Writing procrastination occurs when someone unnecessarily postpones writing something, such as a school paper, a workplace report, or a book. This is a common problem for many people, including famous writers, and it can lead to various issues, such as lower-quality work, missed opportunities, and increased stress.
Because of the issues that this prevalent phenomenon can lead to, it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about writing procrastination, understand what causes it, and see what you can do to overcome it in practice.
Examples of writing procrastination
People can procrastinate on writing many different things in many different contexts. For example, this can include:
- A student procrastinating on writing a school essay or a PhD thesis.
- An executive procrastinating on writing a workplace report or an important speech.
- A researcher procrastinating on writing a scientific paper or a grant proposal.
- An author procrastinating on writing a short story or a novel.
In addition, people can also procrastinate on writing various other types of texts. For example, someone might procrastinate on writing an emotional message on social media, because they can’t find the right words to express how they feel. Similarly, someone might procrastinate on writing an important email, because they’re afraid it won’t be perfect.
Note that this type of delay can be considered writing procrastination when the key aspect of the task that people are procrastinating on is the writing itself. For example, if someone needs to write and send a short confirmation message, and they’re procrastinating because they’re hesitant to send the confirmation (rather than to write the message), then this generally wouldn’t be considered writing procrastination, even though writing is involved (though it would still be considered procrastination). This distinction is important, since it can sometimes help you determine what exactly you’re procrastinating on and why you’re doing so, which can help you figure out how to solve your procrastination problem.
Famous procrastinating writers
- J. K. Rowling, an English author who is best known for writing the Harry Potter book series. She has spoken about her procrastination on social media, saying, for example, that she’s “rather good” at procrastination, and describing how she procrastinates by doing things such as making tea and looking at Twitter.
- Hunter S. Thompson, an American journalist and author who is best known for founding gonzo journalism and writing the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In interviews conducted with Thompson that are shared in the book Ancient Gonzo Wisdom, Thompson describes his need to have an upcoming deadline in order to be able to write, which he says is both a struggle and something that helped him be successful. For example, he says “I couldn’t imagine, and I don’t say this with any pride, but I really couldn’t imagine writing without a desperate deadline”, and states that he is an adrenaline junkie who can “never get anything done without the pressure of some impossible deadline”.
- Nassim Taleb, a Lebanese-American author, who is best known for writing books such as The Black Swan and Antifragile. In discussing procrastination, he states that it is an important and beneficial tool in his writing process; for example, in his book Antifragile, Taleb says “Actually I select the writing of the passages of this book by means of procrastination. If I defer writing a section, it must be eliminated. This is simple ethics: Why should I try to fool people by writing about a subject for which I feel no natural drive?”.
- Margaret Atwood, a Canadian author and poet who is best known for works such as The Handmaid’s Tale. She’s a self-proclaimed world expert on procrastination. Having racked “years and years of it”. However, despite her procrastination, she says that she does not miss deadlines, as she would consider it dishonorable to do so. Furthermore, she is quite prolific, having published dozens of works of various types (e.g., non-fiction and fiction books, graphic novels, and poetry collections), many of which were commercially successful, critically acclaimed, and won prestigious awards.
- Samuel Johnson, an English writer who produced many important works, such as one of the most influential English dictionaries ever written. He often procrastinated on his writing, as shared in a book about Johnson written by his close friend, and as shared by Johnson himself. However, Johnson was well aware of the problematic nature of this behavior, and wrote to caution others against it, saying, for example: “When evils cannot be avoided, it is wise to contract the interval of expectation; to meet the mischiefs which will overtake us if we fly; and suffer only their real malignity without the conflicts of doubt and anguish of anticipation”.
- Douglas Adams, an English comedic writer who is best known for creating the franchise The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As his biography notes, he had a reputation for repeatedly missing deadlines, and is famously quoted as saying “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by”. One article, which states that “Douglas Adams had grand ideas, and the procrastination necessary to put off their completion”, reports that his book editors had to trap him in a hotel suite for three weeks to get him to write the book So Long and Thanks for all the Fish. Similarly, Steve Meretzky, who collaborated with Adams to create a video game, called him “the world’s worst procrastinator” and said that he “certainly raised procrastination to an art form”.
- Victor Hugo, a French author, poet, and playwright, who is best known for works such as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Les Misérables. When he struggled to focus on writing the Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Hugo is reported to have bought himself a huge knitted shawl and locked away all his formal clothes, so that he wouldn’t be tempted to go out.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an English poet who is best known for works such as the poem Kubla Khan. He wrote about his struggles with procrastinating, for example saying the following the day after his 32 birthday “… so completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month.—O sorrow & Shame! I am not worthy to live—Two & thirty years.—& this last year above all others!—I have done nothing!”.
Prevalence of writing procrastination
General procrastination is a common phenomenon, which chronically affects approximately 20% of adults and 50% of college students.
Writing procrastination, in particular, is also very common, especially among students. For example, in one study on college students, ~65% said they wanted or definitely wanted to reduce their procrastination on writing term papers. Furthermore, the same study found that writing was the most common type of academic activity that students procrastinated on, as ~46% of them always or nearly always procrastinated on writing term papers, compared, for instance, to ~30% who procrastinated on reading weekly assignments, and ~28% who procrastinated on studying for exams.
In addition, as shown above, procrastination is common among famous writers, including J. K. Rowling, Hunter S. Thompson, Margaret Atwood, Douglas Adams, and Victor Hugo.
Dangers of writing procrastination
Procrastinating on writing can lead to many issues, such as:
- Worse-quality writing, for example if procrastinating means that you must rush to finish writing a paper shortly before its deadline, so you don’t have time to revise it or get feedback.
- Clashes with other commitments, for example if procrastinating means that to make up for the time you wasted, you have to skip important activities, such as working on a different assignment, meeting with someone, or engaging in a hobby.
- Missed opportunities, for example if you take so long to complete a book proposal that an agent who initially expressed interest in it is no longer willing to work with you to send it to publishers, or if you take so long to send your work to someone that they no longer have time to give you feedback.
- Interpersonal conflicts, for example with colleagues who depend on you to contribute to a joint report, or with an editor who’s waiting for a draft of your manuscript.
- Slower growth as a writer, for example if you end up writing less than you otherwise would, and also get less input from others.
- Failure to achieve your goals, for example if you spend years or even decades procrastinating on writing the book that you dream of writing.
- Negative emotions, such as guilt, shame, and anger over wasting so much time without making progress.
- Worse mental and physical health, for example if procrastination causes you to feel stressed and not sleep enough.
These issues, in turn, can often lead to further issues. For example, if the writing that you’re procrastinating is part of an academic assignment, then that could lead you to receive worse grades. Similarly, if the writing that you’re procrastinating on is part of a workplace project, then that could lead you to get fired.
Furthermore, these issues are often interrelated. For example, if procrastinating causes you to feel negative emotions, this can make you feel stressed, which in turn can make you sleep less, which can make you exhausted, and consequently less productive.
That said, it’s important to note that writing procrastination is common, and doesn’t always lead to detrimental outcomes. For example, some writers manage to get a lot of high-quality writing done, even if they procrastinate. Furthermore, procrastination may even offer some benefits to writers in some cases, such as when it helps them enter a flow state, which then helps them find creative ways to improve the plot of their book.
As such, when deciding what to do about writing procrastination, you should first carefully assess the situation, to understand how it’s affecting you exactly. When doing this, you should take into account the potential benefits of procrastinating, but also consider all of its downsides, including the ones that may be less obvious, such as stress. This will help you identify the best way to act, including by helping you select the most appropriate anti-procrastination techniques to use in order to minimize the downsides of procrastination while retaining any of its potential benefits.
Procrastination and writer’s block
Writer’s block occurs when someone is unable to write—either something specific or in general—even though they’re trying to. As such, the lack of writing that’s associated with writer’s block isn’t driven by issues such as external constraints (e.g., lack of time) or lack of commitment.
Writer’s block and procrastination are connected in several ways:
- They often involve similar behaviors, especially in the sense that the person who experiences them isn’t writing what they should be writing.
- They often lead to similar issues, such as missed deadlines and increased stress.
- They’re often driven by similar causes, such as perfectionism, anxiety, or fear of failure.
Furthermore, these two behaviors can co-occur, especially when someone’s writer’s block leads them to procrastinate, or when procrastination leads someone to suffer from writer’s block. This can cause a problematic cycle, for example when someone’s writer’s block causes them to procrastinate, which makes their writer’s block worse, which makes them more likely to keep procrastinating, and so on.
However, procrastination and writer’s block can also occur separately from one another. Specifically, someone might procrastinate even though they don’t have writer’s block, but rather because they suffer from other issues, such as constant distractions. Similarly, someone might have writer’s block due to reasons that are entirely unrelated to procrastination, such as creative difficulties, and they may be actively trying to work on their writing, even if they’re stuck and not making any progress.
The psychology and causes of writing procrastination
You procrastinate on writing because issues—such as abstract goals and perfectionism—interfere with and outweigh your self-control and motivation.
Specifically, when you need to get writing done, you generally rely primarily on your self-control in order to get yourself to do it. Furthermore, your self-control is sometimes supported by your motivation, which helps you write things on time.
However, in some cases, you might suffer from issues that reduce your self-control and motivation, such as abstract goals and exhaustion. Furthermore, you might also suffer from demotivating issues, such as perfectionism and anxiety. When demotivating issues outweigh your remaining self-control and motivation, you end up procrastinating.
This explains why you might procrastinate on writing even when you’re motivated to write and truly want to get started. This also explains why you might procrastinate on writing until right before deadlines, when the increased motivation, often in the form of stressful pressure, finally pushes you to get to work.
Accordingly, the following are common reasons for procrastinating on writing:
- Abstract goals, for example when it comes to being vague about when and how much you intend to write.
- Feeling overwhelmed, for example in terms of being unsure how to get started on a large project.
- Perfectionism, for example in terms of setting unattainable standards and being unwilling to accept any flaws in your work.
- Fear, for example because you’re afraid of failing or being criticized by others.
- Anxiety, for example because you feel nervous whenever you try to write.
- Task aversion, for example if the writing is about a topic that’s boring, frustrating, or unpleasant.
- Problematic work environment, for example because it’s filled with distractions.
- Low motivation, for example because the expected rewards for your writing are far in the future.
- Exhaustion, for example due to a combination of a high workload, burnout, and stress.
- Resentment, for example toward an authority figure who’s making you write.
- Sensation seeking, for example because you enjoy writing under the intense pressure of an upcoming deadline.
In addition, other issues can also make you more likely to procrastinate on your writing. These include, for example:
- Problematic behaviors such as self-handicapping, which involves procrastinating so that if you fail then you can blame your failure on procrastination rather than your abilities, and self-sabotaging, which involves procrastinating as a result of a tendency to sabotage your own progress.
- Problematic personality traits such as distractibility and impulsivity.
- Underlying physical and mental health issues such as lack of sleep, ADHD, and depression.
Suffering from these issues can lead to problematic procrastination cycles. For example, this can happen if you’re anxious about writing, so you procrastinate on it, which makes you even more anxious about writing due to the added guilt that you now associate with it, which in turn makes you more likely to keep procrastinating on writing in the future.
In summary, you procrastinate on writing because issues—such as abstract goals and perfectionism—interfere with and outweigh your self-control and motivation. Various issues can therefore lead to procrastination, including far-future outcomes, anxiety, self-handicapping, impulsivity, and depression. It’s important to understand the possible causes of writing procrastination so you can identify the specific causes of your own procrastination, which will then help you figure out how to stop procrastinating.
Solutions to writing procrastination
- Set concrete writing goals. For example, instead of a vague goal, such as “do some writing next week”, set a concrete goal, such as “next week, write every day for an hour right after dinner, and finish the outline of the proposal by Friday”.
- Break your writing into small and manageable steps. For example, if you have to write a graduate dissertation, and there’s so much to do that you feel overwhelmed, break this large project down into a series of small steps, such as creating an outline, writing the introduction, and finding relevant resources for the literature review.
- Start with a tiny step. For example, commit to starting by writing only a single sentence or writing for only 2 minutes, while giving yourself permission to stop after taking that tiny first step, in order to reduce the pressure associated with getting started.
- Give yourself permission to make mistakes. For example, if you’re writing a paper, accept that your work won’t be perfect, especially when it comes to the first draft. Similarly, you can tell yourself “my goal now is just to get the basic idea written down, and I don’t care about quality at this stage, so I’m not even going to look at what I write”.
- Focus on just writing, rather than writing well. For example, you can commit to writing without stopping even if you’re not sure exactly what to write, or use an app that hides your writing until the end of the writing session. When doing this, you can remind yourself that your goal at that stage is to just get something written down, and that you can always edit your writing later to improve it.
- Switch things up. For example, if you’re stuck on a chapter because of mental barriers, switch to writing a different chapter, until you’re ready to go back to the one you were stuck on. Alternatively, if you’re lacking necessary inspiration, you can take a break from trying to write, and instead do something else for a while, such as reading, exercising, or doodling.
- Figure out what you’re afraid of, and address your fears. For example, if you realize that you’re worried about getting negative feedback from someone who isn’t really important, you can tell yourself that their opinion doesn’t matter.
- Prepare for future contingencies. For example, figure out which distractions might tempt you to procrastinate on your writing, and find ways to deal with these distractions (e.g., by using apps that block distracting websites).
- Set effective deadlines. For example, if you can only bring yourself to write when there’s a deadline, you can set such a deadline for yourself by committing to sending a draft of your work by a certain date to someone such as your friend, mentor, or teacher.
- Take advantage of productive procrastination. For example, if you only manage to write when you’re procrastinating on a different task that you’re more afraid of, then you can intentionally schedule such tasks in order to give you something unimportant to procrastinate on.
- Schedule your work according to your productivity cycles. For example, if you find it easier to get creative writing done early in the morning or late at night, then you should try to write during that time as much as possible.
- Establish consistent routines and habits. For example, you can write during a set time every day.
- Improve your work environment. For example, if your work environment has a lot of irritating background noise, you can get noise-canceling headphones or go somewhere quieter.
- Improve your social-support network. For example, you can find a writing buddy to help you feel motivated and accountable.
- Get enough rest. For example, you can make sure to get enough sleep and take enough breaks that you can focus on your work. To encourage yourself to do this, you can remind yourself that even if getting rest can reduce your productivity in the short term, it will often be much better for you in the long term, both in terms of your productivity and in terms of your wellbeing.
- Deal with underlying issues. If your procrastination is the result of a serious underlying issue, such as depression or ADHD, deal with that issue, using professional help if necessary. This will help you both with procrastination, as well as with the underlying issue.
- Develop self-efficacy. Specifically, this is your belief in your ability to perform the actions needed to achieve your goals. You can develop it in various ways, such as identifying the strategies that you can use to achieve your goals, and then thinking about how you can execute those strategies successfully.
- Forgive yourself for past procrastination. For example, if you need to get started on a task that you’ve been postponing for a long time, you can say “I shouldn’t have delayed writing in the first place, but that’s in the past, and what’s important now is to move on and just finish this”.
- Develop self-compassion. Specifically, you should develop the three components of self-compassion: self-kindness, which involves being nice to yourself, common humanity, which involves recognizing that everyone experiences challenges, and mindfulness, which involves accepting your emotions in a non-judgmental manner.
- Acknowledge and reward your progress. For example, you can treat yourself to some pleasant treat once you’ve managed to achieve your writing goals for a week in a row.
When figuring out which techniques to use and how to use them, you might benefit from considering what advice you would give to a friend if they were in your situation, since doing so can often help see things more clearly than when thinking directly about your own situation.
In addition, you might benefit from writing down things such as your goals, tasks, or plan of action. Doing this can help you think through the situation more clearly, remember your reasoning, and make everything that you decide feel more concrete, all of which can be beneficial in reducing procrastination.
Finally, note that you can use a similar approach to help someone else deal with their procrastination, for example if you’re their friend, mentor, or teacher.
In summary, to stop procrastination on your writing, you should first figure out why you procrastinate, and then identify and use relevant anti-procrastination techniques, such as setting clear goals, breaking your work into manageable steps, addressing your fears, starting with a tiny step, giving yourself permission to make mistakes.