Heidi Grant Halvorson of the Harvard Business Review has written a great article on the mindsets that keep us from being productive and what we can do to combat those feelings. Her advice applies to all types of work, but the lack of motivation she’s talking about is exactly the kind most writers suffer from.
Can you imagine how much less guilt, stress, and frustration you would feel if you could somehow just make yourself do the things you don’t want to do when you are actually supposed to do them? Not to mention how much happier and more effective you would be?
The good news (and its very good news) is that you can get better about not putting things off, if you use the right strategy. Figuring out which strategy to use depends on why you are procrastinating in the first place.
Heidi lists three reasons why people put things off, and all apply to writers, but this first one hits particularly close to home:
Reason #1 You are putting something off because you are afraid you will screw it up.
Solution: Adopt a “prevention focus.”
There are two ways to look at any task. You can do something because you see it as a way to end up better off than you are now – as an achievement or accomplishment. As in, if I complete this project successfully I will impress my boss, or if I work out regularly I will look amazing. Psychologists call this a promotion focus – and research shows that when you have one, you are motivated by the thought of making gains, and work best when you feel eager and optimistic. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, if you are afraid you will screw up on the task in question, this is notthe focus for you. Anxiety and doubt undermine promotion motivation, leaving you less likely to take any action at all.
What you need is a way of looking at what you need to do that isn’t undermined by doubt – ideally, one that thrives on it. When you have a prevention focus, instead of thinking about how you can end up better off, you see the task as a way to hang on to what you’ve already got – to avoid loss. For the prevention-focused, successfully completing a project is a way to keep your boss from being angry or thinking less of you. Working out regularly is a way to not “let yourself go.” Decades of research, which I describe in my book Focus, shows that prevention motivation is actually enhanced by anxiety about what might go wrong. When you are focused on avoiding loss, it becomes clear that the only way to get out of danger is to take immediate action. The more worried you are, the faster you are out of the gate.
I know this doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, particularly if you are usually more the promotion-minded type, but there is probably no better way to get over your anxiety about screwing up than to give some serious thought to all the dire consequences of doing nothing at all. Go on, scare the pants off yourself. It feels awful, but it works.
Read the other two reasons for procrastination and their cures at the Harvard Business Review.