Overcoming Procrastination and Staying Motivated: Three Strategies for Getting on with Your Writing

It’s all very well having a plan for your writing, but how do you actually get going? “I’ll just quickly check Twitter, then I’ll make a start on this chapter.” 5 hours later, it’s time for dinner. In this post, I’ll share three strategies for dealing with an unwelcome visit from the Procrastination Fairy.

1. Think about why you’re procrastinating

  • Are you bored? Find a part that stimulates you and start there.
  • Is it hard? Why is it hard? Do you fully understand your research material. Perhaps there’s a gap in your knowledge? (NB: this is not an excuse to read another 500 journal articles).
  • Does nothing make sense?Go back to the planning stage. This will save you time, as you’ll write much faster with a clearer sense of where you’re going.
  • Would you rather be doing something else? Remind yourself why you’re doing this and how pleased you’ll be when it’s done.
  • Distracted by other ideas? Write them down, then get back to the task.

2. Try some warm-up exercises

Most of us can’t suddenly switch into writer mode and expect words to tumble from our fingertips. Easing yourself in gradually gives your brain a chance to adapt and focus. Five minutes’ freewriting is the perfect warm-up exercise. The point of freewriting is that you just keep going: type whatever’s in your head, and don’t stop to reflect or edit. If you’re terrified of what’s in your head, you could try some prompts:

  • What are you most excited about?
  • Why is this research important?
  • How has your thinking changed?

I often find this last prompt particularly helpful. Usually, a slump for me is caused by pursuing an argument that has actually shifted. By examining that shift, I can suddenly see the path ahead. One of the challenges of academic writing is that our ideas are constantly evolving, even as we’re trying to capture them. They’re slippery little beasts.

3) Set yourself a modest target

Do you have a masochistic streak? Congratulations, you’re eminently suited to being an academic. We’re Olympians at making stuff difficult for ourselves. If you’re struggling, try a more kindly approach by setting yourself an embarrassingly small target. Does 500 words feel overwhelming? Aim for 50. Still too much? How about a sentence? Keep going till it’s manageable. After all, you can only write one word at a time. Those words become sentences; the sentences form paragraphs, and so on. Slow progress is better than no progress.

If you can squeeze out 500 words per day, this would add up to 10,000 words over a month. Yes, really! Steady progress is wonderfully motivating and much easier to sustain. To keep track of your efforts, you could stick a chart on your door and make a mark for every day you’ve achieved your goal – try not to break the chain. This 30-Day Challenge from Austin Kleon is ideal. There’s even space to set yourself a reward: a taco dinner / a pony / your life back.

I hope that helps. Please do share any tips in the comments below. In my next post, I’ll be talking about the importance of creating time for writing, and staying focused.

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