Ah, procrastination, the scourge of the work-at-home freelancer! As a freelance writer, editor, and researcher, I spend an inordinate amount of time habitually procrastinating. Deadlines are, however, a reality in my freelance practice, and to meet those I’ve learned a few strategies for managing my procrastination.
Note that I say “managing,” not “overcoming.” Procrastination is a part of my nature, and I will never be able to eradicate it. I’ve learned that beating myself up for it is a waste of time. Self-recrimination does nothing but prolong my procrastination. Instead, I use tricks like the ones below to get myself on task.
1. The 15-minute rule
Some years ago, I read a self-help book that described a woman who had completed her class work for her graduate degree, but was completely blocked when the time came to sit down to write her thesis. She was asked how much time she felt she could realistically bear to spend every day on beginning her writing—a half-day? Two hours? One hour? She finally agreed to 15 minutes.
She set a timer for 15 minutes, calmed by having the end of her writing time well in sight. And that was how she completed her thesis—15 minutes at a time. Naturally, as she got more and more involved in her task, she began to exceed her 15 minutes a day. At all times, however, she remembered that she could stop working after 15 minutes with a feeling of having accomplished what she needed to that day. The “15-minute rule” got her through.
It was a revelation, and it absolutely works for me. When I know I have to stop procrastinating, I will set the timer on my smartphone for 15 minutes, after which, I tell myself, I can stop. The alarm seems to go off absurdly quickly. Within the first 15 minutes, I’m usually well engaged in my writing, and I don’t feel like stopping for at least another hour or two, or until the assignment is completed.
2. The breakdown solution
Bigger jobs can seem overwhelming. Procrastination feels insurmountable as the deadline approaches. When I’m faced with a larger assignment, for example, a white paper or a chapter, I can start to feel overburdened and find it difficult to get my creative juices flowing. A strategy related to the 15-minute rule is to break the job down into smaller components.
I start with a rough outline of the complete paper that can be as minimal as a few lines on a post-it note. That way, I can see smaller units instead of one large task, and I can begin by drafting a single sentence on the topic of the first chunk. The outline will evolve, and it may change as I go along, but the key is that I don’t need to think beyond the first few paragraphs to start.
3. The Ernest Hemingway solution
When you’re working on a longer-term creative project, knowing exactly what you will do at the start of the next day makes it easier to get going. I picked up this tactic when I read about the writing habits of the author Ernest Hemingway, who struggled with procrastination when he was writing his books. According to the Harvard Business Review, “When someone asked Ernest Hemingway how to write a novel, his response was, ‘First you defrost the refrigerator.’”
Hemingway’s habit was to leave a strong cue for himself when he stopped writing for the day. He would stop before the next sentence he had in mind, and make a note of it instead of writing it. When he knew exactly what the first sentence on the next day’s blank page would be, he could sidestep his procrastination and get started right away. In an October 1935 article in Esquire, he advised, “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck.”
4. Rewards and treats
Anyone who has trained a pet (or raised a child, for that matter) knows how effective a system of rewarding desired behaviors can be. Back in the ‘70s, the term “inner child,” was coined to mean a remnant in our unconscious minds of the feelings of childhood that are supposed to play a role in dictating our behavior. It’s one part of the mind that responds to training by reward. That child-self is also thought to be a wellspring of creativity later in life.
Although I personally prefer to stay in touch with my inner adult, I can’t deny that choosing a reward I’ll give myself when I finish the work I’m putting off can be tremendously helpful. The reward can be as trivial as giving myself permission to watch a silly video, or as substantial as permission to shop for a new sweater. Is my choice of the word “permission” evidence of that inner child in action?
It’s my hope that these tried-and-true solutions may be as useful for my fellow creative freelancers — who occasionally find they are languishing at their desks or drawing tables, avoiding that blank page — as they have been useful for me.
Julie Goodman is an experienced freelance writer, editor, and content creator in Santa Monica, California. A mentor and a career advisor, she cares about the community of freelancers who are finding new ways to work successfully in today’s gig economy.