It’s 10:33 p.m. You should have finished your work for the day three hours ago (ah, the freelancing while also jugging a full-time job because ADULTING life). But instead of finishing your work early and spending the rest of the evening looking up hilarious GIFs about writing, you spent an hour looking up hilarious GIFS about writing instead of finishing your work first.
You silly, silly human.
This, in case you didn’t already know (or didn’t want to admit just how well you know … you know, from personal experience), is called procrastination. And it’s a pretty awful thing when we’re not doing it intentionally.
Procrastination, however, is not the same thing as prioritizing. If it’s 10:33 p.m. and you still have one more blog post to finish, but it’s because you have been spending the past few hours working on editing something for a client who asked oh so very nicely for a quick turnaround, you did not procrastinate on the blog post. Before, the blog post simply was not your main priority.
Knowing the difference between setting priorities and unintentionally procrastinating can completely change your writing game. Let’s start with the main ways these two things differ.
Prioritizing is the method of grouping a list of tasks in a specific order so that the most important tasks appear at the top and the least important appear at the bottom. What is most important to note here is that a list of priorities does not mean the tasks at the bottom don’t matter. Many times, the things at the bottom of your list are of equal importance as the things at the top, they just might have later deadlines or will require less mental or physical energy to complete.
(For example, writing in my journal is often at the bottom of my list of priorities for the day because I could do it half asleep. It’s important, but it can wait until the end of the day.)
Procrastinating is not the same as prioritizing various tasks. When you prioritize, you deliberately order your responsibilities and complete the most important ones first, leaving the less important ones for later, often not completing the tasks at the bottom of your list in one sitting.
When you’re putting off an important task by doing something else — whether it’s something less important or something that isn’t important at all, such as looking at Gwendoline Christie’s acting credits on IMDb for no good reason other than you don’t want to answer emails (what? This is just an example, I have no idea what this is like, you don’t know me).
Prioritizing implies that you are not doing a task because it is currently less important than something else.
Procrastination involves not doing a task because you are avoiding it with a deep fiery passion. Usually, you aren’t doing anything productive in place of the thing you are actually supposed to be doing, but there is this thing we could call productive procrastination, which is still not recommended under most circumstances but does still happen quite often.
Now that you know the difference, it’s time to go over a few ways you can better handle and organize each.
How to set priorities as a writer
How many tasks you have writing-wise is specifically going to depend on what kind of writing you do. I, for example, freelance for multiple websites but also write fiction for myself in my spare time. My freelancing assignments should always take priority over my fiction writing, even on days I would much rather just work on my book, because other people are depending on me to submit work. If I don’t touch my novel for a week, no one is going to get mad at me.
Here are a few things you can do to organize your tasks.
Make a list of everything you want/have to write, then highlight 3 things. Some days you’ll go to write it all down and realize you only have two things to work on and only one of them needs your attention this week. And you will feel totally relieved and you might actually start looking forward to working on that one important thing instead of dreading having to choose between multiple things.
Other days — me, today, for example — you will write down 11 articles that are currently in progress in your head and it will take all the strength you have not to throw your task manager (phone) across the room, curl up into a ball, and cry.
We often overwhelm ourselves with too many tasks and don’t even realize we are doing it. Yet we usually feel like we will forget about important tasks if we don’t write them down, especially if we prefer to have both a digital calendar and a separate planner that allows us to list things out all in one place.
If you have 11 things you want to write, pick 3 to work on today and start with the one that needs attention right now. Ask yourself: Is someone waiting on me to submit this? Are there going to be real world consequences if I don’t? Or have I written it down because I’m excited to sit down and work on it at some point but it’s not an absolute priority right now?
Usually you will realize that only a few things need your attention today. That’s much easier to manage.
Give everything a deadline. Even things that don’t “technically” have a due date. And if it’s a big project like a book, set small goals (such as one thousand words per day — not that you have to write every day to be successful, that’s just an easy and straightforward example to give).
Be honest: You will never be able to focus on what is “most important” if everything on your list lacks a time-sensitive stamp. Sometimes you will meet your deadlines and feel great as a result. Sometimes you won’t meet them, and that probably won’t feel very good.
But when you are learning how to set and maintain your priorities, you have to accept that it is completely normal and acceptable to make mistakes and do things wrong or not do them well. There is always a reason you didn’t meet a deadline you set for yourself. It’s better to miss it when there are no real consequences and figure out what’s holding you back.
How to handle procrastination
Can you ever “beat” procrastination? I’m going to give you an answer based solely on my own experience as an editor and content creator on the webs: No. No, you can’t.
But that does not mean procrastination has to completely destroy your life.
I’m not going to go into detail about how procrastination could be a potential advantage — at least not right now. All I will touch on in this post (it is very late and I have about 400 things due, what’s procrastination? I have no idea obviously).
What you need to know right now is that it is possible to tell the difference between things you will procrastinate ON and things you will procrastinate WITH. And knowing these differences can help you to avoid procrastination and help you target “danger zones” you can then turn into priorities.
Example: I will often put off sending pitch emails and work on my book instead.
In this case, my book is the thing I tend to procrastinate WITH, and pitch emails are the things I tend to procrastinate ON.
So how to I “fix” this problem? Maybe I don’t. Maybe the issue is that I have ordered my priorities wrong. These pitch emails are important. But guess what? They can wait until I’ve written a thousand words of my novel. I’m not hurting anyone writing the book first. It stops feeling like procrastination, and I relax. And most important of all, I get both things done and go to bed happy.
Or, I could put sending pitch emails as the VERY first thing on my task list and make it so I get them done before everything else. Because I tend to procrastinate on doing them and put them off until the end of the day, forcing myself to get them out of the way has the potential to completely eliminate this problem.
Of course, we don’t live in a bubble and things happen. But use this example to think about the things you tend to put off and how you can make sure they get done, especially on days you really don’t want to do them.
Having tasks is hard. Writing is hard. Being a writer is hard.
We may have chosen this life, but that certainly does not make it any easier.
Sometimes you put off a blog post until the last minute because other things were much more important and needed to get done first. Other times you spent a significant amount of time looking at GIFs and this is your own fault but maybe if you don’t mention it to anyone, no one will ever know the difference.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.