How to write… and do other unpleasant tasks you’ve been avoiding
“Ask: What is so unbearable about this situation? Why can’t you endure it? You will be embarrassed to answer.” – Marcus Aurelius
Among the dozens of academics and busy professionals I’ve worked with, writing projects were the number one type of work that they procrastinate on. If writing projects are a breeze for you, then substitute in whatever projects you tend to avoid.
There are several reasons why writing tops the charts as most procrastinated-on activity. First, writing typically requires a large chunk of time. Writing isn’t something that can be easily intercalated into 15-minute breaks between meetings and other tasks. It can be harder to create big chunks of time among meetings, clinical schedules, teaching, or other time commitments.
Second, when we think about writing, we often begin to fear the many negative emotions we will feel when we sit down to write. The thought of writing brings on fear of boredom if we’re tired of the topic, fear of failure (the paper will get rejected, the grant won’t get scored), feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, and imposterism.
How can we break through the activation barrier and start writing? Over the course of the most recent 4-week workshop I ran with academic faculty who hailed from California to Scotland, several participants chose a writing goal to work on. One individual finished a long-overdue book, another made major strides on her master’s thesis, and still others began to see real progress on papers or other writing projects. Here are some practical ways you can start to see progress on your own writing projects.
- Think about why you want to finish this project. What outcomes or benefits will it give you? What will it mean for you to be done with this project? How will it feel? How does this writing project align with one of your big goals or values or your big mission or vision? Leverage the power of your WHY and recall it often.
“The successful person has the habit of doing the things failures don’t like to do. They don’t like doing them either necessarily. But their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.” ~Albert Gray
- Set concrete goals and lag measures. What project do you want to get done, and by when? If you have several papers to write, for now, just pick one. If it’s a book, pick your final due date. Next divide up the project into smaller goals or tasks into a timeline, such as a chapter each week or month, or the methods section in 1 week, the results section in 2 weeks, the discussion in 3 weeks, etc.
- Decide on critical actions you need to do to meet the goals above. These are your lead measures. For example, it may be that you need to write for 3-4 hours per week, or you may have to set up specific meetings and collaborations. Put time on your calendar when you will write or do those things and protect the time from encroachment by other tasks! Be as specific as possible with what you will do. I think of this as the Clue method after the board game. What will you do and where will you do it? It will be Prof. Plum with the methods section in the study, or it will be Dr. Green with the prologue in the library. For many of us, we may not be able to write every day, or even on the same day each week. Our clinical, teaching, and other work responsibilities may be sprinkled across all times of day, night, weekday, and weekend. Don’t let the irregularity of your schedule become a stumbling block or excuse. Fit the writing time in wherever you can. If that looks like 2-3:30pm Weds, 9-11pm Thurs, and 8-9am next Monday, then so be it.
- Identify the inner obstacles you will face when you set out to follow your plan above. Be clear that these are inner obstacles, not outer obstacles such as your schedule, your family, politics, coronavirus, or your coworkers. Perhaps you can anticipate that as soon as you sit down to write, you will be tempted to one of the let-me-justs such as “let-me-just check my email really quickly” or “let-me-just check my social media account” or “let-me-just read the news.” In addition, maybe you know you will be deterred by the feelings of boredom, frustration, imposterism, anxiety, or shame for having procrastinated on it so long already!
- Create implementation intentions for each of the inner obstacles you anticipate. Implementation intentions are a simple, powerful tool that has been shown in many different research studies to improve the likelihood that you will actually follow through with something by several fold. Here’s how it works. Plan ahead for what you will do when you encounter the above inner obstacles using phrases such as:
- When [inner obstacle occurs] then I will ______________________.
Here are a few that I use:
- When I start to feel like I want to avoid writing because I’m afraid I’ll put all the work in and it won’t get accepted, then I’ll remind myself that this is an important paper to write, and that it definitely won’t get accepted if I don’t even write it.
- When I start to feel bored doing it, then I’ll remind myself that I don’t have to feel like doing something in order to do it. I don’t act at the whim of my emotions.
- When I start to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task, then I will sequentially ask myself: “what is the immediate next step.” See the prior post on activation barriers for more on this.
Re-assess your inner obstacles daily and plan for how you will overcome them using the implementation intention model. Keep your implementation intentions close by to pull out of your mental toolbox and use whenever the inner obstacle arises. Any time you find yourself attributing problems to external obstacles, reframe your thinking and find the inner obstacle that is the problem and plan for how you will manage it.
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.” – Alan Alda
Finally, question your assumptions. You may have assumed for so long that writing is unpleasant and therefore you should avoid it, that those assumptions have become conclusions. What if you could change your own mind and challenge your own assumptions? Pick an assumption: either the assumption that writing will be unpleasant or the assumption that you should avoid unpleasant tasks. Challenge your assumptions. Instead, focus on creating more joy and meaning in your writing and remind yourself that you can write even when you don’t feel like it. Hold your assumptions up to the light and scrub them off. Happy writing!
- Gray A. The common denominator of success. 1940.
- Oettingen G. Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. Current; 2015.
- McChesney C, Covey S, Huling J. The 4 Disciplines of Execution: Achieving Your Wildly Important Goals. Free Press; 2016.