How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating and Cheerfully Meet Deadlines with Room to Spare

We brought home this fresh boxwood wreath to hang on the front door and Jackson immediately inserted himself in it. For those keeping score at home, he’s just shy of eight months old now.

He’s going to be a Big Kitty.

I’m looking forward to the holiday season this year. I have ideas for decorating and even a cool homemade gift for people. I take this to mean that I’m feeling rested and the creativity is flowing. Part of this, I’ve suddenly realized, is because I changed some of my fundamental habits. What’s more is, I change a bad, lifelong habit without really realizing it.

Which is just extraordinary to me.

It’s *hard* to change habits – we all know this. Especially the bad ones. Those junk foods we crave but shouldn’t eat. That wine we shouldn’t drink nearly so much of. The TV shows we waste time on. The internet surfing when we should be working. I imagine each of us could list our top five bad habits – and then write a book on how many times we’ve tried to change them, how and why it ended up not working. (Because if it worked, it wouldn’t still be on the top five list, right?)

So, here’s one of mine: I’m a procrastinator.

Always have been. Back in school, I was the kid who wrote EVERY paper the night before it was due. I never studied until the day before the exam. (Well, the entire weekend in college for brutal classes like organic chemistry.) I once read the Iliad and the Odyssey over a couple of days during reading week before finals. Even with work, I don’t really get going on a deliverable until the deadline was breathing down my neck.

Deadline stress was my eternal motivator.

Which is awful. If you’re like me, you know just how stress-inducing this Very Bad Habit is. The late nights, the great fear that you won’t finish in time or that, if you do finish, the product will sucketh mightily.

I’ve known this about myself pretty much all my life and just hate it. And yet, over and over again, I would fall into the same pattern. Always dealing with the next fire, the next emergency. I always kind of envied the work-ahead people, but never found a way to break this habit.

Until just recently.

You know what worked? I didn’t change that particular habit, I changed other things that just happened to result in me at long last not relying on deadline pressure for motivation.

It’s like I tricked myself into operating differently. Isn’t that amazing?

I’m amazed.

So, what happened is, I had a number of writing deadlines. One was external – my first ever turn-in-your-book-by-this-date publication deadline, which I was determined not to blow – and several internal deadlines, important to me for keeping everything on track.I really, really, really did not want to be finishing that book the night before the deadline. I could not risk that it wouldn’t be as good as I needed it to be. No shortcuts, no crossing fingers, no Hail Mary’s. I wanted lots of time to get it done and get it done right.

So I planned out all my work. I finished another project that I wanted out of the way, to clear time for the one with the external deadline. I planned my dayjob work so that nothing would actually catch on fire enough to divert me. I worked in both measured paces and intense doses, depending on my time and inclination.

This was the amazing part.

I finished both projects early. Like, 7-10 days early. I’ve *never* finished anything early before in my life. Bizarrely, everything else fell into place, too. I’d wanted everything done before Thanksgiving, so I could relax and not worry about ongoing projects. I finished all my day job work by early afternoon Monday – where usually I’m working into the evening before we leave, trying to clear my desk.

At that point, I realized I had nothing on fire. Nothing that I was leaving undone.

It was miraculous.

I’d somehow learned to do my work ahead of time, in an un-stressed, no-deadline-pressure way, all because I’d restructured my other habits.

Now those of you who’ve followed my blog for a while know that I’ve long been a proponent of writing every day. I have my rituals, my good and productive habits. This overall change in my pattern of behavior grew out of that foundation. I suspect that’s key – I didn’t change everything overnight.

But I also think it’s important that I never tried to stop being a procrastinator. I changed the way I work towards a goal.

And that has made all the difference.

(with apologies to Robert Frost)

Dread, Procrastination and Bad Hair Days

You, my faithful blog-gobblers, know I’m all about the “write every day” thing.

I know. I’m militant. I stand by this.

But.

I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned the days when this doesn’t work out so well. Jami Gold wrote an interesting post today about giving yourself permission as a writer, on a number of levels. One of the things she touched on was the off-day and letting that go.

Everyone has off days.

You know what I mean. The Bad Hair Day. Those days that, for whatever reason, things just don’t flow right. If we weren’t committed to dealing with careers and families and things like keeping fed, we’d likely just crawl back into bed on those days and hide under the covers.

Few of us have that luxury though. We are committed to things that must get done every day, so we forge ahead, painful and unproductive as it may be.

That’s my point with the write every day thing.

For some reason, writing – maybe any creative endeavor, I don’t know – brings with it Dread and Procrastination. These evil twins perch on a writers shoulders and whisper of other things that need doing. Dread worries that the the plot line is muddied, that everyone will hate the book anyway, that maybe this is all a Terrible Mistake. Procrastination wonders what people are saying on Twitter, if any email has arrived and, oh, there are dishes in the sink! The twins have a common goal: to keep you from writing. I don’t know where they come from, but every writer seems to have some form of these nasty buggers.

The reason you sit down to write every day is to shake Dread and Procrastination from your shoulders.

Wherever they draw their power, it’s thwarted by habit. By ritual and sacred space. They fade away in the face of it until their little voices can’t be heard. That gives you the space to write. Whether that goes well is something else entirely.

Sorry.

But, I offer this. Those days when the words don’t flow and you stare at the screen? They totally count.

That’s writing, too.

If writing was only tippy-tapping words onto the page, then monkeys *could* do it. What we do is story-telling. We fit words to the story, yes, but that’s only one piece of an enormous subterranean process.

Hence the staring at the screen.

And the gazing off blindly into the distance.

The dreamthink.

So, I totally agree, Jami. Sit down to write every day, if only to shut up Dread and Procrastination, but I like your idea of Permission. What happens once you engage is all good.

No matter how your hair looks.