There’s a lot of productivity advice out there, even on this blog. Much of it focuses on thinking about different ways to “manage” or “maximize” your time – to do as much as you can with limited resources. Productivity is, of course, a type of production, and as such being productive means having greater output. In our cases, the output is writing – whether we measure that in words on a page or time spent in a chair. So what can we do to be more productive? Well, we can add more time to our day; wake up an hour earlier, stay up later, all so you can fit more writing time into your schedule. We can try to better use the time we already have – say no to meetings and keep our workspaces organized so we can get right to work. We can do more in less time – speed read (please don’t), or hire a research assistant to complete some projects (yes, some of you may argue that is more time-consuming!). I can go on forever.
Of course, the great enemy of productivity is procrastination. Obviously, if we put off work, our output suffers. Yet, in all the tips we see advising us on how to be productive, few of them address the real, psychological reasons we procrastinate, instead just blithely saying “don’t procrastinate.” Well, that’s not very helpful.
The technical ways we identify to be more productive don’t address the reasons we procrastinate. Of course, boredom, lack of clarity on tasks, or feeling overwhelmed (which is usually related to being unclear on the tasks you’re supposed to complete) are reasons we procrastinate. In my experience working with clients, I find that there is another, more prevalent reason academic writers procrastinate – they’re afraid. They’re scared their work isn’t good enough, or that they’re not smart enough. Fear and procrastination go hand in hand.
I think for writers, this fear manifests in 3 ways:
You delay work on a project.
Even though you have a plan (and deadline) in place, you just put off the work. You attend meetings you don’t really need to be at, spend extra time checking your email, and anything else you can think of to justify skipping your writing sessions.
You endlessly tinker.
Your manuscript is almost complete BUT you need to add one more piece of literature. It’s absolutely essential to your argument. You’ll run that model just one more time, even though you’ve run it only the statistics gods know how many times already. You always think there is just one more thing that will improve your work – until that one thing becomes two, three, four, and suddenly you are a week or more past your deadline.
You refuse to plan.
By refusing to plan, you’re also refusing to write. Whether this refusal is blatant or more subconscious, the end result is that you go months without writing. You have so successfully convinced yourself that you are incapable of writing well that you opt not to write at all. When you push your writing not even to the proverbial back burner but off the stove, you do two things. First, you compartmentalize your guilt about not writing so you don’t have to confront those feelings. Second, you create such a strong barrier to writing that when you do decide to write, it seems absolutely impossible to get started. You’re simply out of practice, but even worse, lacking all motivation.
So how do you deal with this fear?
I am not a therapist, so I’m not going to offer you advice in that vein. Instead, I will share one technique I use with my clients to deal with fear and procrastination, which is creating a system of consistent, productive feedback.
When you are uncertain about the quality of your work, you need someone to either confirm or deny your fears. In many instances, writers are worried for no reason – or the problems with your writing that you imagine as enormous and insurmountable are actually quite ordinary and relatively minor. In those cases, you need reassurance – from a mentor, peer, or experienced editor. In short, someone you can trust to understand your work and be honest with you about its quality.
Even if your worst fears are confirmed, you should be offered a path forward with a revision plan. This might be something you develop on your own or in collaboration with someone who has reviewed your work. That’s why I emphasize that the feedback you seek be productive. There may be some issues with your writing that require a significant amount of attention. Being able to identify those issues, and then develop a plan to address those issues, is an important step in alleviating the fear around your writing. After all, there is a difference between being scared your writing is awful and honestly acknowledging that your writing needs work. At the very least, identifying the issues with your work eliminates the uncertainty you felt.
This summer, I am offering a coaching program called The Summer Intensive, where I work with writers so that they get the vital feedback. Soliciting feedback is challenging no matter what the time of year, but it’s especially challenging in the summer when colleagues are not readily available to read your work. As a developmental editor, I am qualified to provide that feedback – and just as importantly, provide it on a consistent basis. If you are interested in learning more about the coaching program, please visit this page or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In my next blog post, I’ll share another technique for dealing with fear, so that it does not stop you from writing.