February 13, 2013

Procrastination: You Vs. Your Brain (+ How to Win)

The Thinker in the Dark - A5 by h.koppdelaney via foter.com
I killed it in NaNoWriMo. 
I've written less than 5,000 words since.
It's so frustrating because I'm so close to finishing A BIRD'S EYE VIEW. I only need to write 20k-25k words more to complete the first draft. Why is it so hard? Why is procrastination so powerful? 


There's a lot out there about how to beat procrastination, but not so much about how it works and what triggers it. Until I stumbled upon this little TEDxTalk given by a young man named Vik Nithy. He explains that procrastination happens primarily between two parts of your brain: the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex is part of your conscious mind: it's is where decision-making happens. The amygdala is the oldest, most primitive part of your subconscious mind: it's where fear and anxiety come from.

He went on to explain that procrastination is triggered by the amygdala, which senses a threatening stimulus when you think about whatever it is you're putting off. For me: writing. The amygdala reacts by initiating a fear response which shuts down your rational decision-making pre-frontal cortex. Essentially procrastination is this: The part of me that wants to write is disabled by the part of me that is afraid to write. Deep down inside, where there are no words, fear rules. 

So I wondered; what am I afraid of? 

The obvious ones popped up right away. I'm afraid that I'll never finish my book (ironic, huh?). I'm afraid that it sucks, that I suck. I'm afraid that it might be good, and then people will always expect me to be good. I'm afraid of humiliating myself. But I knew, the way you know when the name you think belongs to that person is close, but wrong, that these aren't the fears that are holding me back. So, what am I really afraid of?

I'm afraid that I'm wrong.

All my life, I've believed my purpose is to be a writer. I thought I wasn't a writer because I was too lazy, or I lacked confidence. But it was always there, in my back pocket, just waiting for me to be ready. My safety net. 

My Grandma once asked me why, with this 'way with words', have I never become a writer. I told her it was because I lacked discipline. Her eyes flew wide and she said, "Well...that's honest!" But was it? I believed it at the time. But what if I was wrong, what if the answer should have been: 'because it's not my calling after all'? What if I discover, after all my life, that I'm not meant to be a writer. Was never meant to be a writer. What if my back pocket is filled with nothing more than broken threads and grains of sand? What if there is no safety net?

Do I just accept my proletariat ancestry and knuckle down to a life of drudgery, with no light, no art,  no beauty? Oh, I know what you're thinking. Even as a non-writer I can enjoy the light of my best friend's laughter, the artistry of a great book, the beauty in the eyes of my son.

But I'm selfish and conceited, because...it's not enough.

I don't want to observe beauty. I don't even want to appreciate beauty. I want to create beauty.

What will I do with myself, if I can't?

~~~~~~~~~ DEEP SIGH ~~~~~~~~~

So, I got pretty bummed out. I shut down. I stopped talking to my friends, I stopped reading my email, I didn't take BoyChild outside on bright, sunny days. I decided I'm too old for this. I decided to give up. I thought, if it isn't writing, then it must be something else. And if it's something else, then I need to get a move on to figure out what. I opened up my laptop prepared to delete this blog, my facebook profile, and my manuscript. I cried. I watched my fingers trembling over the keyboard, and I couldn't do it. I just. couldn't. do it.

Retreat by h.koppdelaney via foter.com

I started looking for commiseration. 

I re-watched zeFrank's INVOCATION FOR BEGINNINGS, in which he advises that he be as generous to himself as he would a friend (along with several other zingers with impact, seriously, watch it).

I found this facebook Question of the Day answered by Elizabeth Gilbert: How do you cope with self-doubt?

I read an article on brainpickings.org: "I am almost always anxious when I'm writing..." - Mary Karr

I saw this on twitter: "All my life, I've been frightened at the moment I sit down to write." - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I read a blog post by Lilith Saintcrow in which she quotes Ursula Le Guin from TOMBS OF ATUAN. "To be reborn, you must die. It's not as hard as it looks from the other side."

I found this via @MarieForleo: "The more important a project is to your soul's evolution, the more you will resist it." - Steven Pressfield

Once I started looking around me, I saw that everyone is tackling fear. And that fear will always be there, everyday.


1: Know thyself. Dig deep. Figure out what it is that's really holding you back. What are you really afraid of? This way, when you want to write but find yourself scrubbing the toilet instead, you'll know why, and hopefully remember that the fear response is automatic, but temporary. So, get back to work.

2: Decide to fight. Accept that your fears may change, but fear will always be there. Accept that it is there to protect you and you must convince your frightened mind that this fear is the real threat. Then fight it off.

3: Find support. Talk about it, diffuse it. You're not alone.

4: Use all the tools at your disposal. This video clip has great tips (like the Pomodoro Technique!), as does this website. Anne Lamott reassures us of the value of shitty first drafts and short assignments to help diffuse the anxiety. There is lots of advice out there about beating procrastination, find what works for you. Until it doesn't. Then find something else.

5: Remind yourself why you started in the first place. I've mentioned this one before. 

6: Take baby steps. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, right? It doesn't have to be all-or-none (my novel or no writing). Sometimes I just transfer my notes from post-its to Scrivener, or I try some Julia Cameron style journaling, or I'll write a wee blog post. I just joined Weekend Writing Warriors, it's only eight sentences per week! And if you have to work on your WIP, focus on a single scene, dialogue, or description in the story (I tend to see my WIP as a whole, which can be pretty overwhelming). The idea is to build a practice, create a habit, make writing familiar and routine. Hopefully, it will become less intimidating and then, your amygdala won't trigger the fear reflex.

7: Be kind and compassionate to yourself. Treat yourself the way you'd treat a friend facing his or her own fears.

I don't know if my life purpose is to be a writer.

I do know this:
I have to finish my book.
I have to finish my book.
I have to finish my book.

Because, maybe then I will know. I'll write THE END and close the file and take a deep breath. And I'll let it go.

OR -

I'll write THE END and close the file and take a deep breath, and I'll let it go. Then, one day, something strong and deep down in the dark, like wire cable, will unfurl between my hipbones and rise up through my belly and compel me to write that second book.

Maybe. We'll have to see.  :)

PS: Here's a little ditty my Dad used to play for me (always makes me smile! Thanks Dad):

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...