You know the feeling of sitting on the couch after work, phone in hand, dinner cooked and eaten, and thinking, Finally! Time to work on my book! And then, somehow, suddenly, the day is gone and you find yourself asking, What happened?
I’m not necessarily talking about writer’s block, which to me means what happens when you’re completely stumped about what should happen next. Instead, I’m talking about when you have something in mind to write and desperately want to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to get it all down. But, somehow, you keep reaching the end of the day without writing a sentence.
A recent New York Times article reports that “self-awareness is a key part of why procrastinating makes us feel so rotten. When we procrastinate, we’re not only aware that we’re avoiding the task in question, but also that doing so is probably a bad idea.” The article also suggests that procrastination isn’t about poor time management but about negative emotions (like guilt, shame, or frustration) surrounding the task we’re avoiding.
That idea rings true to me: when I’m procrastinating, I know it, and I feel terrible about it—but not terrible enough to dive into whatever I’m putting off. So while I want to encourage us to examine the root causes of our procrastination (the Times article and a previous blog post are brilliant starting points), I also want to offer an alternative to thinking through the reasons we procrastinate: taking immediate action.
Feeling guilty about not writing? Then, my friend, it’s time to write. Don’t reach the end of another day staring down the endless void of the blank page. Instead, try your hand at one of these three simple writing exercises right now.
1. Write About Procrastinating
A writing teacher once told me that if you get stuck while writing an essay, start writing about why you can’t write. So instead of berating yourself for spending hours looking at Instagram memes for the upcoming Cats movie, write about procrastinating.
You don’t have to spend much time writing about procrastinating. In fact, you can immediately switch back to Instagram after you finish, and you don’t even have to reread what you write. Your only goal is to switch your brain from doing something other than writing to, well, writing.
Not sure where to start? Try a few of these prompts:
- Today, instead of working on my novel, I . . .
- I think I’m procrastinating because . . .
- When I procrastinate instead of writing, I feel . . .
- If procrastination were a color, it would be . . .
- If procrastination were a monster, it would look like . . .
Remember, there shouldn’t be any judgment—you don’t have to write, “Today, instead of working on my novel, I wasted all my time playing that stupid smartphone game where you connect dots to make squares. It was so dumb and I am so dumb,” and so on and so forth. Just write and keep things honest but unbiased.
2. Write About Your Writing
Instead of trying to hammer out some witty dialogue or perfect an image-filled, well-constructed scene, write about what you want to write in straightforward, unstyled prose:
- The next step in the plot is . . .
- Next up, I want X to tell Y about . . .
- My characters are stranded in X. I think I’ll get them to Y by . . .
- I want this next scene to show how X feels about Y, which means . . .
Of course, if writer’s block feels like more of an issue for you than just procrastination, then writing these kinds of prompts can help you figure out how to move past a roadblock.
But whether you’re dealing with procrastination, writer’s block, or a combination of the two, don’t make getting through the problem the goal. Instead, remember that the only goal is judgment-free writing—it’s about doing the task of writing itself, not about perfecting the end result.
3. Write Down Five Things You’re Experiencing and Five Things You’re Thinking
This prompt is adapted from one of my favorite books on writing, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, by Natalie Goldberg. It also combines two of my favorite things: sensory details and lists.
First, write five sentences to describe what you can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell around you. There’s a catch, though: you can’t use similes, metaphors, or any other type of figurative language. Concrete physical details only.
Then, switch to writing down five things you’re thinking about right now. Goldberg suggests simply starting with the phrase “I’m thinking about . . .” and going from there. Whenever you get to the end of a thought, start over: “Now I’m thinking about . . .”
Goldberg offers some fantastic instructions for this particular prompt that apply to the other prompts in this blog too. As you write, she advises, “Don’t cross out. Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, or grammar . . . [This prompt] is a way to begin, to help face the blank page” (pg. 2–3).
Bonus Tip: If You Can’t Write, Read
If you just absolutely can’t compel yourself to write, it’s okay—try reading instead. I recommend starting with these excellent articles on the Writer’s Domain blog:
If blog posts are too short, try immersing yourself in a book. You can read a theoretical treatise on the craft of writing, a how-to guide for a certain genre, or even a book of prompts—anything that gets you out of your head (read: out of the guilt, frustration, and boredom that make up the bars of procrastination hell). Here are a few of my go-tos:
- Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, Gayle Brandeis
- Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg
- On Writing, Stephen King
- Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, William Kenower
- A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry, Robert Hass
- Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words, Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge
(Pst: if you have any favorite writing books, I’d love to hear about them in the comments section.)
Nothing makes you feel more like you can’t write (and like you’ll never write again) than not writing, day after day, even when you so desperately want to. Friends, comrades, countrymen, there’s only one solution to this infernal problem: to write.
Worried you can’t write? Write. Ashamed of not writing? Write. Right now. Positive you can’t finish your novel for reasons unknown? Don’t punish yourself for not writing your novel; just write. It doesn’t matter what, where, or how you write so long as you write.
These writing exercises are evergreen. You’ll never write the same thing twice, so feel free to revisit them whenever you need. In the time it takes you to write a few sentences, you can look your procrastination monster in the face and snarl back at it, armed with the evidence of your ability to write.