Turning procrastination into your shitty first draft
Merlin Mann | May 17 2006
I think Deane's insights on procrastination and programming might actually be even more true of writer's block and for many of the same reasons. But perhaps unlike coding, the gestation period of a writing project almost always benefits from a series of very small starts.
While there are dozens of tricks for psyching yourself out of a perceived writing slump, you eventually learn that blocks are sometimes there for a theoretically plausible reason -- because you really haven't figured out what you're trying to say yet, but suffer crippling anxiety and dread about even committing the "shitty first draft." So, as with the programming example, your brain beats itself up for being such a laggard and you may stay locked in creativity-sapping inaction. But the truth is you're probably working on it already. The only way to find out is to start someplace. Anyplace.
As Neil Fiore wisely points out in his excellent book, The Now Habit, we usually have more than enough information to just start most any job. Don't begin by fussing about perfection or the "right" place to start, just start. You can get help midwifing the process through tools like outlines, mind maps, or talking to a duck.
But, if you've truly procrastinated even getting to the point where proper gestation and idea seeding can begin, you're understandably in a bit of trouble. Because now you have to go straight to producing the artifact (the code or the article or whatever) while your brain still craves that extra bit of time to turn it all over. Like they say, a pregnancy takes nine months, regardless of how many women you've put on the job. Don't slip on a deadline that makes you try to make an infant in one night.
The trick is to find that very first point when some part of your thinking can be converted from uncaptured brain droppings into notes, doodles, outlines, or any kind of markings on a page -- even though it's clearly not ready to be shaped into a deliverable just yet. Whether it's your unified field theory of physics or a 50-word blog post about the molé burrito you just ate, it pays to get something down. Anything. In my experience, getting that hand in motion tends to really stimulate creativity. The rough draft process is where procrastination is finally displaced by clarity, focus, and a fuller understanding of the relationships between the things that have been collecting in your brain pan.
So, next time you accept a job, whether programming, writing, or what have you, don't wait to get started in even a seemingly trivial way. Even if you can't start dedicated work on a big project for a month or two, try reading over the raw materials and background information that you have, just to get the shape and texture of the work. Maybe make a date with wikipedia to get some early background info on your topic. For a writing assignment, initially capture 5-10 bullets that you want to make sure to cover, and then add to the list periodically as things occur to you. Who knows what your brain could do with an extra four weeks of active percolation time?
And if you're sitting there right now procrastinating and catastrophizing: consider how little you have to lose by a few minutes of free writing or 2 fast minutes of making notes on a blank sheet of paper. Take a modest but physical step to get off the dime, and you may be surprised at how much you already have to say.
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