Procrastinating with a Writing Assignment? Ask Madeleine

April 16, 2024 Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Dear Madeleine,

I am a marketing director for a medical devices company. I manage all our social media and speaking engagements, which involves a lot of details and spreadsheets with tasks and tracking results. Part of my job is to conduct interviews with experts and write them up for our website, and to write articles that make the latest research accessible and engaging to our audience of doctors and nurse practioners, as well as the patients who (hopefully) need what we make.

My problem is that I block out time to write, and it always seems to get overridden by crises of the day, emergency team meetings, the limited time of the doctors I need to interview—you name it. Something always seems to get in the way. Am I just making excuses? I have tried blocking time on weekends, which works, but then I feel resentful that I am sacrificing my very limited personal time. I am behind on my writing commitments and can never seem to get caught up. I haven’t been dinged on my performance (yet), but that is only because my manager has also done a lot of writing and is sympathetic.

How does anyone manage a huge job and focus on writing projects? I worry that I have become a professional procrastinator. Any ideas here?

In Procrastinating Hell


Dear In Procrastinating Hell,

Oh, do I ever have some ideas—because I have lived in that hell for a very long time, and so has every writer I know. Anyone whose job involves writing has to make their peace with how they make time for it. Even successful novelists have to spend part of their workdays managing administration, requests for manuscript reviews and quotes, editing finished work, etc.

I wish I had a magic wand for you, but there isn’t one. The only way, which you clearly know, is to block time. The thing you haven’t figured out is how to protect that time as if your life depends on it. I am going to share an idea that you are not going to like. I didn’t like it when I first stumbled over it (in a blog about how hard it is to get writing done as part of a full-time job that involves a million other tasks), and I still don’t.

But I can guarantee that it works.

I call it the early bird method. I deploy it when I have a critical writing deadline that I am not making progress with. Here it is:

Set the alarm for 5 AM. Do not hit snooze. Get your coffee or matcha, be at your desk at 5:15, and write from 5:15 to 6:15 AM. <Groan>

You resent giving up your personal time, which is fair, so if you want to try this, you might be able to make the case with your sympathetic manager to end your workday an hour earlier. The beauty of the early bird method is how unlikely it is that anyone will try to schedule over that time frame.

You might hate that idea so much it is an automatic no for you. You might be such a night owl that it is simply not in the cards. In that case, consider writing from 8 PM to 9 PM four nights a week. Hate that just as much? Your allergic reaction (if you are having one) to both options may provide the grit you need to aggressively guard your writing time on your regular workday calendar. If the word aggressive seems too strong, well, that might be part of the issue. It takes nerves of steel to protect your own time to focus on what is important. It is a sign of taking ownership.

Might I submit that one of the reasons you are susceptible to being pushed off course by the myriad crises du jour is that you are terrified of what I think of as the “tyranny of the blinking cursor.” This makes you normal. Writing is scary. Writing is hard. And writing, like anything else worth mastering, seems to just get harder because the better you get at it, the more you realize how much better you could be. Writing requires 100% of your focus. There is zero possibility of multi-tasking, and every interruption takes a minimum of five precious minutes of recovery.

Let’s talk about procrastination. There is compelling research from Dr. Sirois, a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, that proposes when we procrastinate it isn’t because we are lazy, it is because we seek to avoid negative moods around a task. So, think about it. You feel pressured (because who doesn’t?), worried about job security, nervous about your writing ability and God only knows what else. So what is needed to overcome the tendency to put off what is hard is self-compassion. Take a little walk and admit to yourself all the unpleasant emotions you have connected to writing and talk yourself off the ledge by acknowledging them, reminding yourself that all those emotions are normal, totally okay, and nobody dies trying to get writing assignments done. The upshot is that you must get better at being kind to yourself. Becoming a dependable writer is a bit of a spiritual development program, too! Unexpected bonus! The unpleasant feelings are real. One writer I work with recently admitted that the blank page gets her into such a state she sometimes takes a Xanax when she must start something brand new. I submit that idea might not be sustainable but, in a pinch, hey, I’m not judging. The point is that you must find a way to calm yourself down; intense exercise, meditation, mindfulness, prayer, singing along with Broadway shows at the top of your lungs, putting on Uptown Funk and dancing like a lunatic. Whatever it takes.

Finally, there are some little things you can do to help yourself before you sit down to write:

1. Capture ideas as you go about in meeting mode, all the stuff you do that might accommodate multi-tasking. Keep your notes app open or keep a legal pad at your side and create mind maps for each writing project as you lead up to butt-in-seat writing time. Entire outlines can come to you in the car or in the shower—don’t let those go to waste!

2. Interview yourself out loud while recording yourself on your phone. Pretend you are the interviewer who asks questions like:

  • What is the big idea for the piece?
  • What makes it important?
  • Who needs to know this big idea?
  • How would you explain it to a six-year-old?
  • What is most surprising about this idea?
  • What evidence can you share that supports this big idea?
  • Is there a story you can share that will help others relate to it or apply it?

3. Some writers I have worked with have had some success creating small rituals to get them into writing mode; e.g., cleaning off the desk, getting tea, lighting a candle, counting your breaths. Whatever works to get you settled down and into the zone.

4. Find a dedicated writing spot. I worked with one manager who had an open-door policy and could not bring himself to turn down anyone who needed his help, so he ended up escaping to the back stairwell of his office building when he needed to write. The sheer physical discomfort helped him get the job done in record time! Some people find it much easier to focus when the silence isn’t deafening, when they must use part of their brain to tune out ambient noise. You can find them all at your local Starbucks.

5. Go for a walk. All the research shows that getting outside and walking literally doubles our creativity. It is rare to see such a startlingly clear effect in scientific research. So if all else fails, go out for a walk, take your phone (on DND), and record your genius.

Ultimately, however, there is no getting around the unpleasant fact that you must schedule and defend writing time. If you are succumbing to pressure to relinquish it, it might be due to your own unwillingness to face unpleasant emotions. Tell yourself the truth and forgive yourself. Get up early, work late at night, resort to weekends—if you can’t get it done during the regular workday, it is up to you.

Every single person who writes knows how hard it is. Experiment with some of these ideas, and, most importantly, don’t give up.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

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