On Procrastination

What Happened? Well, I started strong writing for NaNoWriMo, but ultimately failed. I could not get my head around how awfully I wrote. Sure, the contest guidelines tell you this will be a problem. “Just write!” they say. “Worry about editing this later!” “Perfection is the enemy!” “Getting started is the hardest part.”

Charleston 1

Not so, I say. Starting is easy. It’s achieving consistency that kills.

The exercise behind National November Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is to gain momentum through action. By committing to writing an incredible volume, you’ll be able to get yourself over the hump of inertia. Well, I failed. 50,000 words was just too much for me. Oh, I started out OK. 50k / ~30 days equaled just about 1,500 words a day. And I did just that… for a while at least. Actually, a few days in the first week my word count was well over 2000 per day. And then it just stopped. I skipped one day telling myself that it would average out. Then I wrote little the next day. Then little more the next week. Before you know it, I was out. Not only was I out of NaNoWriMo, I was out of writing. Entirely. No new blog articles (thanks, Matt, for pointing that out.)

This was an odd experience for me. While I may not always finish pretty, I do make a point to finish. NaNoWriMo sticks out as one of my great unfinished endeavors. It wasn’t until months later that I was able to begin to discern why. This essay are those reasons.

What Happened?

While I was writing, I kept on judging how easy this was for me as a child, as a teen, and as a college student. Years ago, I would never have to try. I would simply make an outline of what I wanted to write then go about filling in the outline. What could be easier? The words would pour out well-formed (or relatively well-formed albeit still with atrocious grammar) on the page.

Well, the words didn’t this time. It was a struggle. It sucked. And so I started to procrastinate. I began doing all sorts of other things. I built a full other website – while it did make me a decent amount of spending money, brought me no closer to my writing goal. My house was cleaner than it has ever been. Writing goals are apparently excellent for cleaning your house. My kung fu practice was spot-on. I prepared and cooked many excellent dishes and even attained a semblance of a diet. As I was also growing a mustache for Movemeber (much to my wife’s dismay), I spent a good deal of time enjoying the bizarre look of it in the mirror.

What didn’t happen was writing. Not here on this website. Not on my web design site. As my brother mentioned in a comment, it was amusing that my last post here at Cubicle Warrior was that I was entering NaNoWriMo… and that nothing had been posted for so long afterward. In fact, I would do anything but write. Ironic that entering a writing contest killed my writing.

Or did it?

Why Nothing Happened

I’ve thought long and hard about this. After much thought, several cigars, and lots of psuedo-work, reading the interwebs (the more respectable alias of procrastination) I discovered my root cause of failure; I didn’t have a plan. Or, rather, let me correct that; I didn’t have a sound plan that my whole mind embraced.

My original plan for NaWriMo was to sit down an crank out 1500 number of lines per day. This worked swimmingly for the first ~15,000 words but entirely fell apart. It was if the initial words I wrote were ends to some long rope and the more that came, the more tangled I became in them until, at last, I had lashed together a full-length pair of Chinese Finger cuffs
fitted for my psyche. The more I wrote, the more stuck I became. This went on until I became so damn constricted that I would rather do anything than fight it anymore. However I allocated my time, repeated pithy motivational sayings, or otherwise compelled myself to the task at hand I ended up procrastinating my way out of it.

Why Do We Procrastinate?

There are probably as many theories as there are procrastinators, but I like the summation provided in Cal Newport’s article ‘The Procrastinating Caveman’ summation the best.

In short, Cal’s reasoning is thus:

  1. Humans won the evolutionary battle largely due to our ability for complex planning. (ie. Throwing a spear at large, dangerous game is much better than charging it.)
  2. This evolution was a pre-verbal adaptation and thus would register itself as something instinctual.
  3. Perhaps procrastination is our pre-verbal brain expressing it’s reservations against our actions that do not follow a promising game plan.

So, according to Cal, thanks to eons of evolution*, I need a plan that my whole mind will sign off on in order to beat procrastination. I’ll buy that. In fact, I believe that is exactly what happened with my NaNoWriMo experiment.

You see, the instructions of NaNoWriMo are to sit down and just write. Ignore everything else and just write. You are technically able to bring an outline in with you, but I never did that. Sure, I would procrastinate by creating outlines when I was supposed to be writing but that’s just not the same. Traversing Cal’s list bullet-ed out above, I was never afraid of writing, nor of it ever being perfect. While I was certain that my NaNoWriMo writings were of low-quality, I still do believe (perhaps erroneously), that I do have high-quality stuff hidden somewhere inside of me. And I think it was lack of a plan that stopped me from finding & expressing it.

*As an addendum to readers who may not necessarily believe in evolution, perhaps it is possible that the deity who you believe gave you a brain and a subconscious built a little sub-routine into it that behaves in a similar way to how Cal describes.

Why I Think Cal is Right

The best evidence is that you are reading this post right here. This post only came out of a series of imagining, planning, and refining my goals and process of achieving them. Once I hit upon a plan that made ‘instinctual’ sense to me – an answer if you will to ‘Why the hell are you keeping that Cubicle Warrior website up and going?’ – I was able to start writing again. And without effort.

Ruta-de-Don-Quijote-Toledo

Here’s how I think it went down

  1. I start NaNoWrimo tacitly accepting the contest rules as a good plan.
  2. I set to work and my frontal lobe’s pre-verbal adaptation registered it’s disagreement via procrastination.
  3. Effort flames out.
  4. I learn to utilize keys from my subconscious and happen upon a good plan.
  5. Productive work comes much easier.

The biggest change is that I am excited to produce again. I am not so worried about if it makes much sense to anyone else because it makes sense to me – and it really makes sense to that pre-verbal adaptation evolution has left me. This is good – I’m tired of fighting it.

Call it a placebo effect. I don’t care. What matters to me is that I feel that I am making progress – in opposed to doing pseudo work. I like my plan and I like it’s effects. Hopefully you will, too.

Next time I’ll cover some elements I see in a good plan before going on to layout the first steps I am taking. In the meantime, why not share your thoughts on procrastination. Do you procrastinate? If so, why? If not, did you ever and how did you beat it? I know there are terribly interesting people reading this essay. If you don’t comment (anonymously or not), I’ll start outing your terrific accomplishments and calling you out!

Comments

  1. How do you relate your story to the often heard story that procrastination is caused by fear ? The fear that the result might not be as good as you planned it.. as long as it’s not written, your novel is still perfect, but when it’s written down it’s real quality can be assessed..

    • Hi T. I think there is a lot of merit in fear-based procrastination. If you never compete for something of value, you still retain the possibility of achieving it. However if you produce something for objective comparison, you will know absolutely where your efforts stand. In one case there is still the possibility of perfection and in the other there is hard, concrete reality.

      Some people have a fear of failure so great that it prevents them from taking the chance that their efforts might not make the grade. I think that procrastination in these cases would be linked to that voice in your head that says ‘this path we are on is not good enough.’

      However, I don’t think that all people that procrastinate have that fear. I think there are many reasons that voice in your head would put the breaks on your goals, and fear of missing perfection is but one of them.

Speak Your Mind

*

*