The moral of the story is simple:
A liar will not be believed, even when telling the truth.
Good intentions can seem positive at the time, but they lack integrity. The same goes for having too many projects on your plate at any given time. Trust me, I speak from experience. I have a Scivener project folder full of forty two unfinished novels and short stories — a few I’ve been telling friends will be my first novel.
So what’s going on when we don’t finish projects? The answer is simple: procrastination.
Procrastination often manifests in five different types:
- The Perfectionist
- The Overachiever
- The Crisis Maker
- The Dreamer
- The Avoider
Each of these types contributes towards incomplete projects and work together to sabotage or stunt your progress. You may be more a perfectionist than an overachiever, or perhaps you succumb to daydreaming about your next writing project rather than actually committing to it. Let’s break down some of these types to gain a better understanding of procrastination.
‘The Perfectionist’ often won’t start a task due to a fear of failure. However, that failure corresponds to not completing the task absolutely perfectly. A typical perfectionist often believes (at some level) that unless a project blows people away, or is Nobel Prize worthy, it’s a failure. Unrealistic expectations can quickly turn into a task that is a mountain to climb, and then it is easier to just avoid it.
A good example of this is coming up with a great premise for a novel, but skipping the detailed synopsis and jumping straight into the first chapter. Unless you’re one of those writers who can continue to join the dots (and some writers swear by this “make it up as you go along” process) you will quickly write yourself into a corner.
On the other hand, you may be waiting for the perfect time to write that novel: “I’ll write it in winter when I am home more often” or “I’ll write it when I find the perfect quiet retreat over the holidays.” But all these plans just end up becoming excuses for not getting started. The reality is, life is never perfect and neither are you — the world is chaotic and the unexpected happens. You can’t wait for perfect conditions as they don’t really exist.
The second type of procrastinator is ‘The Overachiever.’ Fuelled by anxiety, this person is convinced that they must accomplish everything at once (or in a very short timeframe) otherwise they’ve failed. However, this is just a front. What’s really going on is their perfectionism and impossible standards (or external expectations) have hijacked their ability to focus on one task at a time.
This is a problem I often face. Starting a new project is a way to avoid the current one — the daunting project you have made impossible by placing unrealistic expectations on yourself. You may convince yourself that beginning a fresh idea is the best approach since you’re feeling inspired, and other projects can go on the back burner for the time being… just for a while. If you do this each time you begin a project then ask yourself, what’s really going on? If it’s not the project, it’s you.
The Crisis Maker
The third type is the ‘Crisis Maker.’ This is someone who believes that in order to complete a task, they need stress or pressure to motivate them. An example of this may be a deadline from your boss, followed with brief, intense emails demanding constant updates. But what if there is no manager or agent breathing down your throat? What if you’re an independent writer trying to complete your first novel?
The truth is, you’re not always going to have someone to motivate you with deadlines, and even when you are given deadlines you may try to cram at the last minute, rather than giving yourself a reasonable timeframe. While the crisis of short deadlines might seem stimulating, it’s really a result of poor time management.
In fourth place is ‘The Dreamer.’ This is someone who is often talented and full of grandiose ideas. Yet, they are more comfortable being idealists than hard workers; often due to their belief that their dream will somehow manifest. This is the laziest type of procrastinator as the idea of actually having to work their ass off for their goals either terrifies them, they find it too frustrating or the process too boring.
The truth is, no one has ever achieved success without putting the hard work in. For writers, the golden rule of writing 1,000 words a day minimum is a rule for a reason. You may have an epic story in your head, but until it’s written out in a messy first draft, it will remain a daydream.
The bottom line is, to be a dreamer is a wonderful thing as long as you try to make those dreams a reality. As Sarah Ban Breathnach said:
“The world needs dreamers and the world needs doers. But above all, the world needs dreamers who do.”
This is someone I can relate to. ‘The Avoider’ is usually so worried about what people will think that they would rather postpone tasks than tackle them head-on. This type of procrastinator has a lot of fear surrounding failure, and often this kind of avoidance mindset is subconscious; almost second nature.
Also, considering the amount of distractions we have today it’s easier to avoid our tasks more than ever before — all you have to do is pick up your phone and you’re successfully avoiding that important, albeit scary, project. Mostly we avoid major plans because we are scared of failure; and sometimes because we are scared of success. Seriously! If you dig deep enough you may find that the prospects of success can be terrifying.
To complete a writing project we must create realistic goals
Once you’re able to identify with a particular type of procrastinator it should be easier to pick out your bad habits. The bottom line is that you will have to challenge yourself in ways that are uncomfortable for the procrastinator in you — it may be time to put on some war paint and show your warrior face, confront your true fears and break the cycle of excuses. In other words, stop crying wolf and develop a productive daily writing habit.
Homer Hickam came up with the three Ps of success: passion, planning, and perseverance.
You may have all the passion in the world but without a strategy you will remain aimless, like a kite blowing in the wind. One effective approach is to create SMART goals. But what are they exactly?
SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-based. Companies, education and project managers love this strategy for achieving their goals and objectives as it is a simple and effective approach.
SMART goals are brilliant because they allow a writer to set a clear path to achieving their goals with a realistic timeframe in which to achieve them.
For a goal to be attainable it must have a clear-cut outcome. What exactly do you wish to achieve? If the goal is clear, it becomes more realistic. If you’re a writer working on your first novel you may ask, “What kind of novel should be first novel be? What do I feel most passionate about?” You may discover that an entire new genre is calling to you.
What’s important though is that you are extremely specific. “I’m going to write a novel this year” is not enough. You need to sit down and really consider your goals. For example: “I’m going to write my novel about a soldier in the Civil War. This feels strongest to me.” Don’t waste your time on projects that you aren’t passionate about.
To achieve a goal, no matter your project, it must be measurable. For example: “I’m going to write my novel about the Civil War by August” is measurable. You have given yourself a reasonable deadline of five months. If you’re writing War & Peace you may need to broaden your timeframe. Writers can take anywhere from three months to ten years to write a novel. Keep in mind, it may take you 8 years of procrastination and 6 months to write the actual book.
Being attainable means that the goal is realistic and that you have what you need in order to achieve this goal. It also means that it’s time to quit trying to work on several projects at once and focus on a single goal; your strongest narrative.
You also you need to decide how long your story should be. Your first novel does not need to be a 100,000 word opus. George Orwell’s allegorical novel ‘Animal Farm’ is only 112 pages and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic ‘The Great Gatsby’ is only 144 pages; around 47,094 words and a length that’s really considered a novella.
What’s important is that you measure your progress along the way and remain consistent. Some writers stick the 1,000 words a day rule, while others have a specific word count they want to reach each week. Either way, you must be disciplined with your daily writing.
Of course your goals should be relevant to your life, otherwise why are you striving for them? Will writing a book bring you self-fulfilment and happiness, or are you writing to make money? You need to decide what’s true for you because doing something for the wrong reasons can easily backfire or lead to disappointments.
The same applies if you’re trying to reach a goal that isn’t yours. Another person’s goal is probably irrelevant to you unless your passions both align. I’ve seen way too many people give up on their dreams to toe the line for a boss, partner, or a parent. This needs to be your goal, not someone else’s.
Finally, you need to create a realistic timeline for your first draft. Trust me when I say this: If a goal doesn’t have an end date it will most likely remain incomplete, or take ten years to complete. Deadlines create a sense of urgency and can be a motivating force. I wrote 100,000 words over a year (a book I am now cutting back) only because I gave myself a time limit of twelve months. But a better approach would be to set a word count that is realistic, such as 70,000 words. By writing 1,000 words a day you could easily reach this word count within three months. Stephen King swears by a three-month window and believes if you spend too long on your novel, the story can start to feel oddly foreign.
“The first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months, the length of a season.” — Stephen King
Of course sometimes life isn’t that simple. Life gets in the way, and very few writers can commit to their writing full-time. So you need to do some planning, be realistic and allow for the chaos that is life. What’s important is that you remain consistent by staying aware of your procrastination types — continue to push against those old unproductive habits and create a timeline for a single writing project that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based.
As this is not an article about how to write your first novel, I will leave that for another time. But a book that has helped me to remain focused, trash unnecessary plot-points, create characters webs that help the story function organically and plan effectively is The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. Learning the art of storytelling may end up saving you a lot of time in the long run, and you may even avoid having to completely rewrite your first draft.