Bad Habits: Procrastination

So many people say they would love to be more creative, they’re bursting with ideas, and yet they never get around to it. Others start projects but never complete them. Everyone has different reasons for never finishing that novel or learning to draw or calling that gallery owner.

Even people who create every day deal with creative impediments. This series of articles will examine seven of the biggest challenges we face:procrastination, envy, isolation, routine, television, food, and self-neglect.

Part 1: Procrastination

In our everyday lives, procrastination usually means putting off something important by engaging in less urgent tasks or more enjoyable activities. This behavior can wreak all kinds of havoc at work, at home, and at the bank. But procrastination in our creative lives means not doing things we presumably want to do, and it can cripple us.

Creative procrastination often sounds like the following:

  • “I can’t find the time.”
  • “I’m too distracted.”
  • “I worry about it being bad.”
  • “I can’t do it.”
  • “I’m too preoccupied with my job/spouse/kids/house/car/health…”
  • “I’m bored.”
  • “I’m not ready… I need the right paper and pens, and a desk, and better light…”
  • “I don’t know enough about oil painting…”
  • “I have to be perfect.”

Negative thoughts like these can stop even the most dedicated artist from doing their work, and we all have thoughts like these at times. They drive us away from our desks and studios, usually to do something that really could wait… Dirty dishes are a common factor.

Why do we let dirty dishes stop us from striving for our dreams?

Fear

The simple answer is anxiety.

To create something means to take risks, even if what you create is solely for your own benefit or enjoyment. All artists can expect criticism from others and from themselves. Sometimes mostly from themselves.

We also have to face the certainty of failure. We will write sentences that don’t work, paint scenes that lie flat, make music that refuses to soar. Some of us will practice for decades before achieving success, if ever. And the truth is that our work will never be done.

Your anxieties might be different, of course. But we all have them, and we don’t have to let them stop us. The journey takes courage and energy, but we can recognize and deal with our fears instead of hiding behind the wrong pen or the empty milk carton.

How?

You can find hundreds of suggestions for beating procrastination if you have Google access and the time. I’m going to make just a few suggestions here.

Make an Inventory

Figure out your own style of procrastinating by noting your thoughts and actions. Think about what the real problem might be and how you might approach it.

For instance, if you can never find the time to write, look very closely at your schedule. Can you make the time to write? Five minutes a day, ten minutes at lunch on Thursday, an hour a week? Then what’s really holding you back? Maybe you just need to make the commitment. Show up for five minutes a day and see what happens.

I used this technique to discover that I like to walk away when the writing becomes difficult. Because there is always something more important than working on another unsold novel manuscript, this is a very easy thing to justify. “I’ll take a break,” I think. And I’ll sweep the deck, or wash the dishes, and pretty soon my writing time is used up and I have to turn to other work.

So I force myself to sit right here. That’s the rule: I cannot walk away. I can change scenes, chapters, or even projects if I’m truly stuck, but I stay in the chair. Habits and boundaries work for me. You’ll find what works for you.

Let Go of Perfectionism

After “I can’t find the time,” the most popular way to avoid creative work is to convince yourself it’s not worth the time because you’re not very good or can’t do it right.

But if you yearn to do it, whatever it is, anyway, why let that stop you?

If you were perfect at everything, wouldn’t life be incredibly boring?

Could you ride a bicycle the first time you tried? I bet not. People can learn all kinds of outlandish stuff they think they have no talent for.

I’ve always wanted to draw beautiful, intricate pictures, but drawing doesn’t come naturally to me. Guess what? I draw anyway. No one else ever needs to see my failures, and my successes feel great.

Imagine It Already Done

My favorite technique is to imagine my project finished to my immense satisfaction. This puts a long-term goal within my mental grasp; it’s my carrot to the stick of staying in the chair.

Positive Self-Talk

Remember to give yourself credit for what you do instead of just guilt for what you didn’t do or can’t do. Every time you meet your commitment, make sure to note it somehow, even if it’s just to congratulate yourself for standing in front of a blank canvas for five minutes!

I keep a self-coaching journal and jot down my creative activities along with questions, thoughts, ideas, and so forth. It’s a form of accountability anyone has access to.

Hire a Coach

If you have the resources, a creativity coach can help keep you on track, hold you accountable, and encourage you along the way.

Or learn a few self-coaching techniques. Coaching the Artist Within by Eric Maisel is a good place to start. Dr. Maisel invented creativity coaching.

Starting next week, I’ll be posting a column about self-coaching every fourth Friday, so come back and check in!

And Finally…

Sometimes procrastination is a good thing. Really. If you need more information before you can do a thorough job, waiting to get that information makes sense, doesn’t it?

As a writer, I occasionally find that I have to put a project on the back burner in order to get it right. Stuck on a plot point, for instance, I’ll try all my creative refreshers—taking a walk, rereading earlier portions, playing with “what if,” and so forth—and sometimes I just have to stop thinking about it. Usually, then, the answer will come to me in a flash or in a dream or just when my bored mind has returned to poke at the problem again.

Samir Bharadwaj has some suggestions for beneficial procrastination here.

And now I have put off finishing and posting this article for long enough.

Create every day