Many times, at the start of an important project, I find myself doing the following:
- Drinking cup after cup of tea
- Taking the dogs for an extra walk
- Staring out the window
- Going to Facebook-yet again-to see if anything is new with anyone
- Eating cheese doodles
I’m good at justifying all of this, too, with the exception of the cheese doodles. The tea? It has caffeine in it and I need caffeine to think clearly. The walk? I get my best ideas while walking. Plus it tires out the dogs so they are less likely to distract me. The nap? Apparently I’m tired! What working mother isn’t? Staring? Similar to walking, this is often how I get ideas. Facebook? Everyone is always saying that social networking is important to career success.
In reality, though, what I’m doing is procrastinating. I’m hesitating. I’m holding back.
For many years, I thought that procrastination stemmed from three problems:
- Fatigue. Sometimes I just can’t think straight.
- Multitasking. My brain only seems capable of working on two to three big writing projects a day. If I try to add a fourth, I end up using up every tea bag in the house and noticing a lot of what takes place outside my window.
- Not being ready. Ideas are like panning for gold. They don’t always show up when one is looking for them.
While, at times, all of those reasons are true, Manhattan therapist Jonathan Alpert recently suggested a fourth to me: fear. I worked with Alpert on his book Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days. Initially, I thought the project would result in a nice paycheck. It never occurred to me that I would learn something that would change the way I approach new projects.
Fear leads to procrastination, he says, especially when you focus too much on the end result: excellence. Suddenly little demons invade your brain, whispering demotivating thoughts like, “This editor is going to hate this,” “I’ll never get this done on time,” “I can’t believe I got this assignment. I’m in way over my head,” and, the ultimate, “I suck, and this sucks, too. I’m doomed. Why did I ever think a career in writing was possible for me? I should have become a waitress.”
Once I realized that fear was behind my inertia, I began approaching new projects differently. I broke them down into small tasks–tasks that I could easily finish in 15 minutes to an hour. For instance, an initial task might be, “Pick five people to interview for the Parents assignment.” Once I check that off, I might assign myself the task of contacting them and setting up interviews. Later on in the process, I might assign myself the task of “typing gibberish onto the screen.” After that is the task of organizing some of that gibberish.
I continue to approach the project in small chunks until, eventually, I reach a flow state where I no longer have to think about what I’m doing. I’m in the zone.
I learned so much from Alpert that I asked him to serve on a panel at the upcoming American Society of Journalists and Authors Conference called “Face Your Writing Fears.” For this panel, he and business coach Jonathan Fields, author of Uncertainty, will conduct an interactive workshop, helping writers overcome everything from procrastination to fear of pitching to writer’s block.
Set goals. “While the allure of Words with Friends is ever present, so is the appeal of a positive cash flow,” says Singer. “If you find yourself procrastinating often, set goals – daily, weekly, monthly and annually.” For instance, Singer sets goals to fix her router (a daily goal), finish interviews for an article by Friday (weekly), send out X number of pitches (monthly) and write book proposals and books (annually). “That way, the nebulous goal of getting stuff done doesn’t get lost in a Triple Word Score,” she says.
Remind yourself of the dangers of putting things off. “Think about the amount of stress caused by putting off things and how much frustration will be caused if you continue not to take action,” says Alpert. “Imagine how good you’ll feel once you finally do act. Compare the cost of taking action to not taking it at all.”
Change your language. Alpert suggests you avoid phrases such as “I can’t” and “I have to” and replace them with “I will” and “I want to.”
Draw a line down the center of a page. “On the left side write down how life will be one year from now if you accomplish your goals,” says Alpert. “On the other side write how it will be in one year having not completed your goals. Both will yield powerful information that will drive your forward.”
Take a deep breath and jump. “I’m a soccer coach, and I have a soccer ball paperweight that reads ‘You always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take,’ and it’s true,” says Singer. “I would never had made it onto the Today show or in The New York Times if I had succumbed to fear. So I heed what Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘Do something every day that scares you.’ Even if you’re feeling weak, pitch as though you are your own client, and you’re trying to sell you and your talents to a golden market. Distance yourself from your product – your pitch – and do that thing that scares you even if it’s just once a day.”
For more help in overcoming writing fears, attend the ASJA Conference April 26 to 28 at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. [Ed note: I'm moderating the LinkedIn for Journalists panel and speaking on the Secrets of Successful Freelancers panel, both on Friday, April 27.]
Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, which tells the story of how she went from the brink of divorce to falling back in love. She is also the creator of ProjectHappilyEverAfter.com, which is a gathering spot for recovering divorce daydreamers. She’s also co-chair of the 2012 ASJA Conference.