One reason I love personal productivity/life development/organization blogs is that they provide some great tips for overcoming procrastination. The blogosphere is full of them, and they’re great fun to read. (Check out Leo Babuta’s Top 20 Motivation Hacks – An Overview at Zen Habits or Lifehack’s 11 Tips for Nuking Laziness Without Becoming a Workaholic for examples, but this is truly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to productivity how-tos.)
Plus, they’re a great way to feel like I’m doing something productive when I’m really avoiding larger tasks.
…hey…wait a second…
This post is not about overcoming procrastination. It’s about getting a draft started. I make this distinction at the outset because even if you’re not a chronic procrastinator, it can be challenging to get started drafting. Whether you’re a potter or a sculptor, writing is hard work. In fact, it can seem positively Herculean. This goes double for the procrastinators out there.
Here are some tips that have worked for me, or for writers I know. More importantly, I have not come across these tips in other personal productivity/writing blogs. (If you have posted something similar, let me know in the comments section. I’d be happy to link to it.) I hope you’ll find something here that you haven’t tried yet.
1. Inverse Timing. We have all heard the “set a timer for X minutes” strategy, applied to everything from writing to decluttering a room. This strategy is the inverse: force yourself to write only one sentence every fifteen minutes.
The logic behind this strategy is simple. The “set a timer” strategy tries to catapult you from a dead stop to full speed. If you are having trouble getting started, however, you will expend a lot of mental energy keeping yourself from throwing the @&$*! timer out the window. It’s just bad physics: a body at rest tends to stay at rest.
In contrast, this strategy gets you started s-l-o-w-l-y. Writing a sentence once every fifteen minutes doesn’t seem onerous. And after a few sentences, you may feel that the slow pace is holding you back. Your ideas are starting to flow, and the fifteen-minute game feels restrictive. Again, I refer you to Newton: a body in motion tends to stay in motion. At this point, feel free to drop the fifteen-minute stricture, and congratulations: you have officially started drafting.
2. The Scrap Paper Method. Psychologically savvy as well as environmentally friendly, the scrap paper method is designed to combat the panic and dread that the blank white space and the impatiently blinking cursor can cause. Rather than beginning to compose on the computer, compose on something from your recycle bin: an empty envelope, a grocery store receipt, a neighborhood flyer, whatever.
This strategy literalizes the casual and disposable nature of drafting. It’s just drafting, after all, not diamond cutting. You can always delete, change, say it better…that’s what revision is for. Writing on an odd bit of paper gets us started without the fanfare and reluctance of Sitting Down At The Computer To Write.
Best of all, when you finish scribbling on your bar napkin and open up your laptop, you may find that you have a few sentences, possibly more, to enter into your Word document. And once it’s on the virtual page, you begin reading, moving words around, clarifying what you had scribbled, adding here and there…before you know it, you have officially started drafting.
3. Don’t Start With the Beginning. Many times, when writers are having trouble getting started on a draft, it is because they are equating “getting started” with “the beginning.” It seems like a good place to start, right? Maria says so in The Sound of Music.
The problem is that beginnings are notoriously difficult to write. Advice abounds on grabbing the reader’s attention, writing a strong thesis statement…it’s all so complex and fraught that faced with writing a beginning first, who wouldn’t rather take a nap?
So don’t start with the beginning. Instead, start wherever you want. Start with the part that you want to write most, whatever that is. If you have one good example, write a body paragraph. If you have an awesome analogy, write that out. If you have a bang-up last sentence in mind, take a stab at the conclusion. It’s fun to eat dessert first, right? Your enthusiasm will likely carry you through most of a paragraph – or more – before you realize that you have officially started drafting.
When it comes to writing, we’re all searching for a new answer to the old “how do you eat an elephant?” question. I hope these ways will help you to think about getting started in a new way.
(Always give credit where it’s due: I am indebted to The Bedford Guide for College Writers with Reader, Research Manual, and Handbook. for some of this post’s ideas.)