Tag Archives: procrastination

Making time for writing


Finding time to write is always a struggle.  The question of time is the No. 1 issue that comes up in workshops and classes:  “I just don’t have time to write!”  I’m sympathetic because I don’t have time either.  Yesterday, I had email notifications popping up so quickly and what should have been the occasional ‘ping’ sounded like a continuous (ear-jarring) symphony. I’m teaching, collecting data, writing a major grant proposal, supervising many masters and doctoral students, chairing comittees… Just listing all this makes me feel exhausted.  But alongside the busyness, I have a growing frustration about not being able to engage with writing as much as I would like to.  So finding time to write is a ongoing struggle. I’m sure you can relate to this litany of woes.  So what to do?

I mentioned in my book Productive Writing that in research we conducted with research-writing workshop participants, three groups of writers emerged.  The first group were those people who identified as writers. These were faculty and graduate students who saw themselves as writers. They kept regular journals, wrote poetry, research articles, blogs, published on teaching, and generally wrote about anything.  These writers would prioritize writing because they saw the world through writing.  The second group were scholar-writers. These were writers who only wrote to publish and communicate their research.  For these writers, research was the focus and writing the mechanism.  This group also prioritised writing since it was a way to access further grants and to be part of the scholarly conversation in their areas.  For both these groups, they used the tools provided in the workshops to springboard them out of whatever stuck place they found themselves in.

The third group we called the ‘I have no time‘ writers.  These writers wanted to write but could not and lack of time became the reason.  I was fascinated by this group (having been there myself at one point) and have my own theories about procrastination and writing in academic contexts. If you identify with this group, you can read my views and possible strategies here and here.  Here’s a video as well.

Of course, these identities are not fixed – people change – and there may well be other identities but I think it’s useful to think of your writing identity, then to think about time and what you value in the time that you have. The point is not to beat yourself up about it (“I’m the worst person on earth because I can’t find time to write”) but to think about where you can make time to write if it really is important to you. And if you can’t, perhaps other things are more important at this point in your life, and that’s ok.

If you do want to make time to write, listen to the podcast below.  I found it helpful and encouraging – she has sensible, do-able and kind ideas (no bootcamps here!):

Mary Allen — Harnessing Time: The Key to Writing podcast

Writing, rejection and ‘procrastination’



Writing is an emotional activity.  We like to pretend, in academic contexts, that when we write formally, we also write with some objective distance.  Yet anyone who has received a rejection letter from a journal or feedback from a thesis supervisor will know how painful it can be.  Our reactions are not objective at all.  Things tend to get a bit mixed up in academic writing.  Our self-esteem, notions of intelligence, standing in the community, pride, and confidence all become intermingled in our writing.  So if our writing gets critiqued, so do all these other aspects of our selves – at least in our minds.  Rejection of our writing becomes equated with rejection of who we are, evidence of our lack of intelligence now exposed for the world to see, and proof that we are not really academic enough to belong in this world.  As you are reading this, you are aware of how ludicrous this all is but in the moment when you receive a rejection of your writing, all these thoughts pass through your head.


You only need to receive one set of negative feedback on your writing to experience painful emotions.  In a lifetime of writing at school and then university, we experience many, many negative emotions around writing.  It is not surprising, then, that your body, your entire being, will want to get up from your writing desk and find something comfortable to do rather than write.  Getting a doughnut (instead of writing) will make you feel satisfied and content.  Cleaning the floor/walls/etc (instead of writing) will make you feel in control, virtuous and worthy.


If the writing is high stakes – something we feel strongly about or if we write for an important audience – the more we anticipate the adverse response and negative emotions we feel we are likely to experience.  In these cases, it becomes much harder to get the writing done and much easier to find something else to do.


Sometimes we experience positive emotions when we receive a good review or our thesis supervisor is happy with our work.  But often we rationalise these positive emotions as ‘once off’ or ‘lucky’ and we put it down to the exception rather than the rule.  The more positive experiences we have, the more we are likely to persevere when we experience rejection.  That’s why more experienced academic writers get to a point where they don’t mind journal reviewers’ comments because they can see the value in them and feel the ultimate satisfaction when the paper is finally published.


The reason why I’m harping on about negative emotions and writing is because many people stop writing and move into non-writing careers after experiencing a painful rejection.  Others try to persevere but suffer from ‘procrastination’ or writer’s block.  Still others leave the rejected paper/chapter, no matter how important it is, and don’t re-write or resubmit.  They move onto safer topics.  This is the real danger of negative emotions from writing – that it shifts us away from what we want to write about in the way we want to write about it.


What can you do?  Write about your experiences of receiving a rejection.  Share your experiences with others.  There’s nothing like hearing someone else’s story to put yours into perspective especially if there is humour involved.  Think about critical incidences in your writing career. Have there been moments/incidents that caused you to shift from your original path? Draw (scribble) your emotions when it comes to writing.  Write ‘I feel…’ paragraphs about aspects of writing such as getting negative feedback.  The more you recognise what you are experiencing, the more you will be able to deal the urge to get up and do something else.



Writing, goals and ‘procrastination’


I have to state from the outset that I’m not a fan of goal setting.  Academic environments tend to be filled with people who are overachievers, perfectionists and, in my case, just plain obsessive. Goal-setting in this context often feeds into the craziness.  For myself, I have no problem setting goals.  In fact, my list is likely to reach a hundred.  What is more difficult is setting goals that I can achieve within the limits of my schedule, my family life and my energy levels.  So it is with caution that I am going to advocate that you set goals in relation to what you want to achieve in your writing.


The first step is to set ‘realistic’ goals.  That means what you can achieve in a certain amount of time.  What writing goals would you like to achieve over this semester?  What goals will be possible to achieve within the constraints that surround you?  You can’t work between 12pm and 4am – so cross off the last three goals.  Maybe just focus on one paper.  Once you have that goal then break it down into steps or sections of the paper.  If the whole task is still overwhelming, then you might need smaller steps.  When it becomes do-able, in your mind, the steps are small enough.  So one person might break the paper into sections (Introduction, methodology, literature review) while another might break the introduction into paragraphs.  Finally, you need to attach a schedule to your steps and a deadline to your goal. 

Here is where goal-setting becomes really useful.  Once you have set up a writing schedule that suits your personality and context (eg every second morning for two hours) and you know what you intend to do in that time (eg Week 1: draft three sections of the introduction), it is so much easier to see if you are avoiding writing.  Procrastination is the need to put off doing something you have scheduled to do.  If you don’t have a schedule, it is very difficult to become aware of avoidance tactics.  However, once you are aware that you are avoiding writing, then it is possible to address the problem.

How do we avoid writing?  If I have set aside two hours to write but I spent that time checking emails, or I arrange to meet a student, go to a meeting, or to sort my files, get coffee, etc, etc – that’s avoidance.  “But”, I can hear you say, “I had to meet that student!”  This is why you need goals and a schedule.  If you miss your writing time once, that’s fine but if you miss it regularly then you are avoiding writing.

So, what’s happening when you avoid writing?  For academics, the problem is often a cognitive one.  By that I mean, there is some conceptual obstacle or difficulty.  It’s hard to write the three sections of the Introduction if you don’t know where the paper is going.  Sometimes we avoid writing because we don’t have a clear argument, or the literature is complex and difficult to synthesise or we’re trying to link difficult concepts and can’t build the bridge.  If you are aware that you are avoiding your writing then you can ask yourself questions:  Why can’t I write this? What is making it difficult?  Why can’t I begin?

Another reason why we avoid writing is the emotional baggage we carry.  If your internal critic tells you how stupid you are every time you write a word, of course you are going to find something else to do.  If the audience you are writing to makes you shake in your boots, no wonder you prefer to sit in a meeting instead of writing. 

Without being aware of avoidance behaviours, it is very difficult to address them.  Once you know you are avoiding your writing, then it is easy to find some way to address that problem.

I have many strategies and activities in my book Productive Writing, if you are interested and I will be posting more on this in future blogs.  But one activity, which is really successful, comes from Joan Bolker (author of Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day).  She suggests that you turn up to your desk at your scheduled writing time even if you have the urge to avoid it.  You sit at your desk and if you can’t write, you do nothing else.  You just sit there for the full 15 minutes.  Don’t get distracted by emails, phone calls, etc.  The idea is that you will find it impossible, frustrating, annoying to sit without doing anything and will eventually begin to work on your paper.  I suggest you use the time to ask yourself why you can’t write – what are you avoiding?