Your procrastination shield - What is it actually protecting you from and how do you lay it down so you can get on with writing? by Juliet Clare Bell


Are you ever put off writing? 

Can you find really plausible excuses not to sit down and get on with it? I suspect if we pooled all our excuses for putting off writing (and, of course, many other things) there’d be a lot of overlap, but I also suspect there are some excuses that are more specific and personal to each of us, the ones that we’ve managed to craft carefully, often unconsciously, to fool ourselves as best we can… After all, say Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen (authors of the book, below), “it’s your procrastination” and we can each find our own special ways of making those excuses, the ones that will work best on the person it needs to work on: us.

I was always a terrible procrastinator, but I’ve actually found a book that has had quite a remarkable impact on me and I feel that if it can work for me, then there may be hope for other procrastinating writers out there, too. And here’s the book:

Procrastination. Why You Do It, What To Do About It NOW by Jane Buerka and Leonora Yuen (2008). 

It’s not a new book (it was fully revised and updated for its 25th anniversary –ten years ago, but it’s new to me and I have a feeling that it would help a LOT of writers (and everyone else). So I’m going to write about it and describe a week-long writing experiment I did based on the book, and how I wrote more in that week than I had written in the three months before it, in the hopes that it might be of some use to other writers.

I’ve known for a long time that I’ve procrastinated and I’ve kind of described myself as badly organised and thinking I need to get better at time management, and I’ve enjoyed reading books about managing time more effectively (probably as a way of procrastinating and not doing what I should have been doing). I guess I’ve not felt too bad seeing myself as someone who isn’t great with time management… but this book doesn’t see procrastination as a problem with time management as much as with emotion management...

                                                                (Me being fearful)

 And that is harder –for me, at least (though I suspect, many of us)- to feel ok about. As a writer (and former psychologist!), I like to see myself as being pretty self-aware, so this book was challenging for me, and it may be challenging for you, too, should you choose to read it, but I think it’s a challenge well worth undertaking.
Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen talk about procrastination as a shield: 

“In one sense, procrastination has served you well. It has protected you from what may be some unpleasant realisations about yourself. It has helped you to avoid uncomfortable and perhaps frightening feelings. It has provided you with a convenient excuse for not taking action in a direction that is upsetting in some way, (p137).

“For procrastinators, avoidance is the king of defences, because when you avoid the task, you are also avoiding the many thoughts, feelings, and memories associated with it,” (p93).   

So this book encourages you to be honest with yourself about things that you may not have thought about for a long time in order to recognise what is happening to you when you reach what they call a ‘choice point’ –the point at which you are coming up with excuses not to sit down and write (in our case), where you need to decide whether to go with the excuse, or carry on with the activity (writing) anyway.
At least, then, if you still conclude “…therefore, I’ll do it later”, you’re being more consciously aware of your procrastination. But once you’re aware, you may well choose to over-ride the desire to put it off, and do it anyway.

The authors talk about physiological fear responses, and how for example, if you’re touched unexpectedly, that fear response (and the body’s reaction) will occur before you even feel the touch. 

                                                       Goosebumps / goose pimples

And they relate it back to procrastinating: 

"By the time you think about doing a task you’ve been avoiding…, your body has already reacted with fear. No wonder you put it off,” (p92).

And so the book encourages us to identify (with useful lists) what triggers our own task avoidance and for us to observe our reaction kindly and without judgement as a step towards overcoming those physiological reactions we may feel when confronting ourselves with something we’re trying to put off.

So what’s holding you back from writing that story? Could it be

Fear of failure?

Did people praise you for writing as a child? Was that part of your identity? Does it feel dangerous risking people’s (or your own) perceptions of yourself in case you don’t get that publishing deal or the story isn’t as good as you thought it would be? Is it safer not to do it?

                                         A tiny proportion of my picture book rejection letters

Procrastinating leads us to do things last minute, where we can avoid testing our true potential (and risking our sense of self by what we might find) –so the final piece of writing is not a reflection of your true ability but what you can do under last-minute pressure. Are you so frightened of discovering that you’re not what you think you are/want to be, that you’re willing to slow down so much and be last minute in order to avoid your best work being judged?
Procrastination allows you to believe that your ability is greater than your performance indicates –you never have to confront the real limits of your ability.


Perhaps people didn’t have confidence in your writing when you were younger (or people don’t now) –and if you did write something, might you be worried that those people may be proved right?
Or could what’s holding you back be a 

Fear of success? 

This may seem less obvious but the authors talk about this:

·       Do you sometimes slow down on a project that’s going well?
·       Do you feel anxious when you receive a lot of recognition?
·       Are you uncomfortable with compliments?
·       Do you worry about losing your connection with relatives if you’re successful?

And perhaps…

·       You fear/believe success in writing will demand more of you than you’re willing/able to give (many of us know successful writers who are now extremely pressed for time in the writing and personal lives).
·       You’ll turn into a workaholic; people will become obstacles –success will mean loss of control and loss of choice in your life
·       You may be considered selfish or full of yourself
·       You may get hurt –do you really want to be judged by your readers/reviewers? –bad reviews/low sales figures can be extremely demoralising.

There are lots of reasons explored in the book, and identifying your own personal reasons will help you take practical steps towards writing and stopping putting things off.

The book also helps you identify your own procrastination style

Mine (when I should be writing)? -reading emails, surfing the web, looking on Facebook, working on something less important, sitting and staring, going to sleep 

Your own physical feelings when you’re meant to be starting something but are considering procrastinating:

Mine? –a feeling in my chest and tummy; feeling light-headed

And your own excuses?

Mine? I’ve got to get organised first; I don’t have everything I need; I don’t have time to do it all so there’s no point in starting; it might not be good enough; I’ll wait until I’m inspired; I don’t feel well; I’m too tired right now; I’m not in the mood; I’ve done the worst part of it; the final bit won’t take much time so I can do it later.

And the book encourages you to monitor what’s happening for a week and try an experiment… which is what I did.


The authors recommend that you

·       Select a single goal –with a desire to learn from both success and failure (think like a researcher gathering data rather than a critic passing judgement) –I used to be a researcher so this appealed to me and made it seem like it was less personal;

·       List the steps (and do a reality check –can all those things be done in the time you have?) It was going to be full-on, but yes, it was realistic –if I didn’t procrastinate;

·       What’s the very first step? –write it down; should be small and easy;

·       Get feedback from others –perhaps other writers- about the achievability of the goal;

·       Consider the feelings you have now you’ve got your goal –excited and scared;

·       Could visualise your progress; optimise chances (where you work and when, etc) –this one is never going to work for me as I don’t visualise, but it could help other people;

·       Stick to the time limit;

·       Don’t wait until you feel like it –this was going to be a challenge, as not feeling like I’m in quite the right mood for writing is one of my biggest excuses.

And this is what they suggested you do during the week:
          Watch out for your excuses –an excuse means you’re at a choice point: you can procrastinate or you can act (so go from ‘I’ll do it later’ to ‘I’ll just to fifteen minutes…’ (and think –how do I feel?) –I kept a journal for the week, writing at the beginning and the end of each day, saying how I felt before I started, and then commenting on the day at the end of each day.

·       One step at a time (not the whole picture book/novel) –I had a list of exactly what I needed to do each day.

·       Work around obstacles

·       Reward yourself after progress

·       Be prepared to be flexible if necessary

·       It doesn’t have to be perfect

At the end of the week, assess your progress

·       Examine your feelings

·       Review your choice points (at least you’ll have procrastinated more consciously)

I     Identify what you've learned.

Now I chose a really big goal as my children were going to be away for a whole week and I really wanted to finish the novel I was working on, even though I had about 30,000 words left to write. It really doesn’t have to be that big at all (and it was only possible because I was going to have a whole week without any responsibilities, so I was in an unusual position).
I went through the list of scenes I had left to write and calculated how long I thought each scene would take, realistically if I didn’t procrastinate at all, and then worked out how many I’d have to write each day in order to finish the book. This worked out at about six hours per day –IF I didn’t procrastinate at all but just wrote.

And then I kept a journal for that week and just did exactly what I had said I’d do, thinking of myself like a dispassionate researcher, monitoring how I felt and what I did when I felt like I really didn’t want to write a certain part (or any part).


    (Shame that I accidentally forgot to colour in three of the scenes on the final day but I did finish them. Honest)

I finished! I wrote more than 30,000 in a single week!

I had never written anything like the amount I wrote that week. And I am convinced that I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the procrastination book. But the most interesting thing to come out of it for me was that the excuse I’ve used so much as a writer:

I’m not in the right mood

was irrelevant to what I wrote. When I feel like I’m not in the mood (or when I use that excuse), I often find some other work to do instead of writing. But this time, I didn’t. I just monitored how I was feeling, acknowledged it, and then did it anyway. And what I found from my notes on the experiment was that the times when I did it when I wasn’t in the mood, I was just as productive as the times when I did feel in the mood, and having read all those scenes now (as part of the whole book), there is no difference in how good those scenes were. This is probably the most important thing I’ve learned from the whole process: I did genuinely think that there were times when I was going to write better and times when I was going to write less well (or not at all) because of my mood –but it really didn’t make a difference –

as long as I made myself do it. 

I have had to abandon my romantic notion of the muse being present. It really was –for me- just a case of showing up and doing it. And I genuinely didn’t quite believe that –until I did the experiment.
I should just point out that this related to writing ‘up’ the novel once I’d done all the creative plotting, which I couldn’t work on in this way of a certain number of hours a day for a week, at all –not yet, anyway… But once I’ve worked out a structure for a picture book or a novel, I know now that any excuse that I am just not in the mood, is exactly that: an excuse.

There’s a lot more useful stuff in the book, which I can’t go into now as there’s no time, which includes suggested techniques to reduce your procrastination, like: using little bits of time (check out their unscheduled on page 198); have an accountability partner (I have for writing, and it’s great); work together (for example, like we do in our local SCBWI group, weekly, where we write alongside each other); say no to e-addictions/have a low information diet; do more exercise, and take exercise breaks; be realistic about time; just get started; use the next fifteen minutes, watch for your excuses and use your procrastination as a signal. In the end, it’s your choice:

You can delay or you can write

 -and you can write even though you’re uncomfortable.

I really couldn’t recommend this book highly enough -for picture book writers, novel writers, everyone. And if I can identify why I’m coming up with excuses and learn to put those thoughts and feelings aside and write anyway, then you can do it, too.
Huge thanks to my wonderful friend and former partner-in-procrastination Caroline Keenan for recommending this book to me. You know me well!

Do you have any tips for beating procrastination? Have you read this book, and if so, how helpful did you find it? Please do reply in the comments, below…

Thank you –and happy writing –even if, or especially if, it’s uncomfortable!

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