Why Can’t I Finish Anything? Procrastination (To Write and Have Written)

Let’s talk about Procrastination! (Spoiler: You’re probably not just lazy.) Speaking generally, writers procrastinate. A lot. But why, and what can we do about it? Here are five primary reasons why creative people procrastinate on their projects, and what to do about it. Plus a lot of fun chat.

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Transcript:

Hello, everyone. It is Tuesday night for me at least, this is To Write And Have Written, I’m Laura VanArendonk Baugh. And tonight we are talking about procrastination and I wrote these notes today. So, yeah, I just thought you would appreciate knowing that I’m speaking from experience here, so.

Oh, Kate’s here on time, totally failing at procrastinating. No, because you are here to procrastinate from doing something else. So, yeah, that’s OK. We’re going to count that today. Yeah. That is how we are going to count that. And double checking that everything’s coming out all right. All right, yes, doggo, the dog cam is on. Undómiel is gracing us with her presence today. So, OK, so I’m actually excited about tonight’s topic.

This is something that I have put a reasonable amount of thought and effort into over the last few years. But I welcome discussion as always. Please throw your comments into the chat. Is that a Christina in the chat? I think that’s a Christina in the chat, so thank you for stopping by, OK. And I don’t know if they are here in the chat yet, but ShyRedFox and Bridger, if you are here, I want to throw out some congratulations.

Oh, Grace, thanks for subscribing. I appreciate that. Yeah. Hey, if you have Amazon Prime, you can subscribe for free, which is awesome. So support me. Don’t pay any money. It’s great. So yeah, if ShyRedFox and Bridger, if you are in the chat, I’m going to throw some group congratulations your way, because they are regulars here chatting on the show and both of them have upcoming releases that I wanted to mention.

But we’ll see if they come in tonight and we’ll let them talk about that. OK, so tonight I just want to be specific. We are talking about procrastination in writing. I am not addressing the rest of anyone’s life. I’m not going to pretend to know what’s going on. So that is where we’re going to focus tonight. And so I just want to say, first of all, there are a number of reasons for procrastination.

We’re going to go through them in no particular order, just in the order I felt like addressing them. So. Oh, Grace says she has learned some unexpected but surprisingly basic things on this topic in the past few days. Hey, I feel like most of this is unexpectedly basic, like there’s an enormous amount of well, that makes sense, but I never thought of it in that way. That happens, really. That’s like most of behavior when we think about it, but that’s how that goes.

Oh, thank you, Christina, for that subscription as well. Yay, great start tonight. OK, let’s actually focus, I’m going to stop procrastinating talking about procrastination. I’m going to actually address this in my notes over here. I can see a little bit better. Sorry, guys. I’m trying a new layout tonight for my workstation, and I’m not sure yet how I feel about it. So let me start again. We’re talking about procrastination in writing.

We are not talking about anything else. But this is something where we… I don’t know anyone who’s creative, who does not do this. “Huh. Really need to get this done. Dishes need washed.” Like, that is completely going on. So I just want to say, first of all, this in most cases is not about laziness. We may joke about that sometimes, we’ll actually throw that around as self accusatory or blaming a partner or whatever is going on.

Now we’re going to talk about some of the reasons that will be behind procrastination. And again, I welcome, if you guys have any insights from your own experience or things that worked for you or whatever, then feel free to share those. You know, but the reasons that we’re going to talk about tonight are not just, you know, we’re lazy bums who don’t feel like doing anything. Generally, these are things that we want to do. We just aren’t doing them so well.

If we find the real reason for our procrastination, and we choose not to address it, that’s another issue. That’s on you. That’s not what we’re talking about here. What we’re going to talk about here is why is the procrastination happening? So let’s start with the big one that honestly, I feel like this is probably the bulk of causes, just from a simple majority standpoint, and that is our good old buddy fear that shows up on so many of the things that we talk about here.

So first, let me address, just like let’s talk about fear from the logical point. The logical point is not always the useful one, we’ll get to the emotional point in a minute. But let’s start with the logical point. And what this is, is I’ve got this story in my head and it’s pretty and it’s good and it’s amazing. And I’m going to write it down and it’s not going to be good in the same way that it is good in my head, because first drafts are not ever as good as the glowing concept in my head, so as soon as I write down, it’s not going to be good. It’s not going to be good enough. I’m not going to create this amazing story. I can keep it from getting bad by not writing it. So I’m going to find ways to put off writing it, to keep it from degrading from the concept in my head. This is extraordinarily common, whether or not you have articulated that in exactly that form.

Guys, I know a lot of creative people, this is extraordinarily common. So the short version is, if I don’t write it, then it’s then it’s not not good enough. OK. All right. Yeah. OK, here’s the thing, though. If I don’t write it, it’s also not good enough. Right? So I’m going to take this out of the out of the writing sphere for just a moment. Let’s talk about cookies, because I just like talking about cookies.

If I want to make amazing chocolate chip cookies and I, I can taste them. I can I can smell them. And they are gooey and they’re that stretchy. Part of the chocolate just melts in your mouth because you because you made chocolate chip cookies correctly, which is you didn’t overbake them, you just walked the dough past the oven to frighten it. And then you have these warm, gooey cookies, OK? And that’s what I want to do.

That’s what I want to make. I do not want to burn these cookies by leaving them in the oven too long. So I just don’t make the cookies. And that way I haven’t burned the cookies, but I also don’t have any cookies. OK, I am not actually helping myself by not making the cookies. I’m just depriving myself of cookies. There are times that — I’m using the cookies example because it’s a little bit silly, but there are times when this feels much more justifiable.

If I’m working with a particular costume or hanging out with my cosplay friends and we might have this conversation, I’ve definitely had this conversation, about, “This fabric cost me a hundred and fifty dollars a yard. As soon as I cut it, there’s no going back. I have to get it right the first time. I can’t just drop another three hundred dollars on fabric,” or something like that. Yeah. That is, is also a paralyzing thing. And there’s, that’s a little bit more justifiable because there’s real financial investment in the materials. The chocolate chip cookies, not so much. Chocolate chip cookies are pretty cheap in the grand scheme of things.

OK, here’s the thing. Your words are free, your words cost less than chocolate chips, right? If I write a sentence, if it is a terrible sentence, I have, I’ve written the worst sentence. I do not have any fewer words in my reservoir of words than I did before I wrote that sentence. OK, hang on, the chat’s coming in. Yeah, I know, I know there’s a little bit of delay in the chat tonight. I’m really sorry about that.

OK, so Kate’s putting out, “writing gives you the advantage of going back in editing if you burn the first draft like you burn the cookies.” Absolutely. I’m going to get into that because I’m running with the cookie metaphor. But I can rewrite that bad sentence. So I’ve taken the bad sentence. I’m rewriting the bad sentence. I still have not used any more words out of my reservoir. Yes, I’m using time. Time is a resource, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about here.

I’m not losing anything by using that time. Right. Because, yes, I’ve invested that time in making a thing. But if I did something, if I wash the dishes instead of writing the sentence, I didn’t use that time. On other words, OK, I haven’t actually saved that resource for anything there. Oh, Alena. Your chats are now showing up. Yeah. This is finally just came in so. OK, so all right Alena you can probably sympathize with me about the hundred and fifty dollar fabric, like that is absolutely a thing when you’re sitting there going, “I can’t cut into this.

What if it’s wrong?” OK, you don’t have that issue with your words. You’re going to have just as many words. And same way with submissions. If I don’t want to submit a story because it might get rejected, guess what? I have self rejected the story. All right, so it’s it’s rejected, but instead of being rejected by an editor, it’s rejected by me. Here’s the thing. If I submit a story and an editor does reject it, there are no submission police who come to my house, take the printout of that story, set it on fire, go to my hard drive, wipe it out clean, erase my hard drive so I can never recover it, and then leave, leaving me sitting there with no more story. No, I’ve still got the same story. I can still submit it somewhere else. I haven’t lost anything. Right. There are not resources that are, that I’m burning.

OK, I still have them. Oh hey. I think there’s a Joe in the chat as well so. Yeah. Sorry guys. The chat is definitely delayed, so I apologize for that. So just an example of what I was talking about stories, I wrote a story I’m going to say 15 years ago. It had some nice imagery and absolutely nothing else going for it. It was kind of on the low end of mediocre.

Hey, so I wrote it and it sat there for about fifteen years and then I rewrote it. When I rewrote it, I sold that story. I sold that story and I made my editor cry. I made my editor cry twice, once on submission, once on editing for final publication. If I had just said, “Oh well, I wrote the story and it was not the greatest. So I guess that’s the end of it,” OK, no, no, no.

I took what that was and I reworked it and it turned into something really good and really salable — which aren’t always you know, I’m not using those words synonymously, but it hit both of those.

So, OK, Bridger is here, late to the procrastination chat. Yeah. Hi, Bridger. So I mentioned you earlier before I before I really got started, so we’ll come back to you. But I wanted you and ShyRedFox to mention in the chat what you have got. You guys both have releases coming up. So I wanted to throw some promo there. Christine. I think that was my EQUUS story, which was “Rue the Day.” So that’s in the anthology called EQUUS.

So there we go. OK. Where was it? Oh, so. If I’m not writing it down because it might not be perfect, or I’m not sending it out because it might get rejected. I’m kind of just spiting myself here, but I’m doing that because I’m afraid of, it might not be good enough, it might get rejected. What is it that I’m actually afraid of losing? I’m not losing my words. I’m not losing my time.

I’m not losing. You know what what it is that I’m actually losing? I’m losing my image that I’m perfect on my first try. Hey, so. Hey, guys, by the way, welcome to the human race.

We’ll get you a membership card. You can join the rest of us who are not perfect on our first try. And, you know, I’m just. That’s kind of a silly thing to let get in your way. Just going to say that. And again, I know I’m coming at this from, like, the cold logic part, and it’s not addressing the emotional part here. But let’s throw a little cold water on the emotions just to get started.

Is this really worth spiting myself out of progress? Because I might not be perfect? I’m going to say probably not. I guarantee you, you did not just stand up at 10 months old and go for a jog. OK, there was a process there. And you didn’t fall on your diapered butt the first time and go, “oh, well, I guess that’s not going to work out.” No, there was a process. You tried repeatedly.

You got better. OK. Likewise you didn’t burn the cookies the one time and decide I’m never making cookies again, because that would be a lot of cookies that I haven’t had in my life that I have definitely had in my life. OK, so if you wouldn’t do that in other areas, why would you do that to your writing? So that’s what I’m going back to here, is don’t let that fear spite you out of, you know, good things that you can be doing.

You know, you’ve got that great idea in your head. It might not go down perfectly in your first draft. Guess what? First drafts are like that. First drafts not always, but usually are kind of ugly, steaming piles. OK, that’s fine. It’s going to get better. So, OK, go ahead and try things. That’s the short version. If you’re worried, if you’re procrastinating and you ultimately work out that it’s because you’re worried about, it’s not going to be perfect,

Go ahead and try it. Like it’s not going to be perfect as long as it doesn’t exist. Nonexisting is a far, far cry from perfect. Existing and in a state that can be improved is much closer to perfect. OK, generally speaking, this fear comes because we are comparing, and I’m comparing my first draft to the glowing, not really formed idea in my head. Or even worse, I’m comparing my ugly first draft to pick somebody. Neil Gaiman’s

eighteenth draft that’s been professionally edited. OK, and I’m looking at this and I’m going, “well, this is not going to be as good as that. Therefore…” OK, you know what? It’s not supposed to be good as that. This is a first draft. That’s an 18th draft that’s been through multiple editing passes. Right. What a first draft should be compared to is a blank page. First drafts are always better than a blank page.

All right. OK, OK. I’m sorry.

I’m just now catching up on the chat. You guys are cracking me up. Bridger like “Bold of you to assume I don’t self sabotage in the rest of my life too.” OK, you know what I said at the beginning? This was before you were here. I said at the beginning we were just focusing on writing and I’m not responsible for your other life choices. So I did give myself that caveat and that out early on.

And Joe, GoIndieNow, says he knows he threw away more words than cookies because burned or not, you’ll probably eat them. Yes. OK, you know, there’s there’s a little uncomfortable truth to that. I might eat some burnt cookies, too, but but yeah, I prefer to frighten them. OK, here’s what I will tell people. When I told someone once, if you are really, really worried about screwing it up, like, OK, I’m going to get this down, it’s not going to be the way I want it.

Therefore it’s not worth getting down. You’re really worried about screwing it up. Write it and then don’t even read it. Just get it all down, crumple it up, throw it away. All right. One of two things will happen. Either you wrote it and no harm was done. Therefore, what was the problem in writing it? OK, or you will write it, you will throw it away or you will start to throw it away and you will feel this resistance to throwing it away.

Well, wait a minute. If you’re resisting throwing it away, it must not be completely worthless. Must be better than not existing. So acknowledge that and then improve it. OK, so there we go. OK. Yes, Doberman is being a little bit cute. All right. So that was the first reason for procrastination, fear, and honestly, I think, as I said, that’s probably the biggest one, not necessarily the most acknowledged one, but that’s a really big one, is I just don’t want to not live up to my own expectations.

So Alena is now making cookies, make sure you bring enough to share. Thank you. OK, the second big reason for procrastination and this one I hit a lot, so, definitely talking to myself here, and that is a lack of clear direction. So background, I’m not an outliner at all. I’m. A pantser, barely a plantser. OK, if I go into a story and I’ve got four or five bullet points, that’s a really well planned story for me, OK?

And I do a lot with — I feed my subconscious sugar until it supplies a story. That’s how that works. But if I’m trucking along and then I just suddenly slow down, I start finding reasons to not work on the story, it’s usually because something’s wrong in the story. There is something that’s not working. So working on that, that writing in that story feels hollow and feel like I’m not making progress because I’m not making progress. I can’t go forward because forward is not the right direction.

OK, oh my gosh. Grace is making cookies too. Everybody’s going to be making cookies now. Everybody bring cookies to the chat. Thank you. OK, so and this is the one that hits me a lot. “Depth Charge,” which is the water anthology story that I kept talking about. If you were here in the stream last fall and I kept mentioning, yeah, I’m still working on that water story. Yeah, it’s still awful.

Okay. Right. I whined about that one a lot. And then recently the cyberpunk story that I just did for Rhonda’s anthology that I mentioned the last week. And guys, I threw away three endings for that cyberpunk story. And so there was a lot, a lot of procrastinating. If you were here on the stream last week when I mentioned that I submitted that story less than two hours before deadline. Yeah, like, that’s how procrastination works. OK, but it’s because I didn’t have a good ending.

I really wasn’t happy with where the story was going. And so I kept having to backtrack and start over. And I was putting off working on it because I knew the story wasn’t right. So I guess what I’m talking about there is, if I feel like I can’t make forward progress frequently, it’s because I’m not in the right spot to be able to go forward. So that’s what I need to go back and look at. OK, what’s the plot?

How is my characterization? What is actually going on here? What should be going on here? That sort of thing? Oh, hey, Ronda’s in the chat while I’m talking about how hard that story was. Yeah. And oh so yeah. Where I guess where I’m going with that is, that is probably my single biggest cause for procrastination, is that’s my my inner editor telling me, hey, before you spend a lot more time on this particular project, do you maybe want to look at this project and find out if, you know, you’re going to paint this entire room but it’s the wrong color or, you know, something like that.

So that is, again, just to step back and look at what in this story is not working, and that would be why I can’t go forward with it. So that’s the second reason. And that’s usually the one that that hits me. That’s my big procrastination, cause there’s also a fair amount of the third reason that comes into my personal procrastination library, and that’s where we’re going to go now. So that is, I have this thing I need to do, this thing I want to do this thing, but I don’t actually know how to do this thing or I don’t feel really comfortable doing it. Again, almost always not feeling comfortable because I don’t really know how.

So this can go back to fear again. I’m scared of doing this wrong. I don’t feel confident that I’m going to do it well. So I’m going to I feel like I’m going to do it wrong. So in the writing world, this might look like I don’t know that I’m going to convey this theme effectively or how do I represent this authentically and respectfully? There’s definitely some projects that I have put off in my own work because I don’t quite trust my execution of them.

One of them is representation of disability that I just don’t feel really comfortable with yet. So I work on it and I leave it and I work on it. I leave it, go ask for help and then I work on it and then I leave it, you know, but or I’m just stretching myself. I’m trying to write something that’s a little outside my wheelhouse. I don’t feel really confident in it. So this goes back again. This is all fear. Rather than write it very poorly, I just don’t write it, which really doesn’t help it to get any better. So not the most efficient way to fix that. Or this is where we get into the business side of things, lots of our writing adjacent activities, you know, accounting, marketing, that sort of thing. Hey, it’s tax season here, right? Like this is super evident in tax season where you’re like, “oh, wow, I’ve got this huge pile of paperwork and math.

Let me go bake cookies.” Yeah. So if you were putting off your accounting and you find yourself putting off your accounting, you know, “I need to do it, I need to do it, I need to do it, OK, but I