It occurred to me that work-from-home has always been the norm for writers. So I wondered how seasoned professionals handle all the WFH temptations to procrastinate. Are there lessons for the rest of us?
I discovered right off that writers, even famous ones, are huge procrastinators.
Megan McArdle, a well-known writer herself, wrote an article for the Atlantic called “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators.”
She asked “a fairly famous colleague” how he managed to regularly produce 8,000-word features.
“Well,” he said, “first, I put it off for two or three weeks. Then I sit down to write. That’s when I get up and go clean the garage. After that, I go upstairs, and then I come back downstairs and complain to my wife for a couple of hours. Finally, but only after a couple more days have passed and I’m really freaking out about missing my deadline, I ultimately sit down and write.”
What about past masters, authors admired for generations?
Someone asked Ernest Hemingway how to start work on a new novel. Hemingway reportedly replied, “First you defrost the refrigerator.”
Victor Hugo — author of the classics Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame — was a world-class procrastinator. He would eventually strip naked, give his clothes to a servant, and lock himself in his study until he did his work.
Herman Melville couldn’t bring himself to finish Moby-Dick. He asked his wife to chain him to his desk until he wrote the final word of his magnum opus.
For today’s would-be authors, the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina published a “Tips and Tools” handout to help students deal with procrastination.
It says writers procrastinate because of fear — fear of success and fear of failure. Fear of losing autonomy, fear of being alone, and fear of attachment. In other words, any fear or its exact opposite might trigger dilly-dallying.
It’s not only writers who procrastinate. Piers Steel runs a behavioral lab at the University of Calgary and a website dedicated to the study of procrastination. He found that at least 95 percent of us admit to sometimes procrastinating. That prompted another procrastination expert to say, “And I’d argue the remaining five percent are lying.”
What about cures for procrastination? The market is flooded with them: Figure out what’s holding you back . . . reverse the procrastination triggers . . . work within your resistance level.
Hmmm. I don’t know what those mean. If I’m not doing something because I don’t like doing it, will any of those get me started?
I did see a couple of practical tips that might help. One is to shorten the daily to-do list to one thing. The idea is that with just one to-do item staring you in the face all day, you’ll eventually wave the white flag and do the blasted thing.
Another tip is to set multiple deadlines for small pieces of work, not one big deadline for the whole project. There’s research supporting this idea. For managers, giving teams baby steps and having them check in often makes sense.
Does procrastination ruin people’s productivity or creativity? Apparently not. Most of us only do productive work about three hours a day.
In 2018, when salaried employees still went to the office, research showed they filled most of the day with coffee breaks, lunch, snack time, chit-chat with a cubicle neighbor, messaging family and friends, browsing social media, and so on.
Recently, about a third of WFH tech workers admitted to working just three or four hours a day. The real number of three-hour-a-day folks is probably a lot bigger.
If our normal attention span wherever we work is just a few hours a day, procrastination doesn’t do any real harm. Filling time defrosting the fridge or cleaning the garage makes perfect sense.
I feel better. The next time someone asks me if I procrastinate, I’ll answer with the truth: “Only when I have something to do.”
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