Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Writing Life: Tips for Dealing with Procrastination

by JJ Murphy


I know something's up when I'd rather do laundry than write.

Another more subtle sign of procrastination is when I conduct endless research, but never write a rough draft. I'm in trouble when I'm hunting in the refrigerator after every sentence.

But what can I do about it? Here are a few ideas that have helped me negotiate this rough terrain in my writing life:

1. Define your most productive times. I write best first thing in the morning. Nothing has happened to distract me from my thoughts. This is the best time for me to free write, review materials I wrote several days ago, or proofread. Another good time for me is when I'm hiking or when I take a break after a 45 minute hike to a pleasant sit spot.

2. Assess your writing environment. I write best when there is natural light. At night I need correctly placed light. Shadows or glare are distracting obstacles that contribute to procrastination.

3. Remove distractions. I have a place where I can sit and write regardless of the weather. I like being outside better, but when I need research and support materials, my library and the Internet are important. If music is playing, it has to be something that is not intrusive. TV or videos are deadly. Turn off the TV - even the Weather Channel. The difference is amazing. If you do not have a room, office or a space all your own, dedicate a corner of a room or a quiet place in the library where you do nothing but write.

4. Write everything down. Freewriting, brainstorming, lists, outlines, organic notes (those diagrams with spokes) - whatever floats into your head - write it down. Worry about organizing later. The idea is to fill up the page with words. If you have to start with "I hate this, it's dumb, I can't think of where to begin..." - do that. The more words that turn up on the page, the greater the chance that some of them get to the heart of what you want to say. If your hand cramps, talk into your voicemail or consider purchasing voice recognition software.

5. Take baby steps. I recently set a goal to publish a writing-related article once a week. That would be scary, but I have broken the task down into baby steps. I established a list of topics that I can add to whenever I think of something. If an idea grabs me, then I'll write down what I'm feeling, thinking, learning or any other comment. I may have written about this topic before. Eventually I will have enough notes to begin a freewrite, which often turns into a rough draft. That is often enough to keep my momentum going through the rest of the writing process.

6. Write the easiest parts first. If I am stuck for a beginning, I write a middle. If I have a conclusion or strong opinion, I write that first. Sometimes a little push is enough to set the process back in motion.

7. Reward your small victories. If I have been writing for 15 minutes to an hour, I take a well-deserved break. It soothes my eyes to shift from staring at a screen or notebook to looking out at the horizon. I may just stretch or get a cup of tea or I may use that time to break for a hike or some other treat. Taking breaks helps avoid burn-out, which kills productivity.

8. Be prepared for setbacks. Even with the support provided by these guidelines, setbacks happen. If I focus on being stuck, I stay stuck. Instead I look for ways to move on. I might write about the topic from an opposing point of view, I might write a dialogue between me and the procrastination monster, or I might switch from writing nonfiction to fiction. The important thing is not to substitute washing the kitchen floor for writing.

9. Have a plan. When caught in the grip of procrastination, recognize the symptoms and make a commitment to change the pattern. For me, procrastination typically sets in when my hiking is curtailed by a stretch of bad weather. Walking or any kind of rhythmic movement is part of what I need to do to write. In my part of the world bad weather is a fact of life. I will get stuck indoors. At that point, I have my tips list, an idea file, magnetic poetry and a whole range of ways to get words on a page. I don't need a final product. I just need to get my hands or my voice moving.

10. Accountability. Whether you write or not is entirely in your power. I cannot blame the weather, a sprained finger or anything else for my decision to write or not to write. If I want to provide my clients with work on or before a deadline, I have to write. If I want meaningful content for my readers, I have to write. I enjoy writing, but if it ever becomes a chore or a daily burden, I'll look for something else to do.

JJ Murphy is a freelance writer who helps a variety of companies, small businesses and individuals to express their awareness and dedication to developing sustainable technology and to preserve our natural resources. She provides articles for natural magazines, hiking publications, simple living publications in print and online. She also writes curricula to help public schools home schooling groups, private schools, wilderness camps, adult learning groups, continuing education programs and others stretch and expand their students’ knowledge.

She holds a Master of Arts degree from the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas and a B.A. degree in English and Anthropology from the University of Connecticut. Her client list includes writers, business consultants, motivational speakers, psychologists, financial planners, educators, and politicians.

Visit her website http://www.WriterByNature.com

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