As a coach working in Higher Education, I’m conscious that academics, students and staff can obsess about their supposed lack of writing ability. A strange thing for highly educated, articulate, skilled professionals to obsess about? Not as strange as it seems. Welcome to the world of ‘Impostor Syndrome’ and chronic procrastination…
I recently attended a presentation-cum-workshop called ‘Turbocharge Your Writing’. Given by Hugh Kearns, it was thought-provoking – not only for the insight it gave into what causes procrastination amongst writers, but also for how it brought together what seemed to be hundreds of eager researchers and academics keen to rid themselves of one of the cruellest banes of their lives.
Hugh Kearns is a world-renowned researcher on Impostor Syndrome and procrastination based in Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. His affable softy-spoken self-deprecating manner engages his audience and gains their trust. It’s not easy to admit to ‘weaknesses’ in the competitive world of academia, and to deal with Hugh’s subjects, each participant needs to face up to fears he or she might rather forget.
The strength of the presentation for me was not the ‘science’ behind it, though science there was. As a coach, I’m interested in practical tools that can be applied today by the man or woman in the street. And these were there aplenty. For whilst procrastination over writing may be highly relevant in HE, it’s also critical in other kinds of organisations round the world, where clerical and executive staff alike must write high-quality documentation to keep information flowing.
My aim here, then, is not to give an exhaustive account of the presentation. It’s to pass on brief descriptions of basic activities which can be implemented immediately to help anyone overcome problems of task avoidance – in relation to writing in this specific case. But first…
What is procrastination?
Put simply, procrastination is to do anything and everything to avoid undertaking a task that you know you need to do. Some forms of procrastination are really obvious – going out shopping, chatting with friends, spending time watching films or eating. All those things that are obviously not going to get us nearer to our professional objectives very soon.
But some forms of procrastination seem ‘legitimate’. They do take us towards our professional objectives. Who could object to having an orderly desk or filing cabinet? Emailing colleagues to keep them informed? Keeping professional social media presence and profiles updated? No-one. But when you know deep down that at this very moment you ought to be getting on with writing that report or article or essay, even these ‘legitimate’ forms of procrastination are out of bounds.
What can we do?
According to Hugh, there are several courses of action. Some deal with our psychology. Myths about writing can be challenged – which make us think writing ought to be easy when it isn’t, or that we can only write when ‘inspiration’ strikes. We can also look into our inner limiting beliefs – that we’re impostors waiting to be found out, complete idiots next to whom everyone else shines. These limiting beliefs chip away at our confidence.
Other courses of action are very practical. Here are three to try.
Two Golden Hours Decide to set aside a chunk of time specifically for writing – an hour, two hours, whatever your circumstances allow. Set aside this amount of time regularly, perhaps two or three times a week, and schedule it in your diary as if your life depends on it. Be specific on when and where it will be. And when you settle down for this writing time, tie yourself to the chair, nail your shoes to the ground – anything that means you won’t get up during the period WHATEVER HAPPENS. Not for coffee, not for a chat, not for anything… You will sit and write uninterrupted (except for the odd stretch) for the block of time you’ve allocated. And bear in mind writing isn’t spell checking, looking for references, editing what you just wrote… It’s, well, writing…
TNT or ‘The Next Thing’ Once you’re rooted to your chair for your Two Golden Hours, you’ll probably sit and say to yourself, “I don’t know what to write! What am I doing here? I’m rubbish!” etc etc. What you write is – The Next Thing. Not perfectly. Not even in good English (or whatever language you’re using). You don’t write the whole report/book/article at once. You just write what you need to write next. The next small chunk. A micro chunk, shall we say. THE NEXT THING. And then the next. And the next…
Draft 0 We’ve all heard of the first draft of a piece of writing. There can be lots of drafts. But what is Draft 0? Well, many of us might feel too useless to write even a first draft. We can’t put a sentence together. Our brain went on holiday. So forget it. No first draft. Instead, get a piece of paper and write Draft 0 – it may just be scattered thoughts randomly written anywhere, a mind map, a list of reflections, pictures of things you might like to say. Anything at all. But it will be a start, and that’s the key to writing. Making a start. Once you’ve made a start you have something to work on.
These steps may seem simple. That’s what they’re supposed to be. Take one small step after another very regularly, and that piece of writing will soon be done. It’s the same principle with any task.
So thanks, Hugh! In your time you’ve probably done hundreds if not thousands of witless writers a favour! Take a bow…
If you’d like to know more about Hugh Kearns’ work and writing, take a look at the website of his company – ThinkWell based in Australia.