How to Stop Procrastinating; Advice for Creative People

thoughts of putting things off Cup of coffee on laptop screen

Everybody puts things off, but for creative people, in particular, procrastination can be a big problem. When it all seems too big or too hard, motivation can vanish completely. Once you start procrastinating, it can send you into a tailspin trying to get the job done when deadlines loom. So though I’m no doctor of psychology- half the time I can’t even spell it- here follows a little friendly advice for creative people on how to stop procrastinating from someone who has spent far too long avoiding.

Exhibit A: Creative Avoidance

Or: How I procrastinated on figuring out how to stop procrastinating.

  • Browsed various cat pics. Absolutely vital for this post.
White cat with blue eyes
This one is coming for you.
  • Thought about the creative process and why I couldn’t get it done.
  • Did some free-writing. Wandered off.
  • The Pomodoro Technique. Wandered off. (Useful though.)
  • Printed it out, cut it up and reassembled it. (Sorry trees- I’m mostly digital now).
  • Changed the theme on my laptop so I can see the tabs in Chrome again.
  • Sent some emails that had to be done right now.
  • Made more tea.
  • Daydreamed.
  • Wondered If I’ve got anything worth saying.
  • Wondered if I’m saying far too much.
  • Lots of overthinking.
  • …Oh, look there’s a baby bird outside in the plum tree. I think I need toast.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Deep work is in itself mentally exhausting. It takes time to get into a creative headspace; it can take 20 minutes to refocus after a distraction. It’s especially hard when you’re struggling because you can’t get your character to behave, the lyric isn’t relatable or the blocking just isn’t working. It’s 10 times as hard to get started when there’s no end in sight which, is often the case with creative projects. It becomes easier to avoid.

Also, Friends is on. 

There’s nothing quite like wasting the time you do have to drive home the guilt. It doesn’t make you feel better in the long run.

How does procrastination happen?

“Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow”

-Mark Twain

Procrastination is a learned coping mechanism. Putting things off generates temporary relief from the task you don’t want to do whatever the reason may be. The key to stopping unhelpful behaviour is figuring out what that reason is.

The Now Habit by Neil Fiore explores why we’re after that temporary relief in the first place. You’ve probably heard of the concept of positive statements by now, but they can really help if you’re in a funk. Fiore advises Dropping ‘should’, ‘must’ and ‘have to’ from your vocabulary and replacing them with ‘I will’ or ‘when can I start?’ to get you moving. Instead of attempting to ‘finish’ things, just start them again each day. Mindset is a huge part of stopping procrastination.

I’ve personally gotten a lot of mileage out of taking a break every 30 minutes. It doesn’t seem like much, but when I’m procrastinating those 30-minute stretches are everything. It’s a modern classic for a reason and well worth a read. Also, not too long for the procrastinators in the room.

Are you really procrastinating?

You may just be an incubator and not procrastinating at all, that’s a whole other thing. Problem solved. 

An incubator is similar to a procrastinator in that both wait till the last minute and both can be motivated by external deadlines. But the incubator’s creative process hums away in the background while doing something else until a work of (relative) genius explodes onto the page. The next bout of deep work usually comes up with the goods.

As long as that deep work is happening, this may just be your pace. And that’s ok.

The world tells us we should seek instant engagement and instant results. Success gained is always ‘overnight’ even though we all know by now it takes years of hard work and determination. 

“Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; They do marginally useful things”

-John Perry, The Art of Procrastination a guide to effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing

The title of John Perry’s book is a thing of beauty and procrastinating aside, the world doesn’t do nearly as much lollygagging as it used to.

Also, Marginally Useful Things could be my production company name. I’d get lots of mild interest and a reasonable amount of applause.

Sounds winning.

Blank lined note book with sunlight, how to stop procrastinating;advice for creative people title

Back to the point. Perry sees himself as a “structured procrastinator“, someone who gets a lot done by doing other things. In other words, he finds it easy to motivate himself to do something as long as it’s not the thing he’s avoiding doing. Make sense?

Whatever way you define your avoidance, it’s important to keep up morale so you don’t fall into the trap of self-doubt.

Laptop and Journal to avoid procrastination

Keep a journal or a document somewhere with all your successes no matter how small. On days when you can’t get going, it’s enormously helpful to see how far you’ve come.

Sometimes it’s just fear

When it comes to creative goals, fear of the next step is often the reason we waste time. If you’re anything like me you may, at times, be wondering if you can even do this at all. Maybe it’s just too late.

Or…what if it’s not? I mean, what if you’re successful? What then?

Can you cope with the life you’re setting up for yourself?

Whichever side of this you fall on, these are questions you can’t answer right now. Would you even really want the answers anyway? We can’t project ourselves into the future any more than we can undo the decisions we made to get here. All we can do is do something today and see where it leads.

Easier said than done right? How do we actually get unstuck from this negative loop and get the job done? Ok, well you’re still reading so let’s start with the things we can stop doing right now.

Doubling down doesn’t help

I’ve learned this one the hard way. Things go wrong. Schedules will always get messed up. Creative people and their calendars are beyond flexible, even when they don’t want to be. There will also always be days lost to technical hitches, unplanned for requests on your time and projects that go way over the time you’ve allotted for them. It’s hardly a surprise that the creative stuff gets shoved to the back burner. And that’s when you’ve got ‘legitimate’ reasons for not getting the job done. Decompressing in front of the TV is always going to be easier than getting into a creative (and often draining) headspace.

The problem happens when we try to do twice as much the following day. It invariably messes up the workflow and makes us feel worse when, after the initial burst, we can’t sustain it. It’s like crash dieting, do too much too soon and you’ll fall off the wagon much harder. Once again, Slow and steady wins the race. It also helps you get back to enjoying the creative process.

screwed up paper and pen

What’s more, trying and failing to get that creative time back feels even worse. If, by some herculean effort you succeed? Congratulations. Now, do it again. We get exhausted and burned out and procrastinating gets easier and easier. Is working this way worth it when it makes us feel like we’d rather do anything else?

Procrastinate till perfect

If you’re spending all your time on something and it never seems to be finished then you’re probably trying too hard. As far as blogs go, you’re never really finished. Other writing is a perpetual creative activity that only really has an end when you say it does. That’s true for individual pieces as well as whole careers. You can let it go and do something else or you can keep improving it where no one will see it.

This particular post made it to revision 42. I know. At some point, you’ve got to recognise you’re getting in your own way.

Procrastination and perfectionism often go hand in hand but We don’t have to get it all right today. What does that even really mean? The next one will be better and the one after that may be a work of art. Or not. But if you never finish it, you’ll never find out.

It may well be your best work yet, but you’re too close to it. Walk away-but not for long– and come back fresh. Distance provides clarity which is sometimes all we need.

Get Some Sleep

Working into the night can do weird things to the brain. Some people thrive on it, for some, it’s the only creative time they’ve got. It can be a place of quiet and peace but it can also be an endless struggle when what you’re working on just won’t deliver. Then it can feel very isolating as if you’re the only writer in the world and everyone can do it except for you. It doesn’t help when you’re too tired to function on normal human things the next day.

This alone can torpedo your work ethic and send you on a spiral of procrastination because you’re too tired to make it happen again. Stop. Listen to what you’re body is telling you.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve had to pay more attention to my health. But then, I used to write songs (quietly) at midnight when the house had gone to sleep, playing a keyboard with headphones and gloves to muffle the noise of the keys stokes. There are many things I had to let go of, working late at night is not a realistic option anymore.

It’s worth valuing feeling good and putting your mental wellbeing first. A lack of sleep can cause inflammation in the body, stress and hormone imbalances. Not to mention the family time you miss because you’ve been working all evening. The habits you have now can impact your whole life. Mathew Walker’s Why We Sleep ought to be required reading even if it’s not for the faint of heart. If nothing else, it’ll make you check your habits. Avoiding Dementia is to be encouraged. An exhausted body lowers resistance. Also, it’s easy to put things off when even the thought of starting is draining. Get some rest; your creative brain will thank you.

Don’t finish that sentence

Stopping in the middle of a thought or even a sentence can be more helpful for our creativity than coming to a natural conclusion. It worked for Hemingway. Why? Because it’s easier to restart when you haven’t finished. That mental conclusion to yesterday’s effort often triggers procrastination.

“Stop in the middle of a sentence, leaving a rough edge for you to start from the next day — that way, you can write three or five words without being “creative” and before you know it, you’re writing.”

Cory Doctorow

Tomorrow it will be easier to pick up the thread. You won’t find yourself subconsciously putting it off through 17 cups of tea, the dishes in the sink, and hanging out the laundry. Not to mention a million related busy tasks. The font is fine. Stop fiddling.

Procrastinating and time management.

Breaking down goals into the smallest possible achievable chunks in a realistic time frame is fairly standard advice these days. Pick a schedule, stick with it and if you’re not currently procrastinating for whatever reason, it works. Yet it’s still easy to get caught up in the need to do it all NOW. Especially when you should’ve done it yesterday.

And if we can’t do it all now?

Well, of course, we can’t. What we end up with is a distracted brain, a ridiculous to-do list and a bunch of half-finished projects languishing about waiting for the moment that inspiration strikes again.

It’s easy to pin the blame on lousy time management and for a very long time, that’s what most people did. Until professor of psychology at DePaul University, Joseph Ferrari came along. His research has found that as much as 20% of people are chronic procrastinators

“It really has nothing to do with time-management…[]… to tell a chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up”

Joseph Ferrari, Professor of Psychology, DePaul University

At least you know you’re not the only one, and if all else fails, the fantastic Tim Urban’s Ted Talk, Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator is as funny as it is insightful.

Take small steps

We know walking is great for our well being. It can also stop the endless mental cycle of beating yourself up when you haven’t done ‘enough’. It took me a long time to learn this lesson and even now I forget it and start blaming myself for the wasted time. Sometimes you just have to accept that your pace is slower than you want it to be.

We all need the time to rest and reflect. Getting over your fears takes time. Getting used to the idea that this thing you’re attempting to achieve is something you do, takes time. Recognising that you’re not an imposter is a big part of beating procrastination. and whilst you can’t walk your fears away completely, moving can help you focus. A body in motion often gets the ideas flowing.

pair of blue shoes, stop procrastinating by walking

Find creative inspiration in new places

When I’ve been procrastinating too long on something creative, I read inspiring books that make me want to get going.

stack of Poetry books  on table for creative motivation

There are some great reads out there that can push you beyond a creative slump through inspiration alone. If the Now Habit doesn’t work for you, there is always Running Down a Dream by Tim Grahl or Rob Moore’s start Now, Get perfect Later, who points out we don’t procrastinate in the areas of our life where we are confident in our decisions, creative or otherwise.

Anything that inspires our creativity is enriching and worth the time. Poetry or books about writing are often my go-to. And here I’m just going to recommend Dana Gioia because his work is stunning and powerful and always makes me want to write. While we’re on the subject just listen to Sarah Kay spinning beautiful stories through spoken word poetry.

And hey, if nothing else works, you can always write about procrastination. I’ll just leave the immortal words of Edward Young here for your perusal:

Be wise to-day; ’tis madness to defer;

Next day the fatal precedent will plead;

Thus on, till wisdom is push’d out of life.

Procrastination is the thief of time;

Year after year it steals, till all are fled,

And to the mercies of a moment leaves

The vast concerns of an eternal scene.

Edward Young

And look at that. I’ve finished this post. I’m putting it out there in the hope that it’ll help us all to stop procrastinating and get moving towards where we want to be.

Comment below and let me know what are you working on. What do you do to get the job done?

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