If you think you’re alone with your writing procrastination habit, think again.
For instance, here’s what happened when Megan McCardle asked a pretty famous colleague how he managed to be so prolific:
“‘Well,’ he said, “first, I put it off for two or three weeks. Then I sit down to write. That’s when I get up and go clean the garage. After that, I go upstairs, and then I come back downstairs and complain to my wife for a couple of hours. Finally, but only after a couple more days have passed and I’m really freaking out about missing my deadline, I ultimately sit down and write.”
Does that sound vaguely familiar? Or is it a painfully familiar description of your own workflow? If so, you’re not alone! That excerpt came from an article with the title “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators.”
But fear not! Where there’s a problem, there’s a solution. Maybe.
3 weird anti-procrastination techniques
Let’s look at some of the weirdest “techniques” famous writers (or their long-suffering editors, publishers, friends, employees, and spouses) have used to overcome procrastination:
1. Douglas Adam’s “Alcatraz Walk of Shame Method”
Douglas Adams, bestselling author of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, was a world-class procrastinator. While writing (or, to be more precise: not writing) his novel The Salmon of Doubt, he reportedly
“soaked for hours in the bathtub, lollygagged away entire days in bed and dreamed up ever more fanciful excuses for his exasperated editor. When he died in 2001, he had spent a decade on the book without even a complete first draft to show for it.”
Yes, if you think your procrastination is bad, this is a whole different level! His friend Steve Meretzky was very spot on when he said that Douglas Adams “raised procrastination to an art form.” What then, was the method Douglas Adams used to overcome his procrastination?
Well, his editor reportedly “took to locking him in a hotel room with nothing but a typewriter” and moved in with him at one point. Douglas Adams apparently also got “publishers and editors to lock him in rooms and glower at him until he produced.”
That method is a strange combination of Alcatraz and a stationary version of a famous Game of Thrones scene: Cersei Lannister’s walk of shame where she is forced to walk naked through a crowd of people shaming her.
I wonder if Douglas Adams might have completed The Salmon of Doubt, if someone had hired extras to provide some additional shaming. We will never know. Because, as Douglas Adams quipped, he “met his final deadline” a few decades ago.
2. Victor Hugo’s “Adam and Eve House Arrest Method”
In 1830, French novelist Victor Hugo (of Les Misérables fame) was faced with a rapidly approaching deadline.
A year earlier, he had made an agreement with a publisher to write a book titled The Hunchback of Notre Dame that was supposed to be delivered that year. However, Victor Hugo didn’t write the book in 1829 and instead “spent the next year pursuing other projects, entertaining guests, and delaying his work on the text.”
Mr. Socialite came up with a unique method to overcome procrastination: nudity! Or, to be more precise, he reportedly “had his servant strip him naked in his study and not return with his clothes until the appointed hour.”
This was apparently based on the idea that he wouldn’t be able to leave the house (or, I guess, entertain polite quests) without his clothes. According to his wife, Hugo purchased
“a huge grey knitted shawl, which swathed him from head to foot, locked his formal clothes away so that he would not be tempted to go out and entered his novel as if it were a prison. He was very sad.”
However, Victor Hugo’s house arrest method paid off and he finished writing his book before the deadline.
We could call the abolition of proper clothing as a means to self-imprison the “Adam and Eve House Arrest Method.” This differentiates Hugo from the later “2020 Method” whose proponents only forgo proper pants.
3. Herman Melville’s “Fifty Shades of Grey Desk Method”
Herman Melville, best known for his work Moby-Dick, had a problem. Or, as one pithy author put it, he had “a whale of a writing problem,” alternating periods of obsessive binge-writing with severe blockages.
However, Melville also had a handy solution to the issue. Reportedly, he had his wife chain him to the desk while working on Moby Dick.
Which brings up some questions: what if he had to go to the bathroom? What if a fire would have broken out? Would this work today in the age of online distraction? (The answer, I assume, is no.) However, this approach — which we could call the “Fifty Shades of Grey Desk Method” — did work for Meville whose novel was published in 1851.
Unfortunately, even though Melville was the one getting chained to the desk, it was really his wife, Elizabeth Shaw Melville, who was trapped in the marriage at a time when divorce carried harsh consequences.
University professor Neil Schmitz says that Melville “emotionally and physically abused his wife.” According to letters discovered last century, the situation in 1867 was so bad that Shaw Melville’s minister suggested a feigned kidnapping to get her out of the house and away from her husband.
Which makes me wish that it would have taken Melville a few more decades of desk confinement to finish Moby Dick.
Notable mention: Hemingway’s “Refrigerator Method”
When someone asked Ernest Hemingway how to start work on a new novel, he reportedly replied, “First you defrost the refrigerator.”
(If you don’t have a refrigerator in need of defrosting and are looking to write an article instead of the next American novel, there may be less roundabout ways of coming up with writing ideas.)
What are some things we can learn from this — other than that some famous writers are both weird and pretty ingenious?
One takeaway is that real writers can get as blocked as the Suez Canal… but they (or their network, in Douglas Adam’s case) will still find a way to complete at least some of their work. To quote Steve Jobs: “Real artists ship.”
Another takeaway is that the antidote to writing procrastination is fairly simple (in theory, if not in practice). While the methods I shared above are pretty weird, they contain the secret to overcoming writing procrastination.
The following 2 things reliably help writers put words on paper:
- applying social pressure, and
- removing distractions.
Let’s start with the first aspect. Social pressure is crucial for a certain group of people: those who are more likely to do things for someone else than for themselves. In coaching, we use Gretchen Rubin’s terminology and call this the Obliger tendency— it’s the most common one.
If you have this tendency and don’t have an editor willing (or desperate) enough to move in with you, you could consider finding an accountability partner or a coach. They can help you get things done using time-honored techniques such as nagging or glowering… or instead give you more compassionate accountability.
While the mechanics of applying social pressure have remained somewhat consistent over the centuries, in the 21st century we need new strategies for removing distractions. Which brings me to an app I have used with great success while writing my book: the Cold Turkey Writer.
The free version of this app turns your laptop into a typewriter (no search engines, no Social Media, no memes, no anything) until you have met your writing goal for the day. Once you turn it on, you have to write to regain access to funny cat pictures or any of your files. It’s annoying. And glorious. And, above all, effective.
If you prefer a positive writing experience to writing naked, or being chained to the desk, or having an editor move in with you, this or a comparable app might be your best shot at overcoming writing procrastination.
The only downside is this: if using an app helps you become a famous author, I won’t be able to add you to this list. Technology is a rather vanilla way of overcoming writing procrastination, after all.
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