An Intro to Procrastination, Neuroscience and Writer’s Block

An Intro to Procrastination, Neuroscience and Writer’s Block

what time is it

I wanted to update this post with new Pomodoro* apps that have come out. I’ve been collecting a list and then Zapier came out with this great list.

[tweetthis]What do tomatoes have to do with your writing word count? Find out here[/tweetthis]

We will be discussing writer’s block, procrastination and the science behind them…later on…

But first…

There is a movement just starting in the writing sphere of the blogosphere; writers are pushing away from the confines of immediate social media constraints to concentrate on, you guessed it, writing. See ‘s  goodbye post at Writer Unboxed and the comments that follow as well as Chuck Sambuchino’s Letter at Guide to Literary Agents.¹(additional links in footnote)

Of late, there are more and more tempting, shiny, objects with immediate gratification and rewards to tempt us away from out long-term goals of finishing our writing projects. Two words: social media. I highlight the comments section of Yuvi’s article because a great deal of writers are feeling bogged down both by the pressures and temptations of the immediate rewards of various social communities. I am not espousing a complete disconnect from society, “IRL” or over the internet. But in my travels around writing circles, this is a repeated refrain.

We need to understand the immediate vs. long-term goals we have as writers and how we reward ourselves. This is something that will, in the long run, help us finish our projects.

What I would like to underline here is that breaking tasks down into bits rather than one large project on a to-do list is much more effective than trying to start on a large, looming project ie: “finish my book”.

A psychological theory called temporal discounting lies at the root of our procrastination.Basically, we are breaking down multiple tasks into smaller ones and then turning to something else that we enjoy as a reward. As we are all creatives here, it is most likely that the right brain willl be used in the reward and the left brain in the tasks; using the basic understanding of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. and pairing up tasks that correlate best with the proclivities of each hemisphere. Imagery and creativity in the right brain and logic and method in the left brain is a simplified way of looking at it. But the chemicals are what we are wanting to increase so there is less avoidance to sit down and write and more intrinsic reward in the task itself. Dopamine, part of the brain’s chemistry, plays a great role in mood, addiction and reward as well as movement (the latter we will leave for the MDs). If we understand the science of avoidance or, in our cases, writer’s block, we can best find the solutions for overcoming them. Understand temporal dicounting through this great video and continue reading for less sciency stuff! 🙂

So we can focus deeply on our task and not worry about the time, a very clever man in Italy thought of an idea that most all ADHD people, and writers, can appreciate. The Pomodoro Technique was developed in the 1980’s by Francesco Cirillo. His technique takes an impossibly large task, for instance, your writing project, and breaks them down into tasks that are easily accomplished in ten or fifteen minutes. You can use a timer on your phone, but the original timer, which is fabulous, was also created by Mr. Cirillo in the shape of a tomato.  It adds the reward functionality that Behavior Psychologist and founder B.F. Skinner tested in his lab. I will be discussing Skinner’s work latter in relation to your writing but for now, all you need to know is that it works on rewards. Give yourself a reward after doing the first task, turn the timer on again, and burn through another task. By burning through these tasks and rewarding ourselves, we break down our goals into simple, executable tasks. So, your to-do list isn’t monstrous and unworkable, but instead, quite easy. For instance, The Great Writing Challenge of 2016 posits that really, we only need to write just under 300 words to write your book within the year 2016. It’s more complicated than that, of course, but this helps us start out. So, you can take fifteen minutes a day and write less than 300 words and you have done very well indeed. You have started. That’s a task that all writers will appreciate. Interestingly, David Allen’sGet Things Don (GTD) technique also has a similar philosophy.

¹Two more links to add to this trend are here and here. And as of Feb. 8th, I found that Kristen Lamb was doing a very similar series at her blog here.

Image: creative commons in memory of Aaron Swartz

The Pomodoro Technique is a registered trademark of Francesco Cirillo (I love both names and the name of his genius technique!)

This article Intro to Procrastination, Neuroscience and Writer’s Block first appeared on The Point of the Quill.


25 thoughts on “An Intro to Procrastination, Neuroscience and Writer’s Block

  1. Yes, yes, yes – the web has created the “shiney object” syndrome and I often find myself guilty. “Of late, there are more and more tempting, shiny, objects with immediate gratification and rewards to tempt us away from out long-term goals of finishing our writing projects.” As a visual artist I can find myself spending much more time on the web and social media sites than I actually spend creating art. Great video – I have never heard of the Pomodoro Technique and will definitely try it.

    • Hi Jane,

      You are right on the money As a motivator and to learn to enjoy the work as a reward itself as I mentioned, this is a fabulous technique. Please let me know how you do with it.

  2. Great post, Lee! I loved the video too. I’d never heard of Temporal Discounting…very interesting! I’ve heard of the Pomodoro Technique before, but haven’t really tried it. Maybe I’ll give it a whirl. 🙂

    • Isn’t it all fascinating? I just commented to Kim and I’ll refer you to that geek-out…;) The ‘present bias’ is very tempting to us. Ie: our perceived rewards now vs. down the road. What author is going to want to be remembered for having the most social media klout score over published and lauded books? Well, we are all human. And a book, if done right, isn’t an easy process. And that goes for anything we do. Whatever big task you, Kaylee, want to see accomplished is wonderful and huge and down the line. But compared to what would make you happy right now? It doesn’t compare in value but it does in how we value it. And we all have the tendency. I have to step back and remind myself of all of this all of the time. That’s why breaking the tasks down into measurable sizes helps. I call it training our brains how to trick our brains. Again very meta, but fascinating. Ok, feel a geek out coming on. 😉 Thanks for stopping by!!

  3. Love this! I’m one heck of a procrastinator, so I can make use of this for sure!

    I’ve been using this pomodoro technique in a way for the last few weeks. My productivity has increased, but I’ve also found that my enjoyment has drastically increase as well. I make sure that my fun time is fun time, and work time is work time. Frees my mind up to focus exactly on what I’m doing.. and ironically has decreased my desire to procrastinate too.

    • Kim, It’s so great to see you here! I was so excited to use Prezi and saw you used it on your site and it looks great!! Good job. I find it fascinating how we- human beings/ the primate with the biggest prefrontal cortex-have to trick ourselves into what we really want. It’s very meta and shows which part of the brain is actually in control (the atavistic/reptilian parts of our brain ;). Thus the great success with the Pomodoro Technique. I am so glad you have found it helpful and actually quite successful in your case. Can you tell me what sort of tools you use? Stop watch, cell phone? I would love one of those red apples they have! Yep, it’s all in the rewards, isn’t it 😉 Thanks so much for stopping by!

      • I know! It’s really amazing what our brains do… and sometimes don’t want to do!

        It depends on what I’m doing, and where I’m at, but generally I use a desktop app for keeping time.I recently started using FocusBooster, and like it so far. But what I really want to find, is one that I can preprogram with set times that will change automatically. I’m not sure I”m explaining that well. I know I can just set multiple timers, but that’s a hassle. And some days I wouldn’t want to use them… So, something I can turn on when I start the day, and turn off when I’m done completely. Hmm.

        • There are a bunch of different timers if you use Chrome as extensions Look under productivity and then type in Pomodoro and you will see apps ‘like this one’. They have a number of different abilities Maybe you’ll be able to find one that fits your needs. Let me know!

  4. Thanks Lee, this is fascinating stuff. My own approach to getting stuff done is rooted in my meditation practice, which led me to notice that there are certain sensations in my body that come up right before I’m about to put off the project I’m working on, and to practice allowing those sensations to be there rather than trying to force them away.

    • Thanks Chris. There are studies which back your approach. (Started to write them out but too much in comments). And knowing what/how much you produce is evidence enough for me. Thanks for stopping by. (Sent that video to Darren yet? He’d really get a kick out of it. Let me know.

  5. Loved the video. I watched it twice. (Hey, wait – maybe that second time was procrastinating?) I previously hadn’t heard of the Pomodoro method, but a lot of the other information was familiar…like Temporal Discounting. Thanks for this!

    • Gary,
      So nice of you to stop by. It’s a great method not fully explained in this video (this was just an overview for the series). Once you understand that the method, if followed correctly (see links above) actually has an affect on the brain chemistry (with full caveats on the limits of science/applied to individuals/brain’s environment, etc.) it is an absolutely stunning understanding of how action affects thought. (Though I am not of any school of thought when it comes to the theory, always more into the applied science.) I’m a geek, aren’t I. I just realized just how much of a geek I am…;)!

  6. Fantastic video – it makes interesting the basic science behind procrastination! I think it overstates the importance of hyperbolic discounting, but otherwise, I’m (obviously) a big fan of the techniques mentioned at the end of the video 🙂

    To elaborate, a thought experiment – a term paper takes 15 hours to research and write. The research is aversive, the writing pleasurable. The cumulative hedonic experience so far – completely neutral. When the student receives their A, they experience some happiness. When the student receives their semester grade, also some happiness, but the contribution of those 15 hours to that happiness much smaller. Likewise with their semester GPA, degree GPA, job offers, etc… We should also add in the negative experiences averted (‘oh man, I feel so bad about getting that C’).

    On the other hand, that student could have spent those 15 hours having fun. Let’s say…. 7 hours hanging out with friends, 5 hours watching youtube videos, and 3 hours sleeping. I’m not convinced that the total cumulative hedonic value of working for 15 hours was greater than having fun for 15 hours. I think the video’s closing remark that procrastination is often a symptom and not a cause is more true and more important than implied.

    Alright, enough procrastinating. Back to writing!

  7. Great video link! I’m a big fan of the Pomodoro method … it’s made a big difference in the amount of work I complete.

    That’s an interesting thought about giving incremental rewards to keep you focused on long-term goals. I can see where I’ve been using it haphazardly, but now will make that a deliberate method and will also be more aware of why/how the little, immediate distractions can be so compelling. Thanks for the post and the video!

    • (Ok folks. I can finally say it thanks to Patti.) You know, Patti, they have an app for that…(You just made my day.) If people want more information about the method (beyond the video) they can fine it at and Patti, my dearest one, if you run Chrome, you can find the app in the Chrome web-store ( for free. It has four stars and nearly 13,000 users. Much better than my egg-timer that kills my ears. Patti, do you use a cell for tracking on the go? This app is a wonderful way to ‘start the clock’ every time you get on twitter or facebook, also using it as you gain your momentum in writing and rewards. It is highly effective. Thanks ever so much for the comment, Patti 😉

  8. I have been using the method on the video for a while now and find that it works very well. I do my most important task (writing) first thing each morning for a block then allow myself to check email, do the next MIT then check facebook. This method has helped me get into the workflow more. Even when I had writers block I spent the same amount of time writing in my journal each morning. I look forward to learning more, thank you.

    • I am so glad to hear that and your site certainly shows your output. It’s beautiful and thought-provoking. (See http;// It has always amazed me, in a ‘meta’ sort of way, how we must use our minds to reward our minds and increase ‘flow’. Tautological and thus needing high standards of scientific research. (So we don’t fool ourselves 😉 This is just an intro subject. There will be much more coming your way in this particular series as in others I touched on in the last post. Glad you stopped by!

  9. Thanks for visiting my site and leaving a pingback. Very interesting video on procrastination. Seems like I was intuitively doing the “right” things to beat procrastination without getting into the science of it! 🙂

    • Few can say that they intuitively due that. I applaud you immensely. There is a great discussion about procrastination and creativity, as you could imagine. This was just a beginning salvo in a more in-depth look at the why’s and possible alternative methods to get at the roots of procrastination and turning it into more productive habits (ie:; wanting them rather than having to reward ourselves for them). I will be presenting other methods as well as my own. Glad you stopped by and feel free to look around.

Any thoughts on this? What is your opinion?