Notes on Productivity & Procrastination

Today’s post is one that I have wanted to write for a long time. I would like to think that my experiences and methods for battling procrastination (not just writer’s block), detailed herein, will be relevant to everyone- and hopefully useful too. But it is needless to say that this post will be especially relevant to those of you trying to get some writing done. Now, I am sure those who know me will laugh at the very premise of me authoring a post about productivity, much as they would a lecture by Charles Bukowski on the merits of abstinence. But I have been on my grind for a few months now with my writing and reading targets. Seriously- just call me Waka Flocka Flame, because at the moment I’m going Hard in the Motherfucking Paint.

Anyways, any kind of discussion of my productivity begins with my early school years. I was always a hyperactive kid, and never too interested in what school had to offer. I got bored easily and caused trouble. This was especially true in those younger years, and it didn’t take long for me to be placed, without much exactness, on the Austistic Spectrum. Long story short, by the time I was 10 I was seeing a child psychologist, and when I got to Secondary School by the age of 11, the new regime was fully prepared for my arrival and assigned me a series of teaching assistants to sit with me in science classes (where I struggled most), who helped me concentrate. Now, all that is a blog post for a later time, and without being too much of a tease, there’s a lot more of that story to tell. But the point is, I was faced with the same conclusion: that I just couldn’t concentrate. That was the message delivered to me by my teachers throughout my academic career. I wasn’t the worst student ever- perhaps average- but my problem lay in my short attention-span and my discipline. I just couldn’t get passionate about any of the work, no matter how important the exam or the essay might have been to both my immediate and long term future.

So I grew up with the sense that laziness was something innate to my character, as permanent a fixture of my identity as my eyes are brown. Throughout school and university I always got away with the absolute bare minimum of effort. I’ve lost count of the number of literature exams I have entered into without ever having read the book. I could not will myself to care. But I have, over the years, employed various techniques to give myself that get-up-and-go, that thirst for the day ahead, that everyone else seemed to have. For periods of time, they all worked. But sure enough, be it circumstance or a lack of the necessary willpower, I would return to lethargy and I told myself that laziness was here to stay and the plans were not. However, in recent months I have found a growing strength within myself that is threatening to cast those long-standing doubts aside.

I was given a piece of advice last summer, during my stay in Houston, TX, that has completely changed my outlook. My hope is that fellow people- both writers and non-writers- who are reading this, will be given some modicum of belief that procrastination isn’t here to stay- not if we don’t want it to. It was at a very vulnerable moment in my life- a moment of intense doubt- that my close friend told me, with as much conviction as if she were explaining that day goes into night, that laziness is not a trait, but rather, a temporary condition- one which can be borne of several factors. It must be stated at this point that this lady is something of a genius in the field of behavior analysis. She knows the human mind about as intimately as a seasoned thespian knows the works of William Shakespeare, and much like the veteran stage actor can quote at will with perfect memory a line from Hamlet, so too can she draw upon the teachings of Skinner and the other great behaviorists.

I was reminded of her words months later, when I was writing and reading every day with a fresh and boundless enthusiasm morning after morning. I thought to myself, well if I- of all people- can get out of the rut of procrastination, and even change my sense of self, then there is hope for just about anyone. So rejoice, lazy folks- you’re not a lost cause. You’re probably wondering at this point what my secret is- why have I suddenly started living my life differently? Well the truth is there is no life-altering switch, no single reason, and I more or less surprised myself with the abandonment of years’ worth of behavior. It was the removal of several habits, and the addition of new ones, which with continued incorporation into my daily routine, became less of a conscious effort, and more a natural and automatic component of my day as showering and eating. Now, I ain’t a behavioral therapist, so I won’t presume to tell you readers anything about the complexities of human thought and action, but I am fairly confident now that who we are is not set in stone, that we can through practice and a healthy environment, mold our behavior to become the person we want to be.

I will now go through the habits I find conducive to productivity, and those that I believe are detrimental. I should state right now that whilst I am confident I’m on to something (given this year’s unprecedented progress), I am merely detailing what works for me. I’m sharing with you my writing environment, and the methods I use for success, and I am not so ignorant as to suggest that this is some kind of golden and universal path to becoming the next Wallace Stevens. Right off the top of my head I can think of techniques that don’t work for me, but which propelled other writers to becoming absolute ballers- namely, Hemingway’s having to stand up as he typed his manuscripts, and Marcel “The Michael Jordan of Modern Literature” Proust’s finding that he worked better living a nocturnal lifestyle.

  • A Healthy Sleep Cycle. This, I think, is absolutely crucial. I have a tendency to be a bit of a night owl. My bad habits include going on Youtube on my phone whilst in bed, and doing things like watching NBA highlights, gaming videos, or listening to those creepy real-life horror stories from Reddit and such. This would result in me being unable to get to sleep until the early hours of the morning, sleeping in until noon, and being stuck with that awful feeling of being tired but unable to sleep. I was told by my best mate that the reason for this was that the artificial light produced by my phone was essentially tricking my body into stopping its production of melatonin. So now I read before bed, which helps tucker me out. And the earlier I can get to sleep the better- since I find that I am most prolific in the morning. The hours of 9am-12pm are basically my golden period for writing efficiency. Not only do I tend to work well then, but having gotten stuff done early I find that I am much more upbeat and happy throughout the rest of the day, even if my energy levels wane later on.
  • The Use of Music. This is perhaps a matter of personal preference, but I have found that I can only get some writing done with a limited use of music. For me, writing is very much a testosterone-fueled endeavor; it’s what gets me pumped. My feeling at having completed a short story or a blog post is akin to that of a ball player dunking over someone, or an MMA fighter producing a knockout blow. I get seriously jacked. So I often prepare for a period of writing much in the way an athlete might try to psych him or herself up before a game. So my choice in music has to reflect that. Last summer during my stay in Texas I would work on my travel blog every morning, and often ask my friend what song I should choose to get started. It would often be something like “Bleed it Out” or “Run This Town”. I’d pick the baddest rap song I could find, play it once, and often begin writing during the song. Once the song was over I would write in silence. I generally find music with lyrics in it to be quite distracting whilst trying to get some writing done, so I will employ it only in the form of these pump-up songs, which I will listen to once and only once, at the very beginning of the work. If I am looking for some ambience whilst writing, it will either be something instrumental and relaxing, like the soundtrack to The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, or more often than not, it will be one of those videos you can find on Youtube of rain falling on a tin roof or the sounds of a summer night from the deep south, alive with the soothing clicks of bush crickets. My favorite recently has been listening to the songs of whales, which I find so majestic.
  • Kinetic energy. Writers are by and large a sedentary bunch. But if you are struggling for ideas, or just can’t get into the right frame of mind, then get your ass moving. To quote from fitness guru Lauren Gleisburg, “physical strength translates to inner strength”. To be a writer you have to be strong. You have to be a bull moose. I have no illusions about half-assing it the way I did my schoolwork. Great mental fortitude is needed, and I have found that regular exercise is extremely helpful in getting my mind sharp and creative. It gets the blood pumping and helps generate ideas. Most mornings in the last two summers I spent in the US (in Wisconsin and Texas respectively) my roommate and I would hit up the basketball courts and enter into intense, hard-fought and competitive games of one-on-one, before returning to the apartment and trying to get some work done. But even if you can’t exercise in the morning, or you don’t have a basketball court, I have found that simply moving is enough. For a while I based my whole productivity scheme around movement and kinetic energy. Just taking our border collie for walks in the Texas sun last year, and breathing in the fresh air, was a great way to feel consistently active, alert, and would be a nice opportunity to clear my head. In the mornings, either as a cool-down after exercise or as its own thing, I like to go for a walk before getting back and opening up the ol’ laptop.
  • Eating heartily. Now this ain’t a fitness blog, so I won’t tell you what to eat. Go see Lauren’s blog for that. But simply eating a lot and being well fed will make a difference. Writers need fuel. I have seen a massive improvement in my energy levels over the past year by the rapid expansion of my appetite. I’ve gained 3 stone (approx. 45 pounds) in that short period, and I guess it is just common knowledge at this point that yeah, if you are going to be on that writing grind, you need to have an aggressive attitude towards the fridge and the pantry.
  • Know what you are going to do the night before. This is the piece of advice I feel most strongly about. For me it works every time. Whenever I am implementing a new productivity schedule or am deciding on new writing targets, I always do it before bed. It is imperative that I don’t leave it to the next day. For me it makes a world of difference waking up and knowing straight away what I have got to do. When I think back to my most lethargic and lazy stretches, I remember waking up without much purpose or idea of what to do with myself in a given day. I would either stay in bed or start playing something like Fallout 4 or Bioshock Infinite. And once I start that, it becomes so much harder to get something done that day and the hours start slipping like sand through my fingers. Like I said in my first point, whether I have a successful day or not is largely contingent on me having a good start.
  • Create a list. I think lists are good for writers, I really do. When trying to force myself out of a rut, the best strategy I have is designing a list of targets to be met the night before. There is nothing like the satisfaction of crossing them off. I haven’t had to use one for a while now, because my productivity has become second nature and I have some large ongoing projects that will be around for a while- but I often draw up plans for blog posts and stories in preparation for the next day. And I know that, should I slip back into a particularly bad rut, all I have to do to get out of it is create a list of targets before bed, and keep doing that until meeting those targets seems effortless.
  • Get off social media. In my earliest productivity schedules I put a total ban on certain things. In this point I will address what- for me- have been habits detrimental to my efficiency. Social media- checking Facebook and Instagram- is the obvious one, and probably not one you really need me to tell you is a waste of your valuable writing time. Youtube is something I completely prohibit throughout a working day, and I use it only for the sole purpose of putting on a two-hour video of whale songs, like I stated above. When I was in my first year of university, and I committed to spending my spring semester writing one short story a day, I was able to do so by taking certain things away. I would not allow myself to play video games or watch Youtube videos until after dinner. I guess you could say it was like a reward system, and I would spend my evenings quite satisfied that I had earned my indulgences.
  • Alcohol. Personally I have not had any success whatsoever in writing whilst drunk. I think people like the idea of being a “literary badass” that never sits at his or her typewriter without a fifth of whiskey at hand. They point to the great drunks of the literary scene, like William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy and Jack Kerouac and perhaps mistakenly attribute their genius to their love of alcohol. But, as a complete Faulkner fanboy, I can tell you that he didn’t drink whilst he was writing, but rather, he would go on a massive bender upon completing a project. As for McCarthy, he has been on record as saying that he can’t imagine anything worse for a writer’s productivity than being a lush, and that the likes of Faulkner and Hemingway most likely succeeded despite their drinking, and not because of it. As for Kerouac, he was dead at the age of 47 due to a massive abdominal hemorrhage, so yeah.
  • Create a Literary Scoreboard. This is something I used to great effectiveness in my third year of university, when writing my dissertation. I had to write the first 10,000 words or so of a short novel. For some reason I was set on writing this creepy story about a priest in Panama who goes insane and wanders off into the jungle, returning years later to bloodily murder the children at the Catholic mission/orphanage he used to run. Anyway, in order to keep myself productive, I grabbed a sheet of lined paper, filled in the dates in the margin, then created columns that read “Fiction”, “Poetry”, “Dissertation” and “Other”. In each one I would record how many words I wrote in a given day. This helped keep me from messing around binge watching The Walking Dead or wasting hours upon hours of my life playing Star Wars (*sigh*) The Old Republic. My motivation quickly became getting as high a number as possible and avoiding getting the dreaded blank spaces. It was a scoreboard, plain and simple. I hung it on the wall above my bed, and after showing my roommate (a fellow writer) one time, I swear he said “You know, that ain’t a bad idea”.
  • The Pomodoro Method. This is something I have used since studying for exams as far back as my school days. It’s an excellent technique for someone like me who has struggled concentrating and being attentive. If you haven’t used this before, it’s basically a system whereby you pick a task, go at it for 25 minutes or so, then take a short break. I often set a timer on my phone. It basically makes work (be it a single endeavor or multiple projects) seem a lot less daunting, by breaking it up into little bite-sized episodes divided by short breaks. This is something I still use, to help me manage getting work done on my blog, with my short stories, with my poems, and with my reading.

To conclude, I would say that my main piece of advice for creating a schedule that works for you, and trying to adjust your behavior to being more productive, is to understand your own pitfalls, to identify and isolate those ways in which you have gone wrong in the past. You have to regulate your own energy levels, and understand your fatigue, to essentially comprehend how best you respond to something and try and design your life accordingly, to find a lifestyle that suits you.

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About mjvowles2014