writing

How to Stop Procrastinating and Find Motivation to Write, Even If You Don’t Feel Like It

“I can never build a writing habit.”

“I can't think of anything when I'm staring at a blank page.”

“I wanted to write, but I ended up on the internet again. What is wrong with me?”

Do any of these sound familiar to you? If so, don't worry. Even the best writers struggle to find writing motivation when depressed, anxious, or distracted.

It gets even worse when your writing time is limited, but somehow you can't stay off your phone.

How can you stop procrastinating? How can you reach your writing goals when it feels so hard?

In this blog post, I'll discuss some different ways to help motivate you and give you the push that you need to consistently produce quality content.

Start Small

One way to start writing is to set small, achievable goals. This could be anything from writing for five minutes to writing 200 words. No goal is too small.

You can also break your larger goals into smaller goals to make them more manageable. This will help you stay motivated as you work on your goal.

One Project at a Time

And then the short story leaves you for its sister…

If you're like me, you have a tendency to start project after project, most of which never get past the initial excitement stage. Staying focused on one project at a time is far more productive than trying to work on multiple projects at once.

This is easier said that done. I'm always getting new ideas, and I get excited about new projects all the time. How can you stay focused on your writing project when there are so many other awesome things to do?

One thing that helps is scheduling a time block for working on each project, and sticking with it (unless something really important comes up). This keeps me from getting distracted by shiny objects too much. If my eye starts to wander too much, I have to

Create a Pre-Writing Ritual (Even if It Only Takes Two Minutes)

Rituals play a powerful role in our lives, shaping our daily routines and helping us to accomplish our goals. A pre-writing ritual can help to motivate you and get you into the writing frame of mind.

Even if it only takes two minutes, setting aside a little time before you start writing will help prime your brain and imagination for the work to come.

If you want to start a ritual, start by doing one of the following things for two minutes before you start writing:

  • stretch
  • meditate
  • clean your office
  • write down all your thoughts, stream of consciousness-style, without stopping
  • repeat out loud your desired affirmations
  • review your vision board
  • pour yourself a glass of water, coffee, or tea
  • visualize your desired outcome (see below)

As you develop a writing routine, you can add to this routine. But keep it simple when you begin.

Imagine Yourself Reaching Your Goal

Visualization is the process of seeing something in your mind before it happens in reality. It's a powerful tool that can be used for anything from manifesting a new car to increasing your income.

Visualization can be a powerful motivator, and can shape the course of your work more than you might think possible. By envisioning yourself writing a great story, essay, or article, you can imagine yourself succeeding, which makes success even more achievable.

Outline, Outline, Outline

An outline organizes your thoughts and prevents you from getting overwhelmed. Although some writers don't like to use them, I think an outline is an indispensible part of the writing process.

It can also help to increase your motivation because you will have a better idea of what you are trying to accomplish. Seeing the end goal will make it feel more real and achievable.

Turn Off the Internet (and Put Your Smartphone in Airplane Mode)

Turn off the internet. Turn it off. You can check that fact later. . The internet is a big distraction, and it's better to keep it fully at bay.

A lot of people find it helpful to put their phones in airplane mode so they won't be tempted by any notifications or social media updates while trying to write something. If you can't do that–if you're expecting an important call, for example–then use an app like Forest to keep yourself from reflexively trying to check your screen.

Write in Sprints

When you don't feel like writing, it can be helpful to practice writing sprints. This is where you write as much as possible for a set amount of time. You can write for two minutes or for twenty, it's up to you.

When you're on a writing sprint, you must keep writing until the time is up, without pausing to do anything else.

Don't edit your writing. Don't check your email. Don't turn on the internet. While you're on a writing sprint, your only focus is to get as many words as you can on the page.

Remember to start small. Good writing habits can be grown over time. A four-minute writing sprint is better than doing nothing.

Try the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a way to help you focus on a task by working for short periods of time and then taking regular, even shorter breaks.

When you use the Pomodore Technique, your work:break ratio should be roughly 5:1. If you write for five minutes, you'd take a one minute break; if you write for 20 minutes, you'd take a four minute break. After four of these intervals, you take a longer break, then go back to work.

You can use the Pomodoro Technique to plan out a series of writing sprints. Since writing sprints can be intense, you might want to take slightly longer breaks between sprints. For example, you might do an eight-minute writing sprint and then take a three-minute break, followed by an eight-minute break after four sprints.

There are many apps that will help you use the Pomodoro Technique, such as Tomato One (the app I use) and Forest. You could also use the timer on your phone, watch, or a dedicated timer like the Time Timer if you want to keep going when you hit a writing groove.

Don't Reward Yourself with (Time-Sucking) Distractions

Two minutes on the internet can quickly turn into twenty, or 120. When you do take a break, reward yourself with something that won't endanger you staying in the zone.

Here are some ideas for possible rewards:

  • stretching. It's really good to stretch since writing is a pretty sedentary activity.
  • get up and walk.
  • draw or doodle something.
  • meditate.
  • do a light chore, e.g. watering a few plants or wiping down one counter.
  • read a few pages of a book or magazine.

I would highly, highly recommend not going on the internet during your breaks, especially if you have ADHD like I do. All it takes is one wrong turn and you can easily ignore the timer and go down a rabbit hole of distraction.

Track Your Progress

One of the most important things to do when trying to change a behavior is to measure it. This includes tracking not just your writing output, but also your daily word count, the number of articles you write, the amount of time you spend writing, and more.

This data can be incredibly useful in helping you to see your progress and identify any potential areas where you need to make changes.

You can also track your moods and emotions. This information can help you to see if your writing productivity is related to your mental health. If it is, you can then take steps to address that issue.

If this sounds like way too much, just start tracking how many words you've written. It's a simple number and you can write it anywhere.

I used to tape a monthly calendar behind my desk. When I finished writing for the day, I would write the total number of words in the space for that day; if I met my minimum daily goal, I'd draw an X through the day as well. Having this visual reminder of my progress kept me motivated to write even when I was tired, upset, or burnt out.

Speaking of burnout…

Set a Realistic Goal

If you're working full-time and taking care of multiple kids after work, you'll have less time to write than someone with a freer schedule.

Don't beat yourself up if you don't write 3,000 words a day every day. Writing a little bit every day is much better than writing nothing at all.

Find a Writing Accountability Partner

Having someone to partner with you can be a great way to stay on track. This person can be someone who is also working on a writing project, or they could simply be someone who checks in with you regularly to see how you're doing.

You don't have to be in the same city or country as your accountability partner; there are many online tools that can help you stay connected, such as Slack, Zoom, and Google Hangouts.

Join or Start a Writing Group

Similar to having an accountability partner, being part of a group can help you stay on track. There are many online and in-person groups available, so find one that's a good fit for you.

Conclusion

You may not always feel like writing, but if you keep at it and learn how to find your motivation, you'll be able to put in the work when it's important. So don't give up; instead, try out some of these tips for finding inspiration and stay committed to completing your written goals. How do you motivate yourself?

Six glass jars of red confiton a table in front of a wooden wall.

It’s a big deal because it’s not a big deal

“I can’t believe you left the lid off the jar. It takes two seconds to screw it on. Why can’t you just do it?”

“I can’t believe you’re making a big production about one #@$ jar lid. It takes two seconds to screw it on. If it's so important to you, why can’t you just do it?”

This is a common dynamic with both fictional characters and real-life people. One person does something minor that upsets the other. Maybe they leave the lid off a jar, forget a birthday, forget their manners, fail to take a hint, or don’t do something minor that they said they’d do. The offender’s defense is, basically, that it’s not a big deal. It’s a minor thing. It’s not like they were maliciously trying to ruin the other person’s day. Why can’t the offended party just let it go?

It’s a good question, so let’s try to answer it.

It’s part of a pattern.

Two men in business suits staring at each other in a dark parking lot. One has his arms crossed and looks angry.
Photo by Roland Samuel on Unsplash.

When your characters share history, a “minor thing” tells a major story.

Let’s say two of your characters represent rival kingdoms on the brink of war. They’re meeting to discuss some tricky diplomatic issue. There’s centuries of history between their kingdoms: border skirmishes, trade disputes, cultural clashes, and religious issues. In this context, forgetting some courtly convention—shaking hands, or bowing a certain way—really isn’t a minor thing at all.

Neglecting these niceties sends the message that “I think so little of you, that I would rather risk a long, drawn-out, expensive war than take two seconds to shake your hand/bow correctly/toast glasses with you.”

Or “I don’t think you’re a threat. What are you really gonna do if I don’t follow the rules? Nothing. Because you’re nothing.

Remember, these two characters are undergoing intense negotiations with deep historical roots. Tempers are running high. These “little things” are there to make an actual negotiation possible. Neglecting them is a big deal because it’s not a big deal. It takes a few seconds to bow, shake hands, clink glasses, or follow whatever the custom is. Even if it takes two hours, two days, or even two weeks, it almost certainly saves time, expense, and lives that could be lost in a war. These “little things” are there for a reason.

If neglecting these “little things” are part of a pattern, it's going to sting even more.

The act means different things to different people.

A photo of salmon and salad on a white plate; a lemon slice sits on a dish nearby. There's also a fork. Table beneath is vivid orange.
Photo by Ella Olsson on Unsplash.

A young man eats everything on his plate. When he’s finished, there’s nothing left but a little sauce. In some households, that’s as it should be. In others, it’s unspeakably rude. Same act, different context.

In some cultures, it’s rude to leave food on your plate. You might as well insult the host’s cooking right to her face—and all the starving children of the world, while you’re at it. “I’m not hungry” wasn’t an excuse when you were a kid, and it’s not an excuse now.

In other cultures, it’s rude to eat everything on your plate. Are you saying that the host didn’t give you enough food? You must still be hungry if there’s not even a leaf left.

This occasionally results in funny situations, like an exchange student who keeps eating and eating and eating, while their host mother worriedly keeps offering them second, third, and fourth helpings. They’re both trying not to be rude, but they're running different scripts.

Sometimes it’s not really that funny. Maybe the exchange student compliments an ancient family heirloom, and the host family gives the heirloom to the student. In the host family’s culture, that’s what you do when someone compliments your belongings. The student wasn’t asking for the heirloom, he just comes from a culture where it’s polite to compliment your host’s house. The family may be royally upset about giving away something priceless, but they feel honor-bound to do it.

How does the student treat the heirloom? Does he take it into his room, but leave it alone? Does he give it back to them at the end of the stay, along with something of his own? Does he break the heirloom while drunk, releasing a terrible curse on the household? I don’t know, it’s your story. But that one act—complimenting an heirloom in somebody’s house—has wildly different meanings depending on the context.

In a like manner, something innocuous in one culture could be terribly rude in another. A “little thing” that’s “not a big deal” can be a very big deal in another culture.

Don’t believe me? Look at this.

A picture of a white bowl with water and Cheerios cereal.
Cereal with water? What's the big deal?

Responsibility without authority.

Ensign Marsh is the only person onboard who can repair the teleporter unit. He’s the only guy responsible for it on the entire spaceship; he’s the only guy who truly understands how it works. If something goes wrong—if someone comes back from their adventure with their arm sticking out of their stomach—you can bet he will hear about it, loudly and at length.

That’s why it’s so frustrating when Marsh gets blown off by people who really should know better. He tells the astronauts to put their belongings in a protective pouch every time they go through the teleporter. He tells them to upload their minds onto the cloud before every mission, in case something goes wrong. They say they forgot this time, but they’ll totally do it next time. And then they don’t.

A photo of the earth from space, featuring a small part of a spaceship in the foreground.
Photo by NASA on Unsplash.

These dismissals show Ensign Marsh that he has all the responsibility and none of the authority. He cannot even convey mission-critical information, because no one listens to him. He’s treated more like an appliance than a person, except people sometimes notice warning lights on an appliance.

The inevitable happens. Sergeant Harris comes back from the planet Tlequ’on with his “lucky keychain” lodged halfway in his brain. He didn’t upload his mind beforehand, so they can’t access the important information conveyed to him by the captain, who’s now held captive by the Tlequ’ons. Now Ensign Marsh is getting it in the ear, and he blows up right back.

Wouldn’t you?

For Ensign Marsh, these “little things” aren’t little at all. They have predictable, potentially devastating consequences that he’s trying to prevent. Every time someone blows off mind-linking to the cloud, or putting their lucky keychain in the pouch, they’re reinforcing how powerless he is to do his job, which is keeping the teleporter, and its users, safe. And when something goes wrong, he shoulders the blame even though he lacks the authority to do what needs to be done.

It's not actually a little thing.

“Why didn't you call Toby yesterday? I ran into him at the store, he's been waiting for you to call. He said he could set up an interview for you tomorrow.”

“Sorry, I forgot.”

“Well, you could call him now.”

“Nah, it's late. I don't want to bother him.”

“It's not going to bother him. You've wanted this job forever.”

“I don't feel like it. I'll call him later. He might not pick up.”

“So? Leave a message, send him a text…he told me, all you have to do is call him and he'll set it up.”

“Will you let it go?! I'll call him when I'm ready! Good grief. It's just a phone call.”

…It's not just a phone call.

It's a job, a lead, a chance to change your life and make it better.

It's a way to connect with your friend and have him do you a favor. Which is a really easy way to get someone to like you.

It's a chance to prove that you're taking your job search seriously, and your life seriously. And it's a big deal because it's not a big deal. If you could make more money and get a better job after one two-minute phone call, why wouldn't you make that phone call?

Maybe the person asking you to call really stuck their neck out to get you this connection. When you blow it off, you're blowing off Toby and your friend as well.

It's not just a phone call.

[X] is important to you, not me. Therefore, it's not really important.

This is why “I just forgot! Jeez!” is a weak defense. “I forgot” is just reaffirming the underlying message of disrespect or disdain.

This is why “I didn’t mean to” is a weak defense. At best, it sounds like you weren’t prepared. At its worst, it sounds like your mind was elsewhere when it really should have been on what’s right in front of you. Either way, it just reinforces the original message.

Action, Reaction.

The offended character doesn’t have to fly off the handle or draw a blade on the spot. Maybe he observes the slight and whispers something to his second in command. Maybe she calls attention to her rival’s lapse with some cutting remark. Maybe negotiations start off on the wrong foot and never get right. Maybe we’ll see a “red wedding” scene twelve chapters later. Remember, the Red Wedding happened because Robb Stark didn’t do something he promised to do.

And the offending party, the one who forgot to bow (or whatever it is), doesn’t necessarily have to have malicious intentions. It’s juicier if they don’t. Maybe she was up all night trying to heal someone, and she’s off her game. Maybe she’s a lookalike sent in after the real negotiator ran away. Maybe he has ADHD (or whatever the fantasy-world equivalent is). Maybe there’s a very good reason he can’t bow this way/shake hands/clink glasses. Maybe he has to hide that reason to protect someone, even if it means war.

This doesn’t mean that the offended party is wrong for getting offended. Keep in mind that the offended party is never going to know everything that you and the readers know about the world. Even if he did, he’s not coming to the table with the reader’s perspective, he’s coming with his perspective. Why did the enemy send someone to negotiate who isn’t ready to be serious? Why are they trifling before we even start? What is their word worth? Why should we trust them?

It’s not just in stories

If you want to see an example of this dynamic in day-to-day life, read “She Divorced Me Because I Left Dishes in the Sink.” This dynamic can come up in many heightened and otherworldly scenarios. Even if you have aliens, billionaires, vampires, and time travellers, this dynamic can still pop up in a million ways.

What We Do in the Shadows (if you haven't seen it, watch it tonight) is brilliant, in part, because it combines the gothic, supernatural ambience of a vampire movie with the mundane dramas of daily life (and reality tv).

Connecting your stories to “trivial” or “mundane” everyday reality isn't going to bring your story down; on the contrary, it can make them more universal and relatable. Most people have never been in space, in a vampire's lair, or at the negotiation table between two kingdoms. But they have been slighted by someone who thought their slight was “not a big deal.”