Procrastination for Writers

We all do it—to some extent, that is. You. Me. The princesses on the top and the paupers at the bottom. It seems to be some primal urge. Some burning instinct to seek self-pleasure, not pain, and avoid the unpleasant or overwhelming.

I’m talking procrastination, of course. The art of putting off till tomorrow that which should be done today. I’d say the majority of writers are procrastinators, and that’s okay. Many times, though, procrastination can be a positive force and not a negative curse. Especially for writers who can perfect their procrastination down to a science.

Procrastination’s best defined as “the act of avoiding doing what you know (or think) you should be doing”. The word descends from the Latin word procrastinare which means “to postpone or delay” and the Greek term akrasia, the “lack of self-control or the state of acting against one’s better judgment”. Leave it to the Greeks and the Romans to label the condition because these ancients were some of the biggest procrastinators of all time. In fact, back then procrastination was viewed as an admirable quality—something that was to be perfected for peak performance.

I know that doesn’t make sense, on the surface. But drilling down, you can make the case that, properly done, intentional procrastination can increase your productivity on important tasks. It’s a matter of setting priorities and focusing on prime output that brings delayed gratification—not a waste time on trivial stuff that seems like fun in the moment (immediate gratification).

Psychologists have done a lot of procrastination studies. Traditional thinking suggests procrastination is nothing more than a time management problem. These thinkers suggest self-discipline is all that’s required to Get Things Done, or GTD as the acronym’s known.

Others aren’t so sure about this. Dr. Tim Pychyl of Carlton University in Toronto and his counterpart, Dr. Fuschia Sirois of Sheffield University in the UK, did a detailed procrastination project and came up with a different suggestion. They saw procrastination, at its root cause, as an emotional management issue, not time.

Drs. Sirois and Pychyl found their studied subjects reacted to procrastination in relation to how they felt in the moment about tackling certain tasks. It’s human nature to avoid pain and seek pleasure, and that emotional connection is just as hard-wired as flight or fight. It’s really about mood when it comes to GTD, say the Docs.

The Docs went on to report the anti-procrastination mindset for GTD is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which is a psychological offshoot to Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). They say that a GTD mentality based on ACT principles allows “psychological flexibility” to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings (ie: I really don’t want to do this right now, but I know I have to or the consequences will be more untolerable). Recognizing this lets a person stay in the present moment in spite of negative feelings and to prioritize choices and actions that help that person (you) get closer to what you really want in life.

Their studies, the Docs said, found most people couldn’t envision their long-term situation—where they’d be in five or ten years instead of at the moment. Procrastination, or putting off important works, kept their subjects “happy in the moment”. They termed this “mood repair” and found people naturally avoid uncomfortable feelings by putting off tasks-at-hand regardless if the tasks are vital to overall life success.

This doctoral work claims people are actually wired to think of themselves as two different people. They say we have our present selves and our future selves but, strangely, we naturally prioritize our present mood at the expense of our future well-being even though the choice is irrational in our long-term welfare. The Docs reported brain scan waves of people told to envision themselves ten years out were the same as when told to think of celebrities they didn’t know.

Thinking about it, this does make sense. We procrastinate because our brains are wired to care more about our present comfort than our future wellness. That makes it clear we have two ways of dealing with procrastination:

  1. We make whatever topic we’re procrastinating on feel less uncomfortable.
  2. We convince our present selves into caring about our future selves.

Yes. I know. This is easier said than done. However, as a serious writer, you have to focus on the long term. It means feeling less uncomfortable about facing the blank page and putting the fingers on the keys. It means completing the current WIP and starting the next—knowing that in five years, ten years, fifteen years, and longer, you’ll have built a backlist strong enough to support you ad infinite.

You’re probably expecting some examples of how to pull off perfect procrastination for writers. To start with, let me suggest you don’t really procrastinate as much as you think. It’s just a matter of setting the right priorities and addressing/attacking the most urgent issues first.

Before I became a serious writer, I was a long-time government worker with high-stress tasks. I faced life and death issues, literally, for over three decades. Often, there wasn’t time to procrastinate. Each day was a challenge to balance urgent and important issues along with non-urgent yet still important jobs.

I learned to work within a priority matrix of four quadrants. There’s nothing new or secret about this anti-procrastination process. It’s called the Eisenhower Matrix or the Ike Box and rightly named after the Second World War General and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower who was supremely famous for GTD.

The Eisenhower Matrix deals with two priority dimensions. One is importance. The other is urgency. It’s laid out like this:

Upper Left Box — Important and Urgent Tasks

Upper Right Box — Important but Not Urgent Tasks

Lower Left Box — Not Important yet Urgent Tasks

Lower Right Box — Not Important and Not Urgent Tasks

I’ve used the Ike Box as a police officer and as a coroner. Each profession has a system in place to minimize procrastination and prioritize workload as well as a built-in accountability checker. I won’t get into how they work, but I will let you peek at the Ike Box I have as a writer for this week’s priorities as well as into the near future. It’s all about building the world of five, ten, and more years ahead.

Upper Left — Write blog posts for The Kill Zone and DyingWords, Link backlist in based-on-true-crime series on Amazon, Kobo and Nook, Exercise/Eat/Sleep well, Spend time with Rita, Get a haircut and buy shaving cream

Upper Right — Develop City Of Danger series, Plan July stacked promotion for crime series, Plan podcast with cool co-star Sue Coletta, Publish true crime series on Apple and Google

Lower Left — Respond to two lengthy email assistance requests, Plan print releases for true crime series, Mow the lawn before it’s impossible to walk through and remind our downstairs tenant to pick up after their Rottweiler/Great Dane crossbreed

Lower Right — Renovate writing/recording studio, Have that discussion with Floyd, my neighbor

That’s it. That sums my priorities in this writing and living gig. Nothing fancy or complicated, but it gives me a snapshot of what needs doing right now and what doesn’t matter. I’ve learned (or try to learn) to take only so much on and to say “No” to unproductive time theft. I heard someone say, “When you’ve got it all down to one shopping cart, you’ve got it made.”

Examples of procrastination for writers? Right, I did mention that. One big return in putting stuff off is sitting on your manuscript for some time after you’ve completed a polished draft and before you ship it for publication. This brewing time is precious, and I see that as high-value downtime.

Speaking of downtime, you might view surfing Facebook and watching cat videos as terrible procrastination when you need to GTD. I don’t see it that way, because no one can work all the time and keep peak productivity. Note: If you haven’t read Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Productive People, please do so. This is time well spent.

Time away from the keys and screen lets the creative juices flow. My best downtime is while out for a walk on the waterfront. My worst is after dinner and at the end of the day when I’m creatively done. However, I don’t consider watching an evening’s net stream of the Moody Blues Nights In White Satin (Days of Future Passed) and a TED talk on brain science with Dr. Lara Boyd as a procrastinator’s waste of time which I did last night.

Another prime example of procrastination for writers is leaving a major decision until the last moment and then committing after you’ve had plenty of time to think things over. Rash decisions (gut responses) just to GTD quick can have disastrous consequences as the Lehman Brother organization found out. While researching this piece, I found a Smithsonian Magazine article on a book by Frank Patroy titled Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. Here’s a quote about how the Lehman Brothers destroyed their own future by failing to procrastinate:

I interviewed a number of former senior executives at Lehman Brothers and discovered a remarkable story. Lehman Brothers had arranged for a decision-making class in the fall of 2005 for its senior executives. It brought four dozen executives to the Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue and brought in leading decision researchers, including Max Bazerman from Harvard and Mahzarin Banaji, a well-known psychologist. For the capstone lecture, they brought in Malcolm Gladwell, who had just published Blink, a book that speaks to the benefits of making instantaneous decisions and that Gladwell sums up as “a book about those first two seconds.” Lehman’s president Joe Gregory embraced this notion of going with your gut and deciding quickly, and he passed copies of Blink out on the trading floor.

The executives took this class and then hurriedly marched back to their headquarters and proceeded to make the worst snap decisions in the history of financial markets. Failing to delay, or procrastinate, their crucial decisions caused Lehman Brothers to go broke in 2008.

What about you Kill Zone folks? How does procrastination fit into your short and long-term writing plans? Don’t put off commenting until it’s too late.

——

When it comes to procrastinating, Garry Rodgers ranks with the best. Garry managed to put off a writing career until his sixties. Now, he’s making up for lost time with an 8-part, based-on-true-crime series written and indie published within the last two years as well as penning a few stand alones.

What Garry Rodgers isn’t putting off is starting a new made-for-net-streaming detective fiction series called City Of Danger. Tagline: A modern city in dystopian crisis enlists two private detectives from its utopian past to deliver street justice and restore social order. Follow Garry on Twitter and checkout his personal blog/website at DyingWords.net.

Dreams, Goals, and a Gift

Dreams, Goals, and a Gift
Terry Odell

This is my last official post of 2020, but the official TKZ Winter Hiatus doesn’t start until December 21st, so don’t stop visiting.

Is it too early to think about the New Year? Are you already thinking about the tradition of making resolutions? With a new year come new beginnings. Fresh starts. We all enter a new year filled with hope and promises to make it better than the last one.

And, usually, by the end of January, all those good intentions have gone by the wayside. I gave up making resolutions long ago (although I occasionally make them for the Hubster—less chance of me breaking them that way). What I’ve learned, is that if you want to see success, you have to narrow your focus.

These resolutions don’t work:

  • I resolve to be a best-selling author.
  • I resolve to write three novels this year.
  • I resolve to make $100,000 selling my e-books.

Why don’t they work? They’re dreams.

Dreams are wonderful. Dreams are things you’d love to have, but they’re also things over which you have no control, because they depend on other people. You need goals.
Goals have to be measurable. I learned that way back in college when I was getting my teacher certification. The course was “Behavioral Objectives” and we learned to set ways to measure whether we were getting through to our students. We could set a goal that at least 90% of our students would score at least 80% or better on an exam. This was a measurable outcome. If they didn’t, we’d have to go back and figure out why. And, frankly, the usual answer would be “because I didn’t teach the material effectively”, NOT “the students were lazy slackers.”

Another thing I learned in that course was that you had to take small steps. You had to figure out what skills were required for a student to answer a question on that exam correctly, and then work on practicing those skills. (Not teaching to the test—teaching skills.)

How do you turn those dreams into goals? Break them down into things you can do in small increments, and that you can measure. Being a best-selling author isn’t measurable. (Can I call myself a best-selling author if I pay for an ad and my books hit the number 1 slot on a very small niche at Amazon for a week? Some authors do, but that’s not something I’m comfortable with.)

Those who say, “I’m going to write three books this year” are likely to fail if that’s as far as they go. What does it take to finish the book? You take that lofty goal, break it into small pieces, and then figure out what you can do to achieve each piece.

Write X words/pages a day/week until you’re done. That’s something you can track. You can see your success. You have a specific goal each day/week.

And, most importantly, you can reassess and adjust these goals over the course of the year. Are you making your word count goal by 10 AM? Maybe it’s too low. Are you staying up until 3 AM and still failing? Don’t be afraid to lower it. Of course, you’ll want to take a hard look at why you’re not meeting your word count goals. If it’s because you’re spending 8 hours a day on Facebook, you might want to cut back on your social media time!

As for making $100,000? That’s a dream that depends on others. You have no control over who buys your books. You can develop a marketing plan, a budget, hire a publicist, but the sales are out of your hands. The one thing you can do, however, is to use the best marketing tool out there. Write the next book!

Whatever you’re looking for in the new year, I wish you the best in attaining it.

(Did you forget about the word “Gift” in the title? If you’ve read this far, I’ve got one for you.)

TP MenorahTomorrow is the first night of Hanukkah, which is the winter holiday my family celebrates, although there’s likely to be a different slant on the retelling of the “miracle” this year.

Because I consider everyone at TKZ, on both sides of the site, my family, I thought I’d offer you a gift as my last TKZ offering of 2020.

Deadly Production by Terry OdellMy gift to you: Enjoy a free download of Deadly Production, Book 4 in my Mapleton Mystery series. You can find your gift at Book Funnel. You can download an epub, mobi, or PDF file. If you have trouble, the wonderful folks at BookFunnel will be happy to help. (Download deadline is December 18th.)

Have a wonderful and safe holiday season.


Heather's ChaseMy new Mystery Romance, Heather’s Chase, is available at most e-book channels. and and in print from Amazon.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Holiday Food for Thought on Character Conflicts

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Purchased from iStock for Jordan Dane’s use

This is my last post for 2018, but I got my inspiration from Jim’s post “What I Wish I’d Known When I Started Writing” on Nov 25th. As always, the discussion comments were very interesting. Two comments stood out in my mind and I wanted to explore them. I thought they could combine into this post on character and conflict.

Marilynn Byerly said: “…Conflict should exist on many levels. In other words, the character’s emotional struggle should be mirrored in the action of the novel.”

Marilynn is so right. Great summary. There can be the external conflict of a global disaster or a killer on the loose, but if you add complications within the main character (a flaw or handicap that forces them out of their comfort zone to deal with the external conflict after facing their own demons), that’s good stuff.

AZAli said: “When I was starting out, I thought there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t write a scene about characters enjoying themselves.”

I could relate to AZAli’s comment here when I first started out. I didn’t want to waste a scene on the seemingly real life of the character, but in moderation, this can be insightful, especially if the internal demons of the character are at odds with what the plot will bring. In Michael Connelly books, The ups and downs of Bosch’s personal life are an intricate thread woven into the fabric of his stories, so tightly written and paced, that Bosch becomes real in the reader’s mind. It’s like you KNOW him over the series of books you’re reading. His failed relationships, the love he has for his daughter and complicated ex-wife, and his troubles on the job that arise because of his very uncompromising nature.

Be judicious, not to overdo diversions, but I would suggest that if you want to add depth to your character, give him or her a backstory that is integral to his/her internal conflicts and force your character to deal with those too, along with the plot. No scene is wasted if the reader is enthralled. It’s a balance, but one worth pursuing. (I love getting emails or social media comments from readers who ask about the personal life of my characters. They share their hopes for what might come next or ask about the service dog I have my Vigilante Justice series, Karl. You never know what will resonate with readers.)

I thought of a writing resource book by Deb Dixon called “Goals, Motivation & Conflict.” This little book (affectionately called the GMC book) has a lot of fans. It helped me add complications to my characters when I first started writing. It’s a good resource for new writers. I also attended one of Deb Dixon’s workshops and got a lot out of it. (Workshops are wonderful to learn new things and to network. I would encourage any author to attend a workshop, no matter what skill level you are. There’s bound to be something that will stick with you.)

I’m resorting to my memory on the matrix concept of the GMC book and the general idea that has stuck with me after reading it. My resources books are buried in my BOX ROOM after my last move. The idea of t he GMC book is to give your characters INTERNAL CONFLICTS and EXTERNAL CONFLICTS and maybe dare to have them conflict with each other.

What does your character want and why can’t they have it? Conflict is vital to creating memorable characters. No conflict(s), no story. I can’t emphasize this enough. If there is a common mistake many aspiring authors make, it’s not having enough conflict to keep a story flowing through to the end that will drive the characters and keep their story interesting.

Your EXTERNAL CONFLICT might be the villain or the insurmountable situation, but the most unforgettable characters will also contend with their own flaws or biases (INTERNAL CONFLICTS) or demons, so they have a journey toward self-discovery. If you have a hero who is in conflict with a villain, while he’s battling his own demons, then think about creating a heroine who has opposing conflicts where one of them must lose in order to be together. Conflicts are best when layered and made more complicated.

Find your characters’ greatest weaknesses or fears—their internal conflicts—and demand they deal with it. Torture them. It’s legal. Rubbing their nose in it generally comes from the influences of the external conflict—the plot. The one-two punch of the external and internal conflicts adds depth to your character. Make him/her suffer, then ramp up the stakes and the tension. It’s all about drama!

Add Depth to Each Character—Give them a journey
• With any journey comes baggage. Be generous. Load on the baggage. Give them a weakness that they’ll have to face head-on by the climax of the book.

• Make them vulnerable by giving them an Achilles Heel. Even the darkest street thug or a fearless young girl with magical powers should have a weakness that may get them killed and certainly makes them more human and relatable.

• Whether you are writing one book or a series, have a story arc for your character’s journey that spans the series. Will they find peace or love, or some version of a normal life? Will they let someone else into their lives or will they be content to live alone? Will a villain have a chance at redemption? Do what makes sense for your character, but realize that their emotional issues will cloud their judgment and affect how they deal with confrontations. By the end of a book, they should learn something.

Use Character Flaws as Handicaps
• Challenge yourself as an author by picking flaws that will make your character stand out and that aren’t easy to write about. Sometimes that means you have to dig deep in your own head to imagine things you don’t want to think about, but tap into your empathy for another human being. You might surprise yourself.

• Stay true to the flaws and biases you give your characters. Don’t present them to the reader then have the actions of the character contradict those handicaps. Be consistent. If they have strong enough issues, these won’t be fixed by the end of the book. Find a way to deal with them.

Summary: With a little forethought and patience, you can craft a better book if you plan your characters’ conflicts and create a tough journey of discovery for them. And remember that one book could turn into a series if you create a large enough world with characters that can be sustained through a series. I even like to plant seeds of mystery for future books within the pages of a standalone. You never know what good fortune might happen.

Happy Holidays! Wishing you the best and have a great 2019, TKZers!

DISCUSSION:

For Writers: Tell us about the internal and external conflicts of the main character(s) in your current WIP, TKZers. How have you made your characters at odds with each other?

For Readers: Share novels that had a good balance of the internal and external conflicts of the main character. What did you like most about the journey of the book?