Saturday, October 11, 2014

Scratchpad: Fighting Procrastination

Part 2 of a three post series adapted from a project in an interesting (and free!) online course called "Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects" by Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski.  I'd highly recommend it for anyone who likes to learn. If this is something you are interested in, there is a new class that started on October 3rd HERE. Or you can buy the book HERE.  

Tackling the problem of getting back to the writing, tomorrow, the day after that, even when the going gets rough or its a bad day...has always been the hardest part of writing for many of us. We are writing in isolation, and we are writing with our own personal motivations as the driving force.  Procrastination has a real chance to get his foot in the door.  Here are several tools and techniques that research suggests may help with this:

1.  Keep a planning journal.

This is a bit like Ernest Hemingway's trick of stopping in the middle of a sentence. It gives your mind the time to use diffuse mode thinking to your advantage and figure out interesting ways to problem solve your writing.

Initially take a little time to think about what you want to accomplish long term with a project. Later, you can update this as you go.  Perhaps you want to write a rough draft in the next two months.  Or maybe you want to do research on a topic to see if there is something there that sparks a story.

With that in mind, write out a list of things to do or complete this week that will move you toward those goals. Then, at the end of each writing session, look at what you've accomplished and make a list of what you would like to do at your next writing session. That way, you are ready to start when you sit down the next time and don't have to scratch around trying to find your place.  

      When you sit down at the start of the next week to make out a new list, see how you did. Did you hit your targets? Did your list of to dos lining up with what was actually doable for you? How often did you make it to the writing? Keep that in mind as you make out your new plan for the upcoming week.

2. Arrange your work into a series of small challenges

The long aim (say a novel) can be too big to think about and still get work done. Break it down into smaller pieces or organize it under a larger challenge. Say a big group challenge like NanoWrimo which is coming up in a few short weeks for getting your first rough draft down on paper.   Or doing prompt challenges with websites like Today's Author or The Write Practice for doing your craft building work.  This keeps things fun. It also makes them doable.  Revisit them periodically or change them up for different things to make sure they are still working for you.

3. Rewards are the way to go

Have trouble getting to the writing desk? Reward yourself when you do sit down at the writing desk or when you close that internet browser and get back to writing. Give yourself a piece of chocolate. (Or something else small and motivational.)  

      In the long term, the finished writing itself will set up a reward loop in our brains and draw us to the writing, but that doesn't help us much today. Giving ourselves a small reward for doing the thing we want to be doing helps establish that positive link in our minds, and it helps us to overcome that initial mental hurdle of getting to the page by adding a positive motivator. 

     Plan out bigger rewards for larger milestones. It helps make the work fun instead of only the long slow trudge toward completion.

(If you want to know more about this and how it works, see this video by Robert Wright, (April 21, 2012). "How to Break the Procrastination Habit" The Atlantic.)

4. Set a time to work on something.

Set a daily appointment with yourself. Say for 25 or 30 minutes if it is a particularly daunting project. When that time comes around, sit down and work on it. Once the time is up, you are free for the day and don't have to think about it until the next day's appointment.  This also feeds in nicely to the other advice we so often here- "Write every day."

Now I just need to try these out for myself on a regular basis....

What about you? Do you have any great trips or tricks for getting yourself to the page or finishing projects?

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