[ETA 1st May 2020:] When I was asked to record a short film for the Royal Literary Fund, about a writing talisman, there was really only one thing I could honestly talk about: the Instant Gratification Monkey. His role and character has changed hugely since I wrote this post six years ago, so do click through to the RLF Showcase to watch it.
When things are quiet on here, I know a post about procrastination will liven it up, but things are pretty lively at the moment. However, I've come across a post about it on the splendid Wait But Why blog which is so good that I'm going to share the link, and my take on it too. But first, a thought or two about why you might find yourself procrastinating.
- Sometimes you're unconsciously waiting until the work only needs to be just-good-enough.
- Sometimes your Inner Critic is in charge: in a bid to stop you writing he's found a dozen reasons for you Not Getting On With It,
- or declared that it's all been done already.
- Once you've learnt to ignore him he'll dress up as someone else to persuade you.
- Sometimes you've simply run out of fuel because of what else is going on in your life. But whatever the cause, you can sort it out or ignore it, get shot of the children or the day job, have the perfect snack and your favourite tea steaming gently in the sunlight and
- .... still find it incredibly hard to jump into the water and start swimming.
- or, as Jack Milgram suggests (sorry, that post is on an essay-mill website, but it's so good...) suggests, you might be procrastinating for the benefits of procrastination: the adrenalin rush, the focused attention, the permission to shed perfectionism, or the chance that actually you won't have to do the work after all.
But the idea of the disagreeable cold of those first ten minutes of swimming is where Tim Urban's two Wait But Why posts come in. In Why Procrastinators Procrastinate, he introduces the divided way a procrastinator's brain works and, like any writer, he's embodied the abstract stuff of psychology in psycho-geography and imagined creatures.
There's the half of your brain which is the Rational Decision Maker, who wants to plough on through the Dark Woods of the hard work involved in writing (in our case) a book and reach the point where it's enjoyable and even exciting, and anyway the end is in sight.
But the other half is the Instant Gratification Monkey, who can only see the horribly boring and unrewarding work under his nose. So Monkey wants to run away and play in the Dark Playground: that place full of email-checking, biscuit-eating, Facebook noodling, trivial research you'll need later, washing-upping, cheese-on-toast toasting, pencil-sharpening, checking out flights for your holiday in case the prices go up later, Wikipedia-link-following, email-checking, Twitter-twerking, coffee-making ...
Of course, the harder the task, the more Monkey wants to escape it. The stuck plot, the baffling research, the 99,999 words still to go, the bad feedback, the book-trade's-imploding-it's-not-worth-it glooms on the Net ... all of these are like feeding Monkey e-numbers until he's hyperactive. As Wait But Why explains, it's only when you're close enough to your deadline that the Panic Monster appears, and terrifies Monkey into agreeing to stay with Rational Decision Maker as RDM hacks onwards, probably very hurriedly and carelessly and without enough time, now, to do a decent job.
Let's leave aside the question of how some people find it so difficult, even as adults, to shut the Monkey up, though I'd put a bit of money on it being something about fear, from perhaps young childhood, that anything you don't grab now will be lost. And let's leave aside the question of why you (okay, I) and anyone else with a very active Instant Gratification Monkey could have found themselves with a job which involves huge, single projects that take years to get from first idea to first sale. That's just what seems to have happened, and now you (okay, I) and anyone else all have to deal with it.
And then in his second post, Tim tackles How To Beat Procrastination. That's not just about practical ideas though he's got some good ones, such as ways to cut the vast, shapeless, impossible or (Monkey feels) impossibly long task down into possible-looking chunks. A house gets built brick by brick, as he says, which is delightfully similar to Ann Lamott's principle of Bird by Bird, and is why I keep word-by-word spreadsheets, on the stripey-sweater principle, to track my mounting wordcounts.
And if the one-day-at-a-time principle - the Pomodoro Technique is many writers' favourite - is beginning to feel a bit 12-Step-Programme-ish, well, who said that procrastination isn't an addictive behaviour? After all, it's complete with the waste of time/money, the desire to change, the backsliding, the badly-done work, the lost job, the despair. Who said that you aren't going to have to replace the story you're living with - that the Monkey always gets to decide what you do - with another story? And who said that learning to change the story in practice might not take a while?
So Getting On With It is also about recognising the point where you can, and you must, choose to enter the Dark Woods of working, and not let Monkey drag you off into the Dark Playground. Only by staying in the Dark Woods and hacking your way onwards, will you get to the point where it starts to be self-propelling, and the end - the pleasure of having written - starts to feel achievable, the way that you can smell the sea before you see or hear it. And it's only by practising making that choice, over and over again (Monkey has a very short memory) and often enough, that the connection gets made, brick by brick, somewhere deep inside you: you can choose not to be at the mercy of the Monkey. You can choose, today, now, to work.