Any artist has experienced this: you finally get an afternoon to yourself where life is free of distractions, kids, responsibilities, chores, etc. You have a long stretch of time to create something new. It’s a time where you can relax and enter a silent space to produce a work of art, whether it be painting, knitting, jewelry, etc. The idea of it is exciting. You may even look forward to it, can’t wait for it, in fact. But then, when the time comes, you’re not in the mood.
I’ve experienced this. I’ve blocked off time on my calendar and no person or event has gotten in the way of my time. Yet, when I was supposed to sit down and, in my case, write, I got in the way. I felt antsy. I felt social, like I wanted to watch TV or listen to loud music or do all of the laundry that was backed up. It’s a strange process, how our minds work, and it’s sometimes contradictory and inexplicable.
The Satisfaction of Self-sabotage
When I’ve switched plans and done the busier or social or what I’ve come to realize is external, superficial stuff, I’ve always enjoyed it at the moment but regretted it later. Yes, I finally cleaned out the broom closet or caught up by phone with a long-distance friend or even napped on the couch, but in the end, I felt empty and a touch remorseful. Why didn’t I stick to my plan?
New York Times writer Tim Herrera answered this question awhile back. Put simply, we’re procrastinating. And why are we procrastinating? Because we put off big tasks that require deep thinking and intense focus while being ready to conquer all that is small and easy. Of course, knowing that only helps to fix the problem a bit.
So, according to Herrera, we must at least acknowledge our resistance. Once we do that, then we have the opportunity to change it. We don’t have to change, we can plunge forward into doing the laundry but we don’t have to. And sometimes taking a step back and understanding what’s happening leads us to change.
How to Purge Procrastination
So how to change exactly? Well, here are seven ways I’ve come up with to get myself into creative mode when I want to do anything else but be creative.
- Make a deal with myself to work for an hour. This is a good one. I use it for gardening tasks I don’t want to do outside. I check the clock and just start writing. Oftentimes, I write nonsense and stuff that’s not usable later, but more often than not, I descend into that focused space and land on a portion of work that I do use later. What’s more, this trick often leads me into a second or even third hour of deep attention.
- Read a work by a master. I tell myself that I don’t necessarily need to write War and Peace that afternoon, but it counts if I read some of it. So, I do. And reading a master always puts me in the mood to try to become one. I hear a beautiful voice and it inspires me to find my own.
- Reward yourself. I make a cup of tea or put a cookie on a plate or get out a yummy blanket and indulge. I’ve earned it after all, I tell myself, as I settle into my favorite chair. Have I really earned it? Of course not, but that’s the tricking part. My mind believes it at the moment and then, when I begin to sip and type away, I gradually forget about the reward object and start focusing on the art.
- Exercise in a favorite way. I have a stationary bike in my basement. If I’m restless or resistant to creating, I go downstairs and ride the bike for 15 minutes. Or get outside and walk down the street. It’s amazing how a short amount of exercise resets your brain into a clearer, more peaceful, and capable place.
- Aim to accomplish a small goal. This relates to the one-hour approach. In other words, break the task into smaller pieces. If you don’t draw that series of dog portraits that’s been rolling around in your mind, try drawing a sketch of one dog. Or a snout. Make it simple, make it even a list of the dogs you’ll portray. Dive into a piece of the project. Sometimes your heart rate slows and you’ll drop into a focused state that carries you much further creatively than you expected.
- Imagine how you’ll feel later. Take a moment and literally imagine how you’ll feel in a few hours if you don’t do that deep, artistic work but rather superficial, external stuff. Imagine what you’ll think of yourself. Then imagine how you’ll feel if you do engage in the deep, artistic work. Then your logical mind may be able to overrule your impulses and get you behind that table or laptop or into the studio.
- Meditate. A few years ago, I wrote about how directed meditation helps me solve creative issues when I’m stuck. Even if you’re not a writer, the technique can still be fruitful. You basically sit in a chair, close your eyes, and breathe deeply. Try not to think any thoughts. If you do have thoughts, breathe them away, unless they’re about the art at hand. Then see where the thoughts lead. You may find you’re eager to open your eyes and get to work.
In the end, we’re only human. There are plenty of times when I’ve succumbed to the external, superficial stuff. It’s just what my brain wanted at the time. Instant gratification. An escape from a more difficult but satisfying experience. Still, over the years, I’ve learned to train myself with these techniques, and with each time I was successful and got into a deep, artistic space, I found the following times were easier to get into. And so, I wish you luck and long stretches of free time.
Procrastination is the devil. It’s insidious, it creeps up on you when you hadn’t planned on it, it tricks you into behaving as a worse version of yourself. It thrives on your weaknesses. I’ve been thinking about procrastination lately because I’ve been doing it. Putting off revising my novel for days until I panicked late in the week and hopped on the work I’d previously given myself to do. This happened these last two weeks. I spun my wheels in place. I worried. I suffered from low-grade anxiety. My novel wasn’t good enough, I told myself, it needed too much work, etc. (despite my husband beta reading it and having good things to say) and so I kinda ignored it.
In my defense, I did have some excuses. One of my three kids was at home, I had to drive the other two to two different day camps, then later pick them up. When I was at home for a few short hours, I struggled to focus on deep work while my at-home child practiced loud animated songs on the saxophone and piano. I’m grateful that she’s interested in music and able to work independently, but I couldn’t concentrate that well. Really though, I could have hopped onto my focus train better. I could have. It wasn’t my kids’ fault, it was mine.
A few weeks ago, I read a great article on procrastination by Tim Herrera in the New York Times. He talked about why we often don’t do the large complex task we’re supposed to and will often substitute a smaller, more meaningless task in its place. If you have a chance, check out the article, “Why Your Brain Tricks You Into Doing Less Important Tasks.” I’ve found myself chatting about it with various people. Those people have seemed to get a lot out of it too. So for today’s quote I’ll leave you with this idea.
“…people may choose to perform urgent tasks with short completion windows, instead of important tasks with larger outcomes, because important tasks are more difficult and further away from goal completion, urgent tasks involve more immediate and certain payoffs…” In other words, researchers say, our brains trick us.
Once I realized my brain is wired to work against me, I cut myself some slack for procrastination. I forgave myself for it. Once you’re able to forgive, you’re then able to move on. And so, I wish you a productive week, whether it includes some forgivable procrastination or not.
For more inspiration, check out my other posts.