The Dreadful Trinity: Fighting procrastination, rationalization, and distraction in writing

24 Jan

No TV show makes me laugh like SpongeBob SquarePants, perhaps because of its producers’ ingenious knack for capturing real life concepts in hilarious caricature.  One of my favorite episodes is a gem from season 2 called “Procrastination,” in which our boxy protagonist is assigned to write an essay for his boating school class.  Though the assignment is fairly simple, SpongeBob is dogged by that Dreadful Trinity of procrastination, rationalization, and distraction that writers know so well.  Sure, mock my love for a ridiculous Nickelodeon show, but I dare any writer to watch this episode and tell me it doesn’t hit home.

Writing ain’t easy.  When writers say they love writing, most of them are talking about a very specific stage of the process—that magical moment of clarity that I call “The Zone”—when everything starts to gel and thoughts begin to flow smoothly from cerebrum to keyboard.   It’s the writing equivalent of a runner’s high.

Legendary nonfiction writer John McPhee put it well in a 2010 radio interview with NPR:

“What I do is go through the miserable business of a first draft, which is just, you know, masochism, and when I get it done, there’s a bit of a change comes over me, as I get a little calmer about what I’m doing.”

For a lucky few writers, The Zone comes quickly.  For the rest of us, it lies near the end of the ordeal, often just shy of deadline, when the 12-pack of Diet Dr. Pepper is just about gone and the kids are ready to trade their old Dad in for a less frazzled, non-deranged model.

When it finally comes, The Zone is heaven.  Most everything leading up to it—second guessing on sentence arrangement, the trial and error of cadence, the simple point that should take minutes to articulate on paper but inevitably takes hours—is hell (hence all the procrastination, rationalization, and distraction beforehand).

A typical writing project for me goes something like this:

  1. Conduct interviews early on and research like mad, making awesome lists and notes, which I’ll read through repeatedly.  (I’m quite pleased with my performance at this stage.)
  2. Wait until the last moment possible to begin writing, then justify the procrastination by rationalizing that my extra effort in research will make the writing process painless.
  3. Grab a Diet Dr. Pepper.  Sit in my writing spot and stare at the blank Word doc.
  4. Plink out a couple draft sentences.  Check my email.  Think about the movie I saw last night, wondering what other movies the lead actress has starred in because she seems so familiar.  Check and discover that, oh yeah, she was the voice of such and such character in that one cartoon, which is why I recognized the voice but not the face.  Makes sense now.
  5. Back to the Word doc.  Decide the couple draft sentences I plinked out 30 minutes ago are garbage and delete them.  Plink out a couple more.  Wonder if there’s a better adjective for the second sentence.  Decide on an alternative adjective, only to remember I just used that one in a piece last week.  Am I using that adjective is a crutch?  Search past published articles and find that yes, I did use that last week.  Dang, it is a crutch.  What would suggest?  Is that the new HTC phone being advertised on  That’s the phone my friend Tyler has, I think.  Check to make sure.  Yep.  And it has a 12 megapixel camera, too.  I think I read a review of that phone somewhere…
  6. Back to the Word doc.  Compose my lead paragraph, then agonize over it.  This calls for another Diet Dr. Pepper.  And a Pop Tart.  Better check email again, just in case my source had some last minute thoughts.  Nope, but it looks like Tyler wants to go to that German place downtown for lunch tomorrow.  Should be cold and snowy tomorrow—perfect weather for German food!  I’ll probably order the spätzle.  Good stuff.  I wonder how they make it?
  7. Back to the draft because even my most optimistic analysis of my remaining time says I’ll be cutting it close.  Bribe my brain to focus by promising a break after I finish the next 3 outline points.
  8. Realize after finishing the 5th outline point that my break’s overdue.  But that’s okay, because I’ve now entered The Zone.  It’s all downhill from here.  I love this writing thing!

If there’s a shortcut to The Zone, I have yet to discover it.  I’m writing a piece for the Transcript Bulletin today and tomorrow (or maybe tonight and tomorrow—or just tomorrow) and I’m formulating my strategy.  Perhaps writing this post about the Dreadful Trinity will help to inoculate me against it.  And I might try disabling the WiFi before getting started.  Right after I grab a Diet Dr. Pepper, check my email, and watch that hilarious SpongeBob episode one last time.

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Posted by on January 24, 2012 in Random Musings


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