What to Do When Anxiety-Induced Procrastination Tries to Keep You from Writing
Anxiety has many tricks, but here are some tools to help.
Your anxiety will throw many obstacles into your path when you try to embark on something that is outside your comfort zone. For many of us, that something is writing and publishing.
Procrastination can take many forms. Perhaps you get writer's block and think you can’t write anything. Even though you have a large list of ideas in your draft folder. Perhaps you suddenly get the urge to clean your entire house. Even if you just cleaned it yesterday. Maybe your cat needs to be played with. Even if he’s sleeping. Hell, why aren’t you up on the roof re-tiling it?? It has been ages. How can you be sitting at your computer typing when there are so many other things that need your attention??
Anxiety will try to convince you that many things need your attention more than the words coming out of your brain through your fingers. Here are four ways that anxiety tries to undermine you and get you to procrastinate.
Low Tolerance for Discomfort
Anxiety is painful. Sometimes emotionally, sometimes physically, sometimes both. Physically, I can get some monster tension headaches. Sore neck muscles are not unusual either. Emotionally, there is the constant presence of fear. The lack of safety. The intense feelings of overwhelm.
These things are unpleasant, but eventually, you will just have to learn to tolerate them. If you are able, take painkillers for physical discomfort. Emotional discomfort won’t go away with a pill. For me, it often does not go away at all. I have just learned to tolerate the unpleasant feelings. I sit down to write and I know to expect a feeling of overwhelm. No matter how many pieces I’ve written, I still feel like I am never going to be able to get the piece I’m working on to come together. Yet it always does eventually. When I go to hit publish, I know I’m going to have to battle fear. Fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of success. They will all line up to take their shots at me.
I don’t know of any tricks to make these uncomfortable feelings go away. All I can tell you is that they feel less intense with practice. I nearly had a panic attack the first time I hit publish. Now, after dozens of stories, I’m still scared, but no longer panicked. I know to expect the fear and know to make allowances for it.
Writing is hard on the self-esteem. If you go into it with already low self-esteem, as many people with anxiety do, it is even more difficult. Learn to expect and manage rejection. I have not submitted my own work to other’s publications yet. I have allowed publications to use the pieces of mine that they have requested, but I have not solicited placement myself, so I haven’t experienced that rejection. Yet. Still, the things I write are regularly rejected by readers. I will write something I think is good and hit publish and then — crickets. No curations, minimal readers, no engagement.
While it is never fun to write something that does not connect with the audience, it is helping me learn to tolerate rejection. At first, having a story ignored was devastating. I’d question my intelligence. I’d question my voice. I’d question my worth as a human being.
I sucked it up and kept hitting publish. I’ve been ignored so many times now that in addition to my usual self-damaging questions I also ask if the story was tight enough. If the headline was good. If there was an interesting hook at the beginning.
You can start adding to your self-damaging questions. You won’t be able to get your anxiety to stop beating up on you overnight. Indeed, it may never stop. So instead of trying to force it to stop, try adding to what it wants to ask. Ask yourself constructive questions in addition to the destructive questions. Over time, the constructive questions will grow in volume and the destructive ones will decrease in volume.
All-or-nothing thinking is the bane of my existence. My perfectionism was the hardest thing for me to overcome when trying to publish.
Do you check everything in your story dozens of times? Obsess over sentence length, structure, and grammar? Decide to sleep on it “one more day” to make sure that you have checked and double-checked for all possible errors?
Yeah, your anxiety is using perfectionism as an excuse to procrastinate. The first step is to be aware of where your line is. Of course, we don’t want to put out sloppy work. We need to check for errors. We need to make sure we are grammatically correct and that our writing is tight and easy to read.
But we cannot obsess over these things. Use Grammarly or the Hemmingway app or any of a dozen other tools to locate mistakes. Let them check your work for you and then let it go.
Accept that sometimes an error will slip through the cracks. When you have enough readers, someone will point it out to you. Probably several someones. Some people get a thrill out of critiquing those of us who actually have the courage to create and put ourselves out there. You will not die from an error. They will not kick you off Medium. People are not going to visit your social media pages just to point and laugh.
There are two tools that I have used to get past anxiety-induced procrastination.
Goal — Plan
Have a goal and make a plan to reach it. It should be a mid-range goal. Don’t start out with some giant goal that is seemingly impossible from where you currently are. Or so big it will burn you out. Things like decided you will have an NYT best selling novel in six months when you’ve never written anything longer than 1000 words. Or saying you will publish three stories a day on Medium when normally you can’t get out three a week. Don’t set yourself up for failure or burn out.
Don’t set yourself up for shame either. Don’t pick something stupidly easy. Don’t commit to only one story a month unless that amount would be a challenge for you. You want something attainable, but not without effort. Nobody is going to feel good about themselves for accomplishing something that took no real work. You want to push yourself enough that you can be proud, but not so much that it is likely you’d fail.
I set my goal at one story published per day because it takes real effort and work for me to do that. I have to push myself to come up with ideas and to get my butt in the chair and type.
But I also know I can come up with that many ideas a week and I can set aside enough time each day to accomplish it as long as I make it a priority. You have to set your goal at a level that works for you.
You have to set an actionable plan. Don’t just say you will write a specific number of times per week. Set aside time to accomplish that. Put your commitment on your calendar or in your planner. Set reminders for yourself.
Without a plan, a goal is just an idea. An idea is weak enough that my anxiety can overcome it. Usually with procrastination. But if I have time marked out on my calendar, I will do what I have planned. Which brings me to my next tool.
Habit — Reward
Once I’ve done something often enough it becomes a habit. Making something a habit can help overcome anxiety-produced procrastination. When something is a habit, you have intrinsic motivation to do it. Once I’ve established a habit, I feel a need to do it at the appointed time. I have negative feelings if I do not. The desire to avoid those negative feelings are usually enough to get me moving on the habitual activity. I’ve been writing every day long enough now that it is a habit. My anxiety tried to talk me into taking today off. It gave me a seemingly valid list of reasons why I deserved a day off. My habit has overcome them and here I sit. Writing.
Until something becomes a habit, you may need some form of extrinsic motivation to drive yourself to get working. Most people use some form of reward. This is highly personal and only you can decide what form your reward will take. Some people use food treats — maybe candy or something small like that. Others use activity treats — like earning an episode of their favorite show. Find some small thing that you can tie into your activity. You only get a piece of your favorite candy or some streaming time if you complete your habit for the day (or week if your reward is larger). Soon your goal will be tied to the positive feelings you already associate with your favorite things and that will make it easier for you to do it. It will also help establish the intrinsic motivation that will make it a habit.
With planning and work, you can overcome anxiety-induced procrastination and be more productive.