One Simple Technique to Help You Overcome Procrastination and Start Writing Now
August 5th, 2006 | Productivity
For the last three weeks I’ve been using something called “contingency management” to write more, and more consistently, than at any point in my entire life. I now write an average of three pages a day (typed, double-spaced) during one 30-minute session. I’ve also used this technique to jump start two projects that were stalled for months.
Only a small fraction of my writing would be publishable, but I now have over 60 pages of new ideas, hunches, questions, and possible solutions that simply didn’t exist a month ago. On top of everything, I no longer cringe when I think about writing and my self-confidence has skyrocketed.
Contingency management has been around for years, but I just learned about it in a great book by Robert Boice called Professors as Writers: A Self-Help Guide to Productive Writing. This is required reading for writers in all fields who want to overcome the inertia of writer’s block and procrastination.
What’s it all about?
Contingency Management is simple. Choose a daily task that you value (e.g., checking your email, working out, showering) and make it contingent on writing for a period of, say, 30 minutes. The trick is finding something you really can’t go a day without doing. For me, checking my email works like a charm.
If you have trouble finding the right task, or if you don’t trust yourself to stick to the plan, enlist a friend to help you in the following way, which comes directly from Boice: On any day that you fail to write, a prewritten check for $25 will be sent to an organization that you absolutely hate. Ouch!
Are you saying I should force myself to write?
Exactly. Forcing yourself to write will have several positive outcomes:
- It will destroy the excuse that you don’t have enough time to write – you will find it easily.
- It will help you get in the habit of writing even when you don’t feel like it.
- If you choose to write on a project in development, you’ll see that your concerns about not being ready to write are groundless (you really don’t need to download another article or check out another book before starting).
I know some of you are probably thinking that forcing yourself to write will be counterproductive. After all, the received wisdom on procrastination and writer’s block includes the idea that you should coax yourself into working by changing your self-talk from “I have to finish this!” to “When can I start?” This is a way to keep your mind from thinking that the task at hand is big and scary and should be put off for as long as possible.
That’s what I believed, too, so I was really skeptical about contingency management at first. But after I completed my first writing period and saw the results, I never once felt forced. On the contrary, it was like my ego stood up to take credit for finishing the task AND for deciding to do it in the first place.
Even though writing doesn’t come as automatically as brushing my teeth (not yet, anyway), the idea that I’m forcing myself to write has completely faded away.
Won’t my creativity take a hit?
Some of you might think forcing yourself to write will quash your creativity; you’d rather wait for that ol’ muse to come a knockin’. Boice has some interesting data on this.
He took 27 university faculty members who complained of writing problems and divided them into three groups. The first group agreed to put off all writing for 10 weeks–they would remain “abstinent” in all but emergency situations. The second group was encouraged only to write when in the mood. The third group used contingency management, agreeing to write three pages a day or else a prewritten check would be sent to a hated organization as mentioned above.
In terms of the number of pages written by each group the results aren’t that surprising. On average, the abstinent group produced 0.2 pages a day, the spontaneous group produced 0.9 pages, and the forced group produced 3.2 pages.
What about the production of creative ideas? Here’s where the differences really matter. The abstinent group reported having a creative thought about once a week, the spontaneous group about once every other day, and the forced group reported having a novel idea at least once a day.
The icing on the cake? The group using contingency management enjoyed writing more than the others.
Like any productivity technique, contingency management has to be tailored to your needs. It might take you some trial and error to find the right contingency, but this is critical. Checking my email works for me, but I’ve known that since 1995 when I used the same technique to help me practice my trombone more often.
What you do during your writing session will depend on how comfortable you are with writing. I usually start with 5 minutes of free writing and then transition into a more thoughtful, deliberate period. Lately I’ve been feeling the urge to produce fewer pages and spend more time forming conceptual outlines. I’ll probably do some switching back and forth between the two in the coming weeks.
I also suggest keeping a daily log of how many pages or words you produce and how much time you spend writing. Keep track even if all you do is enter zeros. This will help you see your progress, but more importantly it will instill the idea that writing can become part of your daily routine.
This is just the beginning
You’ll probably need more than contingency management to overcome anxiety and start popping out manuscripts, but this is about the best procrastination-buster I’ve ever come across. You get to see the results of your labor accumulate with each writing session, and you’re likely to feel your confidence grow as increased discipline and productivity enter your daily routine.
To learn more about contingency management and how to integrate it with other strategies for long-term writing success, I recommend you check out Boice’s book. In the mean time, I hope you give it a shot.
Let me know if it works for you!
This article is one that makes an interesting point in motivating oneself – that using an awareness of how one’s mind works can enable a user to be change their habits selectively, and easily.
I like how the title uses the word “procrastination” but it really is about modifying one’s own behaviour.