The first time I had to write a conference presentation proposal, I sat down, stared at the blank Word document and felt my thoughts crawling away in a million different directions. Damn, how hard can it be to write 5 pages? I mean, all you need to do is to put down some words and arrange them so that they form a coherent narrative, right?
I always thought that this type of intellectual work must be much easier than physical labor (which I experienced in a few capacities in my teens). I was wrong! Intellectual work is its own kind of hard - especially when it’s intense and stretched over a long period of time - especially writing.
I discovered that writing is almost physically painful and exhausting for me. I can feel some type of physical unease writing this very line right now, which will turn into a huge relief when I finish this post. Don’t get me wrong, I DO love writing but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of the most challenging activities in graduate school.
What happened with my conference proposal? Well, I had a classic response to the situation: procrastination. I delayed the task until the last couple of days when the deadline terrified me so much that I had no choice other than to sit down and do the thing. In the end, I sent it in and it got accepted - mostly due to the help and guidance of my amazing advisers who pinpointed all shortcomings of my writing and helped me find much better phrasing and structure.
So what’s the deal with writer’s procrastination?
Procrastination has been an increasingly popular topic - just Google the term, and the sheer amount of related material will slide down on your head like an avalanche. It’s existed through centuries and hit even the most famous intellectuals (check out this article if you are interested in specific names). Perhaps, it owns its current popularity to the rise of the internet and electronic devices - the bottomless pit of enticing distractions.
I won’t dwell on the theory behind procrastination. Instead, check out these sources to develop a better understanding of the issue:
- Thomas Frank: The Procrastination Equation: An In-Depth Breakdown
- James Clear: Procrastination: A Scientific Guide on How to Stop Procrastinating
- Rozental, A., & Carlbring, P. (2014). Understanding and treating procrastination: a review of a common self-regulatory failure. Psychology, 5(13). Open access text
In my experience, writer's procrastination develops due to the following three factors:
- Perfectionism. I am afraid to write because I (mistakenly) think I have to make it look perfect right off the bat. Spoiler alert:I never can.
- Fear of the amount of work. A typical paper is 30-40 pages long (double-spaced). Dissertations can be a couple of hundred pages. That’s a lot of hours of writing.
- Not knowing what to write. Not having a clear understanding of what I want or need to say in my paper.
I found that knowing the root of the problem doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. You can analyze your feelings and motivation all you want but unless you take action, nothing will change. Over the course of 4 years I tried various approaches to subdue writer’s procrastination, and some of them turned out to be quite effective. Let’s get to them!
Technique #1: Shitty First Draft
This is hands down the best technique to stop writer’s procrastination. It got me through my Candidacy exam (100+ pages of writing) and helped write 4 articles in one month.
When writing my first conference proposal, I remember spending 10 minutes trying to word each sentence in the best possible way. Naturally, I was discouraged a few hours later when I didn’t even hit a two-page mark. Did I want to pick up where I left off the next day? Heck no. And who would?
Then I took a graduate writing course where I was introduced to the Shitty First Draft approach. Originating in Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, this concept really stuck with me (disclaimer: I haven’t read the entire book, only that one chapter).
Here’s my interpretation of that section: we procrastinate on writing because we expect the first draft to be great - but it almost never is, and we know that. Thinking about those first ugly scribbles make us feel anxious, incompetent and insecure. Our brain doesn’t want us to feel bad, so it pulls us into the world of immediate gratifications to medicate our ego.
Solution? Change your mindset. Here is how.
- Instead of dreading the first ugly draft, proudly call it a Shitty First Draft.
- Realize that Shitty First Drafts are always the first step to your fantastic future writing. No exceptions.
- Write your Shitty first Draft following these rules:
- Put down everything that’s on your mind.
- Do NOT correct anything. Forget about grammar, vocabulary, style, formatting. Just write things down.
- Forget about introductions, transitions, endings. Start wherever. You have the statistical part figured out? Put some numbers down. You know the names of the theories you’ll be using? Put them on paper. Random quotes? Go for it. Sloppy sentences consisting of 3 words? Yep, that works.
- Intentionally set your perfectionism aside. What you’re writing now has nothing to do (in terms of beauty and style) with your final work. You are AIMING at a shitty draft. You actually want it to be Shitty because it allows you to speak your mind in writing in a flow without distractions.
- Embrace your Shitty First Draft like people embrace their ugly Christmas sweater. Be proud of it!
- When you’re done, set it aside, pat yourself on the back and go treat yourself to a coffee.
The next day, come back to your Shitty First Draft and start tweaking it. Remember, perfection is not the goal just yet. Just try to string words and phrases together. Make fuller sentences, add more content. Then repeat the process a few times.
At some point, you will find yourself with a pretty decent draft - an ugly sweater that bloomed into a fancy party dress. I bet you couldn’t imagine that transformation at the start, yet here you are! The only thing left is minor edits and formatting. This is where you can let your perfectionism shine (but still within reason).
Practice this technique until it becomes automatic. You’ll be amazed at the positive change you’ll see!
Technique #2: Set page goals
One of my main problems when it comes to writing is getting stuck at the stage of reading research papers. As researchers, learning about the previous work in the field is essential for us. It takes hours to go through dozens of papers, take notes, and process information. In my experience, it becomes a problem when it stops you from writing because you feel like you need to read more - more - MORE! Reading articles is also easier than writing your own stuff, so your brain might trick you into consistently prioritizing it.
How can you counteract it? My answer is to set page goals. Let’s say you read 4-5 seminal works about your topic and took some notes. Now, write 1 page of whatever writing project you are working on. It can be a Shitty First Draft page. It can be a well thought-out page (which is easier to do with only a 1-page limit). Just make sure to pick out the ideas that you need for your paper and put them together in that one page.
Next time, read several articles again and write another page. Repeat until you are done with the section that requires relying on so many resources (usually that’s the Theoretical Background/Literature Overview section). After that, you should be able to start describing your own ideas and putting them together with what you already wrote.
The number of articles or pages may change as you please. While working on my Candidacy exam, my goal was 3 pages a day (I had a 10-12 day limit for each of the 4 papers I had to write) but I didn’t set the target number of articles. I just made sure I wrote 3 pages daily. When working on less time-sensitive projects, I try to write 1-2 pages for each 3-5 articles I read. Later on I might go back, consolidate some information and add additional sources, but this method keeps me accountable for my writing.
Even though I often use Hours/Goal approach (see more info here), I tend to finish writing work only when I achieved my page goal to make sure I always make progress.
Technique #3: Use Pomodoro technique and the 10-minute rule
I like simple low-maintenance time-management methods that work. The Pomodoro technique and the 10-minute rule work wonders! I use them when I am exhausted or unmotivated but still need to write.
The Pomodoro technique has 2 base components: a 25-minute work interval and a 5-minute break. You set the timer for 25 minutes, work without distractions, then take a 5-minute break, then repeat the 30-minute cycle. You do it several times and then take a larger 10-minute break. There are tons of free apps and websites that are automatically set for these values and will notify you when the time is up. I tend to use TomatoTimer on the web (free) and Engross on my phone (which I did pay for - about $4). You can also use your default phone timer, even though it might be a bit of a hassle to change interval times manually.
The beauty of this approach is that you can change the time values - proportionally. For example, you can work for 20 minutes instead of 25. You can work for 40 minutes and have a 7 or 10-minute break. You can work for 50 or 60 minutes and have a 10 or 15-minute break. I would not recommend going over 60 minutes because concentration can break easily at that point. Just pick the values that work for you and go for it!
The Pomodoro technique tricks our brain because it puts a limit on the work time, motivating us to get started. It’s easier to start working on the task when you know it’s only going to take 25 minutes, right? Not so much when you are in for what can potentially take the entire work day.
What do you do when even the Pomodoro technique doesn’t work and you are fine with just staring at the ceiling all day to avoid any type of work? Enter the 10-minute rule. Prepare to do your task (e. g., open the articles you need to read or the stats program you will use), set a timer for 10 minutes, and work ONLY for 10 minutes. As soon as the time is up, you have 2 choices: to keep working or to stop. Stopping is fair game; give yourself a break and then go for another 10-minute sessions. Chances are, you will keep working because starting is the hardest part!
Next time your brain tries to convince you to put off your writing, use these techniques to calm it down and get started. And now, go get that writing going - you got this!