An Intro to Procrastination, Neuroscience and Writer’s Block
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.
We will be discussing writer’s block, procrastination and the science behind them…later on…
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 Yuvi Zalkow‘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.
Image: creative commons pixelperfectdigital.com 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!)