Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Resolutions: Procastination, Writing Style

By Annette Lyon

A recent article in Newsweek discussed the psychology behind procrastination. Go ahead and read the piece later, but here's the upshot (or a least what I got out of it):

When an activity or goal is stated in nebulous terms, people are more likely to procrastinate doing it.

But, when an activity or goal is broken up into concrete steps, people are more likely to get the thing done.

The example the piece gives is with exercising (a common resolution this time of year). If you think, "I really need to exercise," that's too vague. It's easy to ignore.

But if you turn the thought into, "I need to put on my exercise clothes, tie on my shoes, and get on the treadmill for 30 minutes," you're more likely to do all of the above and get in the workout you know you should.

Reading the piece, I had a light bulb moment regarding writing, which is quite possibly one of the most procrastinated activities ever. I constantly hear aspiring writers say, "I want to write a book," or, "This year I'm going to finish the book I started," or something similar.

And . . . they procrastinate and procrastinate. Even published writers get caught in the trap.

"I'm going to write a book" is too vague . . . and too BIG . . . of an activity. Something of that magnitude is easy to put off until later. It's just too intimidating to sit down and face the beast.

I've seen that with my writing, the more I break down a writing goal, the more likely I am to achieve it. Just like breaking down exercise into getting dressed and getting onto the machine, I'm more likely to get the job done if I can imagine the concrete steps involved.

The trouble with writing is that there really are few concrete steps. Much of what we do is nebulous already.

How about breaking it up anyway? In addition to a big goal like, "I'm going to finish this draft by April," add those little steps such as, "I'm going to write 1,000 words a day" or "I will edit ten pages of this draft every day."

Focusing on nothing but the next small step makes the entire project less intimidating.

"All I have to do today is one thousand words, and then I've succeeded." That thought is freeing, isn't it?

For that matter, it's much harder to justify procrastinating 1,000 measly words (or whatever your smaller goal is) than it is to put off an entire book.

This year as you make your New Year's resolutions, try to cut them up into small, concrete pieces. How many words per day will you write? How many queries will you send out?

Make each step concrete, and, more importantly, make each one doable. Allow yourself small successes, because added all together, they lead to the big ones.


Sue said...

Thanks Annette - this is just what I needed to hear today. Baby steps.

Celise said...

This sounds like the Micro Movements SARK talked about in her previous book (The Friendship Festival). I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this woman and I was able to apply her Micro Movements to my writing.

Basically, it's breaking a big project down to 5 seconds-5 minutes. If the project is getting started on a new book, I would say "Tomorrow at 10am, I'm going to open the cover of a notebook." That motion takes 5 seconds. Next time it could be "Tomorrow at 10am, I'm going to open the cover and write two sentences."

I find this method actually works for me. Whenever I write, my goal is to at least crank out one page a day. More often than not, I do more. Other days, one page can be a struggle. A page might sound like really small potatoes to other authors, but I've come to realize--FINALLY!--that I'm not like other authors. The majority of their methods don't work for me and I've come to accept that.

I agree with SARK. And Sue. Baby steps. It's all about baby steps. LOL

Heather B. Moore said...

I remember hearing an author say once--I write 2,000 words a day--even if I have to skip my shower . . . 2,000 words a day is a little steep for me when writing historical fiction, but the fact that someone set a word count goal really perked my interest. Needless to say, it really helped me focus. When I'm in the throes of a novel, I write 1,000 words a day, even if I have to skip a scene or two because of writers block.

Celise--I like your idea about micro movements. Sometimes it's just about cleaning off your desk or moving your laptop to a different room so that you can focus in a new way :)

Anna Maria Junus said...

I found this out when I did NaNoWriMo. You have to write 50,000 words in a month. So I broke it down to what I needed to write each day taking off weekends and my birthday.

I ended up finishing both times that I did it ahead of time.

But then do I do this the rest of the year? Nope.

Jennifer said...

When I think about breaking resolutions down into baby steps, I think of Flylady. She said one year she just couldn't face another year of not being able to meet her resolutions, so she resolved to just keep her kitchen sink clean. That was it. For the whole month of January, if she kept her sink clean, she patted herself on the back for a job well done. Then in February she added something else. Making her bed, I think.

The point is, you make the goal small, do-able, and concrete, and then you get used to the feeling of accomplishment when you get it done. Thanks for the reminder. :)

Anonymous said...

I make my bed almost every day, but somehow I've never gotten a complete manuscript out of that.

(Hi, I'm just lurking here and annoying you real writers -- my main current writing ambition is to write annoying comments on blogs. But I can see how this is great advice to real aspiring writers.)

Amber said...

Another factor in procrastinating is the guilt and self-rebuking. Procrastinating can get you off track, but then those things can keep you off track for extended periods of time. Lack of confidence and depression. In attention to a baby step plan, a lot of us need encouragement and ways to remember the way we felt when we were successful at any given level.