Procrastination is a foe that many writers know well. To win at the game of publication, it’s a monster that must be slayed. Which is a shame because it’s basically part of you.
Getting to the psychological foundations of procrastination is tricky, but essential, if we are ever going to succeed in mastering it. As a jumping off point, here’s a thought-provoking article from the NY Times. The premise of the article is that procrastination – at its root – is about mood and emotion, not about laziness or distraction. We avoid uncomfortable things, because they make us feel bad. Perhaps not the most startling insight, but it isn’t immediately obvious that that simple equation explains why we can’t get our first draft finished, but have reached email inbox zero.
One of the reasons that procrastination is so powerful is because it requires no effort. In his bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow Daniel Kahneman talks about the two mental “systems” that occupy our minds. System 1 runs on intuition, using mental shortcuts (heuristics), previous experiences, and estimation to arrive at decisions. This system is error prone and runs on bias and quick and dirty emotion-based decision-making. In contrast, System 2 is what we normally think about as our rational self. It uses deduction, calculation and logical reasoning to reach decisions. Here are Kahneman’s definitions:
“System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration.”
The book is full of funny (and depressing) examples of irrational human behaviour that arise from us using System 1 to reach quick, intuitively satisfying conclusions, when we should have been using System 2. The reason we fall so reliably into this pitfall is because System 2 takes effort. It’s hard to solve a complex mental arithmetic problem (a classic System 2 task) and so causes cognitive strain. At those sorts of moments, we resist the strain at a subconscious effort and System 1 tries to supply a quick and easy alternative to save us the mental resources and energy needed to execute a demanding task.
The flight to comfort
I think these two ideas are linked, when it comes to procrastination. Essentially, we procrastinate when faced with a difficult, cognitively demanding task that is important but uncomfortable. The Blank Page obviously falls into this category. There is a big, fat nothing staring at you, and you need to create a compelling something entirely from your own imagination.
With writing, there’s a lot of subtle emotional context rolled in too – fear of failure at a task that you have invested a lot of emotional significance into, fear of exposure of what was previously a private dream, fear of letting yourself and other loved ones down by not being equal to the task. All those emotional fears can add even more aversion to the task.
When you need to sit at the writing desk and conjure the words, you need to engage System 2. There is a lot of planning, skill and a goodly amount of discipline needed. System 1 will recognise this as the onset of cognitive strain, and so fall back to well established habits to relieve you from the strain. Usually, this will involve triggering the desire to engage in a behaviour that has been previously learned as pleasurable and easy. Such as checking Facebook. Or watching YouTube. Or alphabetising your many and extensive bookshelves again.
I’m convinced this is why I’ve caught myself clicking on the Chrome icon and launching my browser without even noticing when stuck in the middle of a difficult sentence. System 1 is nudging me to go seek comfort, as it knows that works much better for meeting the “satisfied and comfortable” goal that it prioritises over the “completed manuscript” goal that me and System 2 were working on.
Within this framework, it seems that the obvious answer to beating procrastination is to try and force System 2 to override System 1. To exert your willpower and take the strain. But that’s a very simplistic and System 1-like conclusion to reach, and is actually unlikely to work.
System 1 exists for a reason, and a very good one. We evolved in an environment that was hostile, rapidly-changing, and too complex to accurately predict on the basis of logical calculation. A quick, experience-driven, and energetically cheap process of decision-making is enormously valuable to survival. Yes, it is System 2 that makes us uniquely human and allows us to achieve the greatest heights of human endeavour, but it evolved on top of a System 1 that kept us alive for millennia. System 1 is very deeply hardwired into us, and essential to our wellbeing.
Instead of trying to force ourselves to take on more cognitive strain, we need to make our writing goals attractive to System 1. That’s why so many productivity guides focus on habits and systems (System 1 tasks) and reserve willpower and special effort for short-term goals. That’s why establishing a writing routine is so valuable (System 1 likes predictable and repetitive tasks) and why giving yourself rewards for achieving small goals (linking goals to pleasure) works.
The key to beating procrastination is to work with what you’ve got. Make sitting and writing palatable to System 1 and the resistance to starting will weaken.
You’ll know you’ve made a breakthrough when you can consistently hit flow state – that’s when everything is motoring smoothly with minimal effort and maximal reward. Flow is a happy System 1.