Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Quasi-Science of Not Distracting Yourself

I had a productive day of writing today, and that fact got me thinking, because the truth is I've had quite a few non-productive days in the past month.

When I get started on a piece of writing, it's hard to stop. It's also a genuine rush; if I got a solid bit of writing done that morning, I inevitably bounce off to work feeling great (despite the fact I'm then running late.)

The problem is in the starting. I often feel psychological resistance to opening the story up and beginning to work. It'd be understandable if I were stuck on a scene, but this happens even when I left an exciting paragraph in mid-sentence last time.

So in today's post, I've compiled some useful information about how to fight procrastination. (Because those who can't do, teach, right? ;-) )


We have limited amounts of self-control, and there's actually science to back this claim up.

If you take two groups, and ask one group to exercise self-control (say, by not eating the Oreo cookies sitting in front of them), then put both groups into a situation where they have to (in one case, again) practice self-control, the group who has already spent time denying themselves a treat will crack first.

So, if you've spent the day forcing yourself to do one thing, it genuinely makes it harder to force yourself to do something else that evening.

Thus, if you've got a tendency to procrastinate, schedule your writing time for first thing in the day. That's when your willpower is at its most effective.

Inertia and Momentum

Brenda Carre once told me that when she doesn't feel like writing, she makes herself sit down for just five minutes. If, at the end of the five minutes, she still doesn't want to write, she will allow herself to walk away. Usually, however, this doesn't happen; she finds she keeps going.

Likewise, I once read about a runner who, when she didn't feel like going out for her jog, would just put on her exercise clothes and running shoes. Once garbed up, she usually could find the willpower to then get herself out the door.

This technique works partly because we're giving our self-control a seemingly smaller task to accomplish--one that feels manageable in a way that the entirety of the task doesn't. By breaking up a big, daunting project into small pieces, we can side-step our mental resistance to the thought of how much work the whole thing is going to be.

But there's more to it than that: A psychologist once conducted a study where she gave a group of people a task to complete, then interrupted them before they could finish and told them the study was over. The majority of the people kept working on the task; it bugged them to leave it incomplete.

Once you've started something, it's harder to stop. We all have a tendency to not let go of something when we're in the middle of it. So again, forcing yourself to tackle a little piece of a big project really does encourage you to complete the whole thing (if piece-meal), because once started, you gain psychological momentum and can't stop.

Making and Breaking

It takes about 20 days of consistent action to form a habit. That probably means it takes about 20 days of steadfast avoidance to break a habit, too.

So if you're trying to keep to a writing schedule, then don't despair at how hard it feels. You only need to force yourself to do this for about 20 days before it starts to feel easy.

Likewise, if you're trying to break a habit of (oh, for completely-random example) mooching about the internet instead of writing, then you only need to deprive yourself of that lovely, lovely crack your vice for about 20 days and the cravings will go away.

What I'm saying is: it's do-able. Don't give up. Forming a new habit is a manageable goal.

Bad Dog; No Cookie

Finally--and this is something I learned from that last video I posted--your limbic system is the part of your brain that distracts you (with the urge to go get a tea, or snag a cookie, or check your email.)

And the limbic system is more prone to responding to something it has just been reminded of.

Thus, if you want to at least minimize your own tendency to get distracted, then put away all reminders of things that distract you. Hide your tea mug; put the bag of cookies in a cupboard; turn off the 'ping' on your email program.

And if something does distract you, then just remember your limbic system has no attention span. If you tough it out, and don't respond to the urge, it will go away.


Have you any other hints for avoiding procrastination and being productive? I'd love to hear them! And I would also love to learn about any other research you've read on this subject.

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis

Pageloads since 01/01/2009: