How long lines, pink polo shirts, and pictures of kittens help me combat procrastination

Years ago, I was at a technical writing conference and the witty and wild Douglas Adams was the keynote speaker. He told this story about how he spent the better part of two days writing a small programming routine that would save him about ten seconds of time. “No one procrastinates like a writer,” Mr. Adams said. It’s so true.

When it comes to procrastination, writers are champions. Case in point, I’m writing this post at 10:30 pm Thursday night, 90 minutes from when I’m supposed to publish my post. Sigh.

Like the other Debs, I build all sorts of bastions to defend myself against the encroaching procrastination, which now that I think about it is probably another way to procrastinate. So here are things I do to combat my own nature.

Small amounts of time are perfect for small tasks. Like football, writing a novel is a game of inches. I get around the “I’ve got no time to write” by dealing with tiny bits whenever I can. I’ve written a few paragraphs waiting in line at the AT&T store. I’ve edited a sentence or two while waiting for something to defrost in the microwave. My husband is running 10 minutes late, I can tweak a whole paragraph in that time.

Carrots are for wimps. My friend Robert is a terrific project manager (we worked together years ago). I recruited him to help me stay on track with my goals. We found that punishments were better than rewards, so we set up a series of goals and deadlines and if I didn’t hit them, then I had to something I hated like make a contribution to a political cause I despised or wearing a pink polo shirt which makes me look like a beached pink whale.

There’s an app for that. I love badges and such in video games. So I was tingly with delight to find two websites that use a similar model for writing. With Written? Kitten! you get a reward for every time you write a certain number of words–a picture of a kitten! Or a puppy or bunny, whatever works for you. Write or Die is much more sophisticated, but it follows the same principle. You sent a word count goal, but you also get to control whether you get a reward for meeting your goal or a punishment for not meeting it. I can tell you, the punishment can be a little scary. Another website I used sometimes is called Don’t Break the Chain. The idea is that you do something everyday for a continued period of time it becomes a habit. Marking off the days that you’ve done that thing helps you achieve this. Seeing those marks on each day creates a psychological need to see the next one. In other words, don’t break the chain.

In the end, sometimes I’m a little grateful for the procrastination. Sometimes sheer panic is what gets me to the place I need to get to. This happened to me the other day. I’d waited until the last minute to send my agent some chapters of my new novel. I told myself it was because of this one scene, but it wasn’t. I was putting off working on that scene because I just couldn’t face it. But I’d waited so long, that now I had about two hours to deal with it and send it out. And what popped out was kind of awesome. My own panic at not being done created the point of tension I needed for the scene and now I kind of love it. So bless you, procrastination. You’re not always the bad guy.

(Whew! 54 minutes to spare.)



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Shelly is the author of THE MOMENT OF EVERYTHING, story of love and books in Silicon Valley. She lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with her husband, two big dogs, and a disapproving cat.

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This article has 8 Comments

    1. It helps when you have a friend like Robert. He also sends me emails like “I see Joyce Carol Oates has a new book out. How many is that now? And it’s she a fulltime professor? Hmmm….”

  1. I am a huge advocate of writing in the little “stolen” minutes, too, like in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. Lots of little bits eventually add up to a whole story.

  2. I laughed when you said you started writing this at 10:30. I was checking to schedule the post last night and couldn’t find it. You and me are cut from the same cloth – it’s so reassuring to know I’m not the only one who waits.

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