The Downside to Being a Precrastinator

We’re all familiar with the term procrastination – and some of us may have even experienced it! – but have you heard of the term precrastination? When I first heard this term, I thought it was a cheeky way to describe ‘doers,’ but the more I read about it, the more I realised how perfectly this term describes the way that I manage my to-do list.

Basically, a precrastinator is someone who prefers to complete a task as soon as possible. They like to get things done well in advance. This approach is particularly relevant to short term tasks such as email, errands and minor requests*.

Many of us have long term goals that may include writing a novel, completing a degree, or increasing our fitness. Intellectually, we understand that these goals take a lot of time and a lot of energy to achieve.

If we are chugging along on one of our long term goals and a short term tasks suddenly pops up on our to-do list, a precrastinator will rush to complete that task in order to get on with their ‘real work’. Many of these tasks are lopped onto our already full plates through the evil channels of email, social media and our mobile phones. Ah, the joys of being constantly contactable…

Maybe you’re in the middle of a writing session when you receive an email from a colleague requesting you to edit a journal article, or a friend texts asking for your lasagne recipe, or you duck into the kitchen for a cup of tea and the kettle croaks it.

Working on your masterpiece has now become impossible because all you can think about is that your colleague needs that article to be edited, your friend needs that recipe and someone has to buy a new kettle. How can you possibly write another chapter with these pesky demands nipping at your heels?

There is a couple of things at play here. Firstly, there is a belief that these short term tasks are urgent. We spin ourselves into a frenzy as we tend to these tasks in an attempt to get them off our to-do list as quickly as possible. Of course, we should also take a moment to acknowledge the dopamine hit that happens when we complete these short term tasks. Ah, instant gratification. Progress has been made! Or has it?

This habit can have two consequences. If you allow yourself to be constantly distracted and interrupted by short term tasks, this will drag out the completion of your long term goals. Alternatively, if you continue to focus solely on short term tasks, then you may never reach your long term goal. In which case, your precrastinating has turned into procrastinating.

If you indulge in this form of procrastinating too much, you may develop a habit of rushing through ALL the tasks on your to-do list. Instead of taking the time to complete a task properly, you may find yourself in a vicious cyclic pattern as you hurry to complete one task then another and another. Who wants to live their life as though it were one big to-do list?

Obviously, some tasks can be completed quickly, but if you rush to complete the edits your colleague request, if you shot off an email to your friend, or if you hurry out the door to buy a new kettle – you may find yourself in a sea of regret!

What if you miss a bunch of typos? What if you email your friend a confidential file instead of a recipe? What if you buy a full-price kettle instead of one on sale because you were too busy to look?

When you rush through a task you may fail to give the time, attention or consideration that it truly needs. The result? Your colleague doesn’t ask you to edit another paper. Your friend reads that confidential material. You regret your quick purchase.

Precrastinating isn’t necessarily a problem. There is something good about clearing the decks so that you can give your full attention to your long term goals, but you need to be honest with yourself, are you simply tending to minor tasks or are you procrastinating under the guise of being efficient? You need to ask yourself questions like:

  • is my procrastinating leading to mediocre work?
  • Is it harming my reputation?
  • Is it causing me to rush through long term goals instead of giving them the time and energy they actually need?

It’s not very often that I EVER defend procrastinating, but there can be benefits to completing tasks at the last minute or at least delaying your starting of them. If you have a month to prepare a paper and you rush to write, revise and submit it in a week, you’ve just lost three weeks of ‘marinating’ time. Procrastinating isn’t (always) a dressed-up form of laziness or resistance, SOMETIMES, it is a way to allow deeper reflections, thoughts, insights and connections to occur. A person who does not write a paper until a few days before the deadline may wind up writing a better paper because they’ve allowed themselves to really think through their argument and to find some stellar sources.

There’s nothing wrong with being either a precrastinator or a procrastinator. The only times these behaviours do becoming troublesome is when they start interfering with your long terms goals.

*Of course, precrastinating also extend to medium sized tasks like re-planting a garden bed, servicing your car or building a website.

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Desires vs Goals

(Note: The video version of this blog can be found here)

As writers, we all want to write amazing novels. We want to write the kind of novels that readers can’t put down. Novels that take readers on epic journeys far away from their everyday life and that allow them to experience the world through another’s eyes. Novels that challenge readers, that teach them something, that inform them about important issues or that move them in some profound way.

As writers, we want to get agents, sign deals and see our books in stores. We want to go on a book tour and do interviews with smart journalists. We want our online platforms to explode along with our sales. We want readers to send us fan art or emails detailing what our book meant to them.

These secret desires can be rocket fuel on days when inspiration is running thin. Be warned though, these same desires can quickly lead to disappointment and apathy. When these thrilling futures fail to materialise, we may wind up asking, ‘Why hasn’t it happened yet? What’s the point in trying anymore?’ or worse, ‘Maybe I’m no good at this.’

Dreaming about hitting the New York Times Best Seller List or winning a prestigious award can be a fun way to occupy your time while waiting in a doctor’s office or lazily drinking tea on a Sunday afternoon, but there is a big difference between desires and goals.

Getting an agent, a book deal, winning a literary award or experiencing skyrocketing sales are desires. You have absolutely no control (or very little) over any of these events becoming a reality. However, you are fully in charge when it comes to goals.

Goals are specific, measurable and they have deadlines.

Getting an agent is a desire. Querying five agents in the first quarter of the year is a goal. The former is ambiguous and disempowering, the latter is exact and empowering. Goals are specific and measurable. In the case of the above example, you have set the goal to email five agents, and the self-imposed deadline will help keep you on track and focused.

Of course, some goals will involve others, but it’s important that you continue to recognise the difference between a goal and a desire.

Desire: The proofreader will find all the typos in my manuscript.

Goal: The proofreader and I will complete the final round of edits by October.

While it’s fun to imagine the future our current WIP may one day experience, it’s important that we keep our feet firmly on the ground. After all, that shiny ‘one-day’ future will never happen if you don’t do the work.

When working on a project, there is tremendous value in setting goals. However, setting vague goals like “Write a Book” can lead to overwhelm and procrastination. It’s just too damn BIG! Plus, it will be a long time before you experience the satisfaction of crossing that item off your goal list. Instead, it’s much more productive to break that one massive goal into much smaller goals.

Remember: A goal is something you are in charge of.

Instead of setting “Write a Book” as a goal, consider the steps involved in that process. This one goal could easily be broken down into something like this:

  1. Read a craft book such as Save the Cat by Jessica Brody
  2. Spend one week creating character profiles
  3. Spend one week outline the novel using the Save the Cat principles
  4. Write 500-1000 words a day, five days a week. Hit 80,000 words by July 12.
  5. Re-read manuscript in one/two sittings while making note of any large structural issues or plot holes
  6. Spend one week creating a plan on how to revise initial draft
  7. Spend one-two hours, five days a week, revising
  8. Spend 2-3 weeks re-read the revised draft and make any final adjustments
  9. Ask five friends to become beta-readers
  10. Drink copious amounts of whiskey while waiting for beta-reader feedback.

Of course, some of these goals could be broken down further, but you get the idea. For instance, I prefer to complete step ten while clutching my battered copy of Stephen King’s On Writing and crying.

Desires can be inspiring, motivating and energising, but they can lead to dissatisfaction. Goals may be less thrilling, but what they lack in shimmer they make up for in pragmatism. Please, do not underestimate the energy and motivation that comes from real progress. It may not be the Ra-Ra excitement you experience when imagining hitting the New York Times Best Seller List, but those big exciting moment won’t ever happen if you don’t first build the habit of setting realistic and achievable goals.

So, what are you waiting for? Get to it!