Most of us procrastinate, but not all of us are procrastinators. Periodic procrastination is one thing, but constantly putting off things you need to do can have a negative impact on your writing, health, and relationships. If you let it. But there is hope for chronic procrastinators!
But first, thank you to all our patrons on Patreon! You help make this podcast possible!
We developed this podcast in response to something shared by a listener who said one of the hardest things for her in the writing journey was battling procrastination. Now, you want to know something funny? When we decided to buckle down and actually do this podcast, we discovered we had started it already. Twice. Once several months ago, and again a month ago.
The next podcast should be on irony!
If there’s one thing all writers absolutely MUST do, and I’m talking to every writer, everywhere, no matter who you are or what you write, it’s this: Put your backside in the chair and write.
We lovingly refer to this as BIC. But while we all understand the necessity of BIC, we struggle, sometimes every day, to DO it.
Unless, of course, you’re the kind of writer who has no problem with BIC. You write every day, meeting your word goal. You have no trouble turning your projects in on time, or even early.
That’s all great! But even if you don’t procrastinate in your writing, there may be other areas—personal, spiritual, emotional, financial—where you keep saying to yourself, “I know I need to deal with this. And I will. Soon.”
But soon never seems to arrive. And more often than not, the damage from procrastination will sneak into your writing as well.
What is Procrastination?
Let’s dive in. First, let’s make sure we’re all talking and thinking about the same thing. According to Webster’s Dictionary, procrastination is intentionally putting off something that needs to be done. And you’d be amazed how common it is to procrastinate.
In his article “Why Wait? The Science behind Procrastination,” author and researcher Eric Jaffe points out that, “The Greek poet Hesiod, writing around 800 B.C., cautioned people not to ‘put your work off till tomorrow and the day after.’ The Roman consul Cicero called procrastination ‘hateful’ in the conduct of affairs… For all we know, the dinosaurs saw the meteorite coming and went back to their game of Angry Pterodactyls.”
Don’t you love it when a scientist has a sense of humor? But when it comes down to it, procrastination really isn’t very funny. Or fun. I (Karen) know.
And that’s why I (Erin) asked Karen to put this podcast together because, in her own words, she is a “master procrastinator.”
A Master Procrastinator’s Profile
I (Karen) have always been a procrastinator. Even as a little kid, I often put things off ‘til the last minute. Because I could. Looking back, I’ve realized I was too smart for my own good. I could do what I needed to, when I needed to, in very little time.
As I got older, I actually enjoyed the last-minute pressure of meeting a deadline in a fraction of the time I was given. I’ve always been competitive, and was in a lot of sports. I loved the rush that came on game day. Everything was on the line, and the pressure upped my game. I excelled in the face of pressure.
So was Karen an adrenaline junkie?
More or less, yes. And it worked for a long time.
But not anymore. True confession time. I (Karen) put this podcast together on Monday. Two days before we were supposed to record it. And the only reason I did it then was because I thought we were recording it on Tuesday! But the cool thing is that, as is so often the case, God was at work. When I finished the podcast Monday evening, I was happy with it. I’d had a fun idea, and wrote the podcast accordingly, with a sense of humor. Yay, me. Good job. Go to bed.
But was that the end of the story?
It was. Right until I woke up Tuesday morning. And realized something wasn’t right. As I came awake, it was clear that God was nudging me. Convicting me. Telling me I needed to—surprise, surprise—go deeper in the podcast.
Yes, I’d created something fun for our listeners. But I hadn’t created something true. Not really. I’d hit on the positives I’d experienced through procrastination, and skipped right over what really mattered. The cost. The deep, disturbing, damaging cost of being a chronic procrastinator.
I apologized to God, got up, and reworked the podcast. And you want to know the real irony? If I hadn’t gotten confused about when we were recording, if I’d followed my tendency for last-minute work, I wouldn’t have had an extra day to make this podcast what God wanted it to be. How’s that for a pointed lesson?
I love God’s graciousness in working with us, even in our weaknesses. How come we so often wonder if he truly loves us?
Why do we procrastinate?
So if procrastinating can be so harmful, why do we put things off? Why don’t we just settle in, put our nose to the grindstone, and do what we know we need to do?
After all, logic tells us that if we’d just spend a little time on those things each day, they’d get done. And then we’re free to move on to something else, without any sense of guilt or shame.
Some people do exactly that. Some people are amazing in the way they know what needs to be done and just do it.
I (Erin) can sometimes “just get it done,” but I definitely have put things off. Especially when what I have to do is hard, and I don’t know how to do it. For example, with the staircase in my house, the bannister and the spindles need refinishing and updating, and that’s a whole thing. I’ve got to cut newel post caps off, figure out what gel stain is and how to use it, figure out how to deal with the carpeting, and on and on. So yeah, I’m guilty of procrastination.
Most everybody is. But in the article by Eric Jaffee, he shares a quote from Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University. Ferrai, a pioneer of modern research on procrastination, said, “What I’ve found is that while everybody may procrastinate, not everyone is a procrastinator.”
In fact, Ferrari’s work has found that only around 20 percent of people are chronic procrastinators, who, for the sake of this podcast, we’ll call CPs. And contrary to what a lot of people think, Ferrari says being a CP has nothing to do with time-management. Or with being lazy. Which is why, he says, telling a CP to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up. Get over it!
Many people believe CPs are just lazy, and that’s why they keep putting things off. But that seems like an oversimplification of a complex issue. There are lots of reasons people procrastinate.
Fear, for one. Fear that you can’t do what you thought you could do. Maybe the project, when you get into it, feels too big. It’s overwhelming and you don’t know where to start.
Or you realize you don’t have the knowledge or skill you need to do this thing, so again, where do you start? You just put it off and put it off. But doing that can have terrible effects on our reputation. We become known as people who don’t do what we say we’ll do.
Procrastination has a bad effect on our relationships. Something has to give when we’re working hours upon hours to get something done last minute, and too often it’s time with family and friends.
Procrastination can even make our health suffer, which makes more sense than you may realize. When you constantly put something off, then have to scramble to do it, you trigger stress in your body. When you’re stressed, your cortisol levels spike to give you the energy to face whatever crisis you’re in. And even if we don’t consciously see it as a crisis, our body reacts to the pressure. That’s no big deal when it happens off and on, but if you’re a CP, then the stress and cortisol spikes become chronic as well, which leads into all kinds of health issues.
Then there’s perfectionism. That’s a great reason to put something off. I mean, if we can‘t do it the way it should be done, why even start? Perfectionism can also contribute to the fear we talked about earlier—we’re afraid we can’t do it perfectly, or even well.
Another reason we procrastinate is that the project just isn’t a high enough priority. There are so many things we can focus on, invest in, and that project is way down the list of what’s most important to us. Unfortunately, the deadline is still there, which ultimately forces us into pressure mode.
What’s especially hard is when you find you’ve lost your passion for what you’re working on. How often, as writers, do we hit a point in our manuscripts when we’re convinced it’s the worst thing we’ve ever done? That what started out with such promise is now a convoluted mess. It’s easy, especially for a CP, to set aside something when you’re feeling “meh” about it.
I (Karen) have been involved in projects that, at the beginning, I was SO excited about. But then something happens, and suddenly that excitement fizzles. And those somethings can be internal, like we talked about with fear. Or they can be external, like an illness or a boss changing your priorities or a loss of funding.
So all of that, fear and scrambling and stress, has to stir up self-doubt, which then ushers in things like guilt and shame and anxiety. And now the real damage of chronic procrastination sets in. You may have put off the work, but not the deadline. And as that deadline draws closer, anxiety deepens. And self-recrimination. And negative self-talk. “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I get this done?” I’m betting a lot of CPs wake up in the middle of the night fighting guilt and anxiety.
I (Karen) sure did. And it’s been proven that a lack of solid sleep leads to things like a lack of focus and mood swings. Not to mention health issues, such as heart problems and stroke. So it’s no wonder that creativity suffers, so that even when we finally try to do the work, we just sit and stare at the blank screen.
I remember feeling at times like my brain was seized up, so much so that my head hurt. Which left me feeling stupid or worthless. And, worst of all, disobedient to God, who gave me this task. Which just made me depressed, which made me put things off until it wasn’t just last-minute work to meet a deadline, but I missed deadlines. Which made me spiral even deeper into guilt and shame and…well, you get the idea.
No wonder we continue to put things off when we feel that way. What’s that old quote? “Being defeated is a temporary condition. Giving up is what makes it permanent”?
But here’s a much better quote, and it comes from the Apostle Paul’s second letter to Timothy: “Fan into flames the spiritual gift God gave you when I laid my hands on you. For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:6-7
Power, love, self-discipline. Those are the tools to use when self-doubt tries to derail you.
God has not given us fear. He has not given us a spirit that gives up. He’s given us power. Not our own, but HIS. Nothing can stand in the face of that. He’s given us HIS love, for him, for our readers, for those we encounter, for ourselves. He’s given us self-discipline! Even if you don’t feel like you have that, He’s given it to you. It’s there. You just need to start tapping into it. God never intended for us to be shackled by fear.
Chronic procrastination is about a lot more than putting things off. It’s about letting ourselves be sidetracked. It’s about focusing on circumstances and not on God. It’s about rebellion: “I don’t want to miss out on the fun stuff, so I’ll just do this work God gave me later.”
But think about it. If God didn’t give us the spirit of fear, who did? Pretty clear what the answer is there. So the first and most powerful step in dealing with chronic procrastination is to realize a few things.
Help for Chronic Procrastinators
We have this work because God gave it to us. It’s not our work, it’s his. It’s not that we’re putting off our work, we’re putting off God’s work. When I (Karen) realized that truth, it pulled me up short. Who was I to tell God I didn’t feel like doing HIS work?
Our focus must be on the God who gave us this task of writing. Pray. Read his word. And confess your fears to him. Surrender them. Then ask him how to move forward. Remember Isaiah 35:4: “Be strong, and do not fear, for your God is… coming to save you.”
With that as our foundation and motivation, we can deal with the other causes of procrastination, such as when a project is overwhelming in size or scope, or when we realize we need to gain more knowledge or skill.
In his article, “How to Stop Procrastinating by Using the Two-Minute Rule,” author James Clear writes about the “two-minute rule,” which is designed to help you stop procrastinating and stick to good habits. We talked about this when we did a podcast on building healthy habits, but it’s relevant here as well.
Clear says that starting a new habit should never take more than two minutes to do. The idea is to scale any job down to a series of two-minute “bites.” Then organize those bites in order of importance, and then tackle them one, or rather, two minutes at a time.
So “write 300 pages” or “write 1000 words” becomes “write for two minutes.” When I (Karen) did this, I learned how many pages or words I could write in two minutes, then I gave myself a range of two-minute slots for the day. Shoot, even I can get my backside in a chair for two minute at a shot.
When we’re faced with what seems like a gargantuan task, we can take to heart what David said to those preparing to build God’s temple in 1 Chronicles 28:20: “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Don’t be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. He will see to it that all the work…is finished correctly.”
When you need to learn something new, instead of “read that book,” it can be “read the first 5 pages of that book.” When that’s done, read the next five.
I (Erin) will tell you, dealing with my staircase has been about at that level. How do I get a spindle off? What kind of spray paint will work on it? What tool cuts off a newel post cap?
As for perfectionism, folks, “perfect” is a lie. It will never be perfect. So before you start, remember only God is perfect. That’s part of what it means to be God. Not one human is perfect. Nothing humans do, in and of themselves, will be perfect. The key isn’t perfection, but obedience.
It helps me (Karen) to ask God each day what he wants me to accomplish, then I focus on doing just that. Every day, get your working orders from Him, then do your best with the time you have. The real time, not the stolen time from putting it off. Putting off a project until you miss the deadline is stealing time that isn’t yours. Time from your co-workers, or your friends and family. Time from God. Don’t do it.
Then at the end of your agreed-upon time, let it go. Turn it in. Trust that if God brought this project to you, he will equip you to do it, and to finish it.
What do we do when a lack of passion makes us put something off?
A lack of passion says a lack of motivation. So with any project that comes your way, before you ever agree to do it, understand your motivation. If you had a great motivation at the beginning, but find your excitement dimming, go back to the motivation.
- Why did you agree to do it in the first place?
- What excited you about it?
- What has changed?
- Can you find a new motivation, thus new excitement? If not, then ask God if you should step out of the project. If the answer is no, then it’s time to let obedience become your motivation.
These questions work as a solution for when the project isn’t high enough on your priority list, too. Why isn’t it high enough? Figure out the motivation and the value of this project, and ask how that compares with whatever else you’re doing, and make sure the time blocks you spend match your priorities.
Can procrastination be good?
So, has Karen stopped being a CP—a chronic procrastinator?
Not entirely. Remember, she likes working under pressure.
Does that mean procrastination is good for a person?
What we’re saying is that it can be helpful for some people when they do it right. How do we do procrastination right? Here are Karen’s secrets that work for her:
First, I have to be realistic about what I can do and the amount of time it takes me to do it. I’m not as fast at writing as when I was younger. What used to take me days or weeks now takes me weeks or months. There are a lot of reasons for that, health reasons, unexpected life events, memory issues, and so on..
As we age, we’ll have new challenges and hindrances to deal with. Life changes, too. Writing when you’re single is different than when you’re married, or when you have kids, and so on. I don’t like that I’m a slower writer or editor now, but I’ve accepted it because I can’t change it. So step one, be realistic about my timelines based on what I can do now.
Second, I plan for procrastination. I break the project down into small, achievable goals (like the two-minute rule!) and then I add “in case” days to my schedules.
Days “in case” of what? In case I can’t work because my house gets robbed. Or I break my shoulder. In case I’m sick, in case I’m dealing with brain fog, or even, once in a while, in case it’s the first sunny day in a month and I want to work in the garden. Whatever.
I plug those “in case” days in, and then I plug in rewards for meeting my mini-goals. My love language is gifts, so when I meet a goal, I give myself a gift. Nothing big or expensive, just something that brings me joy.
Third, I remember my foundation in God. As a CP, how do I avoid putting things off, going through all my “in case” days, and ending up in trouble? Well, I can’t say it will never happen. But I remember that the foundation is the realization that God gave me his work to do, and my focus is him, not circumstances.
With that in mind, giving myself the freedom to use an “in case” day reenergizes me. As often as not, when I spend a day away from a task, my mind is still processing and pondering that task, so when I return to it, I’m ready to go. And I’m motivated by the thought of my reward.
Bottom line, it’s about balance. Balancing freedom with responsibility, goals with rewards, work with fun. When I strike that balance, everything works. When something happens to throw that balance off, I’ve got my “in case” days.
When everything goes out the window, for whatever reason, say, a rampaging fire forces me to evacuate, or I get a concussion from falling on a poorly marked wet floor—I mention all these because they’ve actually happened to me—I’ve got God’s promise in Romans 8, that he is there to “cause everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory.” Romans 8:28-30
So in whatever we do, however we do it, let’s remember we’ve been given God’s glory. And let’s do the work He’s given us with excellence and joy.
WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!
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THE NOVEL MARKETING PODCAST
We’re so grateful for the sponsorship from the Novel Marketing Podcast, with host Thomas Umstattd Jr. It’s the longest running book marketing podcast in the world. We know and trust Thomas, and his podcast is full of great information and advice—like Novel Marketing’s 10 Commandments of Book Marketing, which we’re going to be bringing you.
Commandment #8: Thou shalt surround thyself with savvy authors.
Thomas says, “There are some things you can only learn from other authors. The savvier your friends are, the more you will learn.”
I (Erin) me agree with this. I’ve had a number of wonderful author friends throughout my career who’ve taught me plenty. First in my local ACFW chapter, and several years later, I joined a mastermind group, and that’s the one thing I wish I’d done 5 years sooner in my career.
I (Karen) agree with this as well, having worked with so many different writers and having so many of them become friends. I’ve also been blessed with a brainstorming group. We meet in person once a year and stay connected online. We talk about our experiences and share what we’re learning, and we understand each other and the unique ways our “writer minds” work. Surrounding yourself with savvy writers is a huge value and benefit all throughout your career.
For more book promotion and platform help listen to Novel Marketing in your favorite podcast app or at NovelMarketing.com
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Many thanks also to the folks at Podcast P.S. for their fabulous sound editing!
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