Today’s topic is procrastination, the first part of a series I’ll be writing on time management. To demonstrate how you should not manage your time, I’ve procrastinated writing this blog entry for a solid two weeks. Remember when I said I’d post at least once a week? All right, it wasn’t an intentional demonstration. And I have my excuses: moving, getting to know my new roommate, starting a full-time editor job with EBSCO Publishing, adjusting to my new schedule, answering interview questions from fellow writer and blogger Vanessa Kelman. All valid reasons not to write. All excuses. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s first definition of excuse: “a: to make an apology for b: to try to remove blame from.” The second part implies that there is blame to go around in the first place. I can only blame myself for putting off writing this blog entry.
Here are some typical procrastinator excuses, with suggestions to avoid them (or in Julia terminology, “Smash them over the head!”):
“I don’t have the time!”
- You can always make the time. Heck, you can make time for free time. Write down a schedule; write a to-do list. These are visual reminders that help keep you on the ball. Keep them open on your computer desktop, printed out and taped to your desk, or written on a calendar or whiteboard hanging by your desk. Anywhere that’s not hidden from view. As you get into the swing of your new schedule, you’ll learn how to judge the length of time tasks will take you. Manageable schedules only, please! Don’t overdo it. If you truly do have too much on your plate, cut something out. You still need to eat, sleep, and stay sane.
- Crossing off each little task is incredibly satisfying. Even if it’s something as simple as “feed the fish.” (Your fish will thank you.) Actually, feeding the fish is a life or death situation for them, so it’s kind of a big task. To use an editing-related example, finding your red pen is an important small step toward the big one—editing that paper.
- Reward yourself for a job well-done! Rewards are excellent motivators. Here’s one that works particularly well for me: “Once I finish this paper, I can read from Terry Pratchett’s latest Discworld novel.”
“I keep getting distracted.”
- Disconnect the internet. Go on, I dare you. Make sure you have everything you need to do the task at hand. You’ll no longer have a valid excuse to stay connected.
- For when you are clicking on article after article on a favorite website, do so at a particular time of day. I set a half hour aside every morning before diving into my work. Also try to check your personal Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest account in a different area from your work space; designate your work space for work only. Even if you’re working from home, which has comfort advantages over an office, a barrier between work and play will help you get things done.
- Use a totem. No, I’m not talking about totem poles or totem animals. Not unless they help you meet the following criteria: an item that inspires you to write, edit, or simply buckle down and work by getting you in the right mindset. For examples, I recommend checking out the forums for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo); writers enjoy sharing their writing totems there. When I slip on my fingerless black and white striped gloves, that’s a signal for me to get writing, particularly on my fiction. (It also keeps my fingers warm if the room happens to be cold.) When it’s time for me to get to work, I place my second totem within view on my desk: a four-inch high knitted Death of Rats, a character from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. (Check out more of Paul Kidby’s artwork here.) He was thoughtfully crafted by a friend who understands my obsession with all things Discworld. (I somehow find him cute rather than threatening.)
- Play music that will get you in the right frame of mind—not the kind that will have you singing at the top of your lungs, scaring the neighbors with your funky dance moves. Save that for your breaks.
- If nothing else, employ the acronym coined by cartoonist Howard Tayler over at Writing Excuses: BIC HOK. “Butt in chair, hands on keyboard.”
- Yeah? Me too. Take breaks! Burnout is a bad, bad thing. Avoid it. Of course, you can’t be burnt out if you haven’t started working yet, can you?
- Grab a caffeinated drink. (My name is Julia Gilstein, and I am a tea addict.) Stay hydrated. Water is a wonderful thing. It helps keep you alert. It also forces you to get up and take a bathroom break.
- Run a lap around the office/the house/your sleeping chinchilla. (I do not own a pet chinchilla, nor do I endorse running around them.) Better, yet, fit in exercise sometime during the day. It’ll help you stay energized.
- Turn on some music. Figure out what type of genre/artist sets you in the right frame of mind for work. I’m sure you’ve heard of classical music increasing productivity—instrumentals in general are great. My personal preference is for movie soundtracks. When the music gets especially dramatic, I suddenly feel as though placing that apostrophe is the key to saving the world.
- If you find yourself staring at the computer screen, reading the same sentence over and over again, switch to a different project. You’ll be able to pour more energy into that second project, since it’s fresh on your mind. When that energy dies down, switch back to the first one.
- It’s okay to have an unproductive day. Hey, that rhymes! Useful for a mantra, isn’t it? “Unproductive day? That’s okay!” Repeat this to lessen procrastination guilt. Sometimes, you just can’t concentrate. It happens. (If you’re like me, take pride in the cleaning frenzy you just went on because your brain felt too overloaded to work.) Just don’t let it happen all the time. To prevent that, having a habitual schedule will come in handy.
“The deadline’s not for a few days.” (Also known as: “There’s always tomorrow!”)
- Except when tomorrow is today. And then you panic.
- The hardest deadline to stick to is the one you make for yourself. Yet you need to do that if you want to be a successful freelancer. If you push things off until the last minute, you risk losing sleep, getting overly stressed, and turning in a lesser quality product. Even if you just meet your client’s deadline, you could lose that client.
- I’m a procrastinator by nature, driven by the deadline. (As you can see, I have to work on keeping my own deadlines.) The closer the deadline approaches, the more I’ll dive into my work. That time pressure helps me turn out a decent product, because I’ll have poured my all into it at one go.
- But I admit, I’ve been a lot happier when I know how long a project will take me. I’ll plan everything else that I need/want to occur at the same time around it, and then parcel it out, doing bits at a time. Turning something in early becomes possible, and it feels so good. I find that when I actually follow the advice I just gave above, I’m happily productive. Stopping procrastination before it starts is a habit that takes getting used to, one that you can manage if you listen to yourself—acknowledge how you best work, then follow through with it.