Writing, Procrastination, And The Monkey
I am not alone in the never-ending war against procrastination, and I honestly find it reassuring to see how many writers struggle to win it.
After many years, I decided that now was the time to study our enemy.
Here’s the result of my efforts: my small contribution. How procrastination works and how to defeat it.
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What is procrastination?
The Greek poet Hesiod, around 800 B.C., wrote not to “put your work off till tomorrow and the day after.” Writers always struggled with procrastination and, hard as it may seem to believe, the Internet is not the number one culprit.
The very first obstacle is the wrong perception we generally have about it. Somehow, we neglected to treat procrastination for what it is: a harmful habit. In our view, it has always been just some laziness, justified like this:
“It’s just that I work best under pressure.”
And for 99% of the cases, the truth is that we don’t. We simply didn’t manage to begin our work when it was smart to begin. We failed in self-regulating ourselves and kept alive a habit that could be seen as the opposite of being productive. Let’s say that if working on your novel an hour per day is progress, procrastination represents a steady and dangerous nothing.
PRODUCTIVE -> PROGRESS
PROCRASTINATION -> NOTHING
It’s a complicated failure of self-regulation: experts define it as the voluntary delay of some important task that we intend to do, despite knowing that we’ll suffer as a result. A poor concept of time may exacerbate the problem, but an inability to manage emotions seems to be its very foundation.
In other words, your procrastination problem has (almost) nothing to do with your time-management skills. To say to a chronic procrastinator, ‘just do it now’ or ‘schedule the work’ is like suggesting to a clinically depressed person to ‘cheer up’.
Ok, so how do we approach the problem?
With the monkey.
Mind the intention-action gap
What happens when you procrastinate is that a gap between your intentions and actions appears.
You truly wanted to write yesterday. But you didn’t.
And all the blame for this gap falls on the monkey.
Tim Urban — the procrastinating mind behind ‘Wait But Why’ — explains more or less scientifically that the Instant Gratification Monkey is the part of your brain that makes you procrastinate. It’s the last creature that should be in charge of your decisions as it only thinks about the present, ignoring lessons from the past and disregarding the future altogether — it is entirely concerned with maximizing the ease and pleasure of the current moment.
When it steals your helm, you end up spending your time on something other than writing. Timing is crucial: the monkey only wants leisure activities to happen when leisure activities are not supposed to happen. But leisure, when you avoid the thing you’re supposed to do, is filled with guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread. It won’t be light-hearted.
Failure and Perfectionism
Most procrastinators betray a tendency for self-defeat, and it’s interesting to notice that it can occur from either a negative or a positive state. Negative states like the fear of failure or perfectionism typically cause self-defeat. Writers are badly affected by these two. But even positive states like, for example, the joy of temptation let us feel like self-defeat would be a preferable option: so we open YouTube (I do that), and two hours later, we hate ourselves and can’t understand why we didn’t write.
Moreover, this behaviour occurs:
The chronic procrastinator, the person who does this as a lifestyle, would rather have other people think that they lack effort than lacking ability.
Basically, it works like this: you’re scared of showing your work and being judged, so you don’t really try and end up saying other people sentences like “I did not commit myself”.
Not showing your work is safer, but as a consequence of this behaviour, procrastinators suffer more and perform worse than other non-procrastinating people. It makes sense: writers that can’t actually keep their bum on the chair and write will feel unfulfilled, right?
The challenge is bridging that gap between intention and action. And our first concern to do as such should be emotional regulation. If you can manage your emotions, you can stay on task.
The future-self trap
I’m going to do it. Just not right now.
I didn’t feel like writing today’s newsletter. I kept thinking that future-me would have been more accurate. He’d have handled insecurity and frustration, getting the whole thing done in less time. So I passed the task — light-hearted!
It was a trap. Now that I’m writing this thing, I hate past-me — that dude that chilled out and forced me to do the job in less time and with higher pressure.
And I’m lucky we’re talking about a weekly newsletter with clear deadlines. Imagine the results of acting like this when trying to write a 300-pages novel nobody asked you to write. It would never come into the world!
Don't give today's shit to tomorrow's you.
Let’s see how.
Fighting the monkey
One thing only scares the shit out of the Instant Gratification Monkey, and that’s panic. It’s dormant most of the time, but it suddenly wakes up when a deadline gets too close or when there’s a danger of public embarrassment, a career disaster, or some other scary consequence. We use to get there, in the panic zone, almost every time.
But in order to fight the monkey, we need to have a real strategy. Meaning that we need to both planning and doing.
“Procrastinators love planning, quite simply because planning does not involve doing, and doing is the procrastinator’s Kryptonite.”
— Tim Urban
Planning requires us to be specific. For example, we can’t settle to write a novel this year. That’s a nice goal, but a plan would be — to mention a classic — to determine you’re going to write one hour every morning starting on Saturday morning between 10 and 11. If you avoid being specific, the monkey will always know that you don't really intend to do it in your subconscious.
Effective planning sets you up for success. Effective planning takes a big list and selects a winner: A big list is perhaps an early phase of planning, but planning must end with rigorous prioritizing and one item that emerges as the winner—the item you’re going to make your first priority. And the item that wins should be the one that means the most to you—the item that’s most important for your happiness.
In our case, that should be actual writing.
If urgent items are involved, those will have to come first and should be knocked out as quickly as possible in order to make way for the important items (procrastinators love to use unimportant but urgent items as an excuse to forever put off the important ones). Effective planning turns a daunting item into a series of small, clear, manageable tasks.
The key to de-dauntifying an item is to absorb this fact: A remarkable, glorious achievement is just what a long series of unremarkable, unglorious tasks looks like from far away.
Nearly every big undertaking can be boiled down to a core unit of progress, like a wall to its bricks. The first hour spent writing a novel is a fundamental brick, as much as the final effort to publish the entire work — they’re both units of the same process but at different stages.
The average day in a wannabe author’s week and a real author’s week looks almost the same. The real author writes a couple of pages, laying a brick, and the wannabe author writes nothing. 98% of their day is otherwise identical. But a year later, the real author has a completed first draft of a book and the wannabe author has…nothing. It’s all about the bricks.
When you’re aware of how to proceed one brick at a time and planning, the only other thing left is - the hard part! - doing.
The monkey absolutely hates stopping something fun to start something hard, and this is where you need to be the strongest. Moreover, it has a terribly short-term memory—even if you wildly succeed on Monday, when you begin a task on Tuesday, the monkey has forgotten everything and will again resist working through it. And that’s why persistence is such a critical component of success. Laying each brick yields an inner struggle—and in the end, your ability to win this very specific struggle and lay brick after brick, day after day, is what lies at the core of a procrastinator’s struggle to gain control over his world.
There’s only one way to truly beat procrastination: You need to prove to yourself that you can do it. You need to show yourself you can do it, not tell yourself.
Whether you solicit external support to hold you accountable or promise to deliver a newsletter every Wednesday (don’t do it; it’s horrible), just keep pulling slow but steady progress.
A deeply rooted habit such as procrastination doesn’t change all at once — but one modest improvement at a time.
Even being bad, if it’s better than yesterday, is positive.
The author who writes one page a day has written a book after a year. The procrastinator who gets slightly better every week is a totally changed person a year later.
See you next Wednesday,