I’ve been having trouble getting up in the morning. The waking up part is easy enough but the getting out of bed part is giving me trouble. So I use the magic words: “That thing won’t write itself, you know.” Works like a charm. And I’ve got lots of magic words.
A lot of writers struggle with completing their work because of imperfect time management, so to speak. There are too many distractions, too many other things to think about since most of us, those who don’t write full-time, have other jobs and work takes up quite a lot of time and mental capacity. But let me tell you straight away, having a full-time day or night job is no excuse. If you are going to do it, find the time to do it. If that’s too hard, why torture yourself?
I know procrastination is trendy among those of us who share the dream of being read by millions of people. It’s almost a rule — if you write, then you must procrastinate. If you don’t procrastinate you’re not a real writer.
Jerome Jerome has a hilarious story on procrastination. Me, I have tonnes of personal experience in that area and I can safely — and with an extraordinary degree of certainty — say that procrastination is bad for you. I’ve crammed three days worth of work into a single one. I’ve set writing records after which my wrists hurt, all because of procrastination. Some might argue it’s worth it but I’ve had plenty of chances to realise that, more often than not, it’s not worth it. Discipline works better for me.
I guess we all have different definitions of discipline. Here’s mine: discipline is learning to do what you have to do without straining yourself too much. I’m neither a perfectionist (thank gods) nor too ambitious. I try to do my best but not to outdo myself. So far it’s served me well. I have no history of burnouts. Almost.
The key to successful discipline is not to set yourself too lofty a goal. This automatically increases your chances of achieving this goal. Also, don’t overdo it on the number of goals. I really want to finish the first draft of my disease book by the end of March, and do the cover letter and synopsis for Second Skin and start submitting to publishers by the same date but I honestly doubt it’s possible. This draft is going slowly. I’ve got too much on my mind.
Now, one might say that discipline is forcing yourself — on fear of grave punishment — to do something even if you’ve got too much on your mind and that one would be right. But let’s be reasonable: this works much better for grocery shopping than writing a novel.
If you don’t do the shopping, you face the grave punishment of death by starvation or possibly an argument/tense silence from your significant other, your family or your pet. You decide which is worse. But if you don’t write the novel, nothing will happen except you won’t have written a novel. This is where narcissism should kick in. How dare you deprive the world of your story?
That’s one way of disciplining yourself, by poking your ego in the eye and letting it do its thing, which is pumping you with the motivation to get out of bed even if you don’t feel like it and make damn time for that damn book. This book can make you great!
Another way, which works well for me, is basic self-flagellation along the lines of “You started it. What’s the point if you don’t finish it? You can sleep on Saturday or when you’re dead but if you don’t want to be a complete loser get up right now and start writing. Good girl. No, I don’t care if you have no idea how to go on from where you last got stuck. Not my problem. See ya.”
I’m sure there are alternatives to these two fundamental approaches and those alternatives might actually involve some form of distinct punishment. Self-contempt is usually enough of a punishment for me but maybe going to bed without dessert would work better for you, I don’t know. Find something that works and use it. Discipline matters.
So do magic words. “This thing won’t write itself” are by far my favourite. There is no argument I could present that could refute the absolute truth in the above statement and this saves time. Here are some more magic words:
“You don’t get memories from sleep. Sleep is a waste of time. Get up and do what you have to do.” This is actually untrue. I have hundreds of memories from sleep. They’re called dreams and I’m quite attached to some of mine. Still, you can’t write while you sleep so there. Get up and start working.
“The sooner you do it, the sooner you can go watch QI.” I admit this tends to only work in freelance contexts but it might also work in other contexts, such as when you eat into your reading/jogging/drinking time to write. The sooner you’re done the sooner you can reward yourself. Isn’t this a nice thought? No mention of a punishment at all.
“If you don’t do it you’ll hate yourself. And you’ll deserve it.” I don’t waste time pulling punches. I’m perfectly blunt with myself. If not me, who else would tell me the many ugly truths about life to my face?
“No, you can’t finish The Sword of Destiny until you finish that outline. Finish it and you can read your book.” The carrot part of the classic stick-and-carrot approach. It’s not called classic for nothing. Actually, it may be called classic because it’s ancient but it does work. The stick part? “Don’t finish your outline, feel miserable because you’ll never have even a hundredth of Andrzej Sapkowski’s popularity. Because you never wrote the book.” How’s that for a stick?
It’s clearly obvious that my life is a lot of fun that I make for myself to keep myself both busy and entertained, but above all, motivated. Someone somewhere* said shame works a lot better than fear when you want to instill discipline in people. Make them ashamed, not scared. They’ll never do what they’re not supposed to do again.
I hear shaming is a thing these days and it’s supposed to be a bad thing. Not if you do it to yourself, it’s not. Not if it spurs you into action you wouldn’t otherwise undertake because you’re too otherwise occupied/lazy/insecure/actively seeking another excuse. Shame yourself into doing what you have to do and then relax and enjoy your deserved rest and/or recognition. Or else.
*Las, a secondary character in the Watch series by Sergey Lukyanenko. He was citing scientific research that may well be real.