Almost all of us procrastinate at least some of the time and there seems to be a good evolutionary reason for it. Through almost all of human history up to the very near present we lived short, difficult lives with our primary focus on survival for at least another day. We developed brains with a focus on satisfying our needs now – pretty much instant gratification – because there was a good chance that there might not be much of a later.
Now, however, our present selves tend to live fairly long and reasonably secure lives in complex societies that place an emphasis on long-term planning – which in turn requires delayed gratification. Our “present selves” have morphed into 21st century-required “future selves.”
The problem is that we still want that pleasant hit right now…or yesterday if possible. It’s typical to put off those future-oriented tasks for more instantly gratifying diversions (like reading short articles about procrastination on social media) that fire up our dopamine receptors. The result is that the real act of completing that prolonged project – like a doctoral dissertation for example – seems to extend further and further into the future like a dimly-lit dream, especially since we are usually trying to accommodate other essential and time consuming adult activities like jobs and families.
So how do we do it? How do we develop the necessary discipline to persevere with our writing when we seem to be programmed to avoid that work – with it’s cloudy rewards stretching so far into the future? Actually, there are few pleasures as intoxicating as actually finishing that dissertation well and then being rewarded with a doctorate. But then, that’s a long-term goal and right now is right now and there’s always the procrastination. How can we withstand more immediate pleasures?
One approach is to turn that long-term goal into a series of short term-goals with pretty instantaneous gratification. That is essentially the “Hemingway” approach. Ernest Hemingway was a disciplined writer with a fair lifetime’s output. He wrote almost every day, but he wrote only 500 words a day. He wrote in the morning and claimed that an exact 500 words was his goal – no more no less. Then he revised that 500 words in the afternoon. You may want to eventually do more than 500 words a day but it’s a good procrastination tip and more than you’re doing now.
The idea is to break the writing down into reasonable, doable bits and get a daily momentum going within the limited time you actually have to write.
Then there’s the “Thurber” approach. This may work for you if your procrastination comes with a great deal of heightened anxiety about getting each comma, word, sentence, paragraph, page, and chapter perfect before you move onto the next comma, word, sentence, paragraph, page and chapter.
If you don’t already know, James Thurber was a celebrated 20th century short story writer, cartoonist, playwright and wit best known for his work for The New Yorker. Thurber said that the real work of writing was done in every draft but the first one and that a writer should just “purge” the initial draft: ie – quickly get it all down on paper with all of its errors, misspellings, wrong words, misconstrued arguments, logical and philosophical disorder. Then get it right in subsequent drafts when first draft anxiety is long gone and the fun of writing begins.
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