Are you under the Tantalus curse?
If you stroll around your day, tantalized by every little thing that stops you from writing, listen up. In this article, I’ll show you how to beat procrastination and finally start writing for good.
I’ll give you the magic potion to beat the Tantalus curse.
Tantalus was banished to the underworld by his father, Zeus, as a punishment. There, he waded in a pool of water, a branch ripe with fruit above his head.
When Tantalus reached for it, the fruit moved away. When he bent down to drink the water, it receded. He would never quench his thirst nor satisfy his hunger.
This was his curse: to always reach for things he desires but never grasp them.
Does it sound familiar? The ancient Greeks sure knew how to tell a story about the human condition.
We are constantly reaching for something: more money, more experiences, more knowledge, more status, more stuff.
But what does it have in common with procrastination?
I want to challenge you to view this story from another angle: What would have happened to Tantalus if he had just stopped reaching?
He was already in hell. He was dead. And dead people don’t need any food or water. Why did he always keep reaching for these things, things he didn’t really need?
The real curse is not that Tantalus spends all eternity reaching for things just out of reach, but his obliviousness to the truth that he doesn’t need those things.
The real moral of the story is that Tantalus was blind to the fact that he didn’t need those things after all.
That is the problem with procrastination. We reach for things we don’t really need, but at this very moment, we are convinced that we do.
Thankfully, we’re neither in hell nor dead – a good start to take a step back, and be honest with yourself.
Before you get the magic potion and learn how to start writing, here are the four steps you need to take to stop procrastination.
Step #1 to start writing: Set aside dedicated time
‘If I know how you spend your time, then I know what might become of you.’ Goethe
Let’s start with the obvious. If you wander through their day without even strategically planning a dedicated time for story writing, you’ll never write.
Researchers in Great Britain found that one simple act raises the success rate to 91%. One that takes less than a minute.
The implementation intention.
It describes is a plan you make beforehand of when and where to act.
All you need to do is write down the following sentence:
„I will write at [TIME] in [LOCATION].“
Sounds incredible? It’s research!
You need to set aside a time and location to write. Many beginner writers just rely on finding the time somewhere in the day. It won’t happen.
Instead, use the technique of Timeboxing and create a weekly calendar where you dedicate your time to writing in a very strategic way.
If you don’t commit to writing, don’t write down the exact time and place you want to write, you’ll never write. Simple as that.
The mundane suddenly is fascinating. Whatsapp messages start coming in. Important emails. Your stomach grumbles. How could you concentrate when you’re hungry?
The clock ticks.
The page remains blank. White as a cute baby butt.
Step #2 to start writing: Acknowledge the resistance
Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in 1863, ‘Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.’
You thought of a polar bear, didn’t you?
What’s more interesting: Research found that those who are allowed to think of the polar bear think less about it than those who don’t.
Flight attendants on long flights have less craving to smoke than those with a flight stop-over. What does this tell us?
How we look at things matters.
The more we try to flee from the resistance, the more it will drive us to procrastination. Instead, we need to acknowledge that there is this uncomfortable feeling.
Bricker’s study had helped thousands of people quit smoking. In this study, he suggests the following steps that can also be applied to writing:
1. Notice the sensation.
2. Write it down.
Also, acknowledge that resistance is normal. In his book War of Art, Steven Pressfield even says that resistance is a good sign.
„Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”
― Steven Pressfield, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks & Win Your Inner Creative Battles
After acknowledging resistance and the fact that it’s normal, there is another step that will give you power over it: Understanding.
Step #3 to start writing: Understand the deep-seated issue – What’s your discomfort?
Procrastination is a flight reaction.
Your brain would do anything to avoid discomfort. So it flees to distraction. It pushes away the uncomfortable sensation the blank page evokes.
But where does this discomfort come from?
It can be a deeper-seated issue. Insecurities about your skills. Financial worries. Family crisis.
Don’t be afraid to look deeper into the root of your resistance, because you might find things you need to deal with in order to resolve it.
But if you are the fortunate human who lives in the most prosperous day of age, and still resistance snatches you, know this: We are wired for this. You might never find this place of full and complete satisfaction, at least not for long.
# Your hardwiring
„Studies have found people are more likely to recall unhappy moments in their childhood, even if they would describe their upbringing as generally happy.“ – Bir Eyal, Indistractable
Somehow, we tend to stick to the bad memories, forgetting the good ones. This is called negativity bias. Yes, it has a name.
As does our tendency to keep thinking about bad experiences, over and over again. *He said this mean thing about me, and they didn’t accept my proposal…* and on it goes. The term for this is rumination.
But the worst of all is Hedonic Adaptation.
Did you know that people who won the lottery report that things they have previously enjoyed now lost their appeal?
Hedonic Adaptation describes the tendency to return to the base level of satisfaction, no matter what happens to us in life. Don’t throw your hand up in frustration and curse the gods yet.
It’s a good thing.
This way, we are always motivated to strive for more. Be better. Discover new things. If not for Hedonic Adaptation, we would still live in caves and poop into the mud.
Use your hardwiring for motivation. Instead of fleeing, understand the root of your discomfort. If you can, deal with it. If not, use it to become a better writer.
As the eighteenth-century English writer Samuel Johnson put it, ‘My life is one long escape from myself.’
He totally got us.
Step #4 to start writing: Find new ways
One of the hardwiring problems I didn’t mention above is a huge source of discomfort.
Contrary to the assumption that we flee when we encounter the unknown, boredom can actually trigger a much stronger discomfort.
Knowing what and how is about to happen. Doing a monotonous task.
You might not think of writing this way, but your fear and resistance might actually come from boredom.
The best way to start fighting procrastination is seeing the task in a completely different light.
Remember what we established above? How we look at things matters.
Instead of seeing the labor, the countless hours of insecurity, see the fun in writing. Allow yourself to experiment.
Find the novelty in your process.
You could write in another place – on a cruise ship or in a meadow; use dictation while taking a walk, or write your story completely out of order, or do collaborative writing. Bring in new weird characters and open yourself to ideas that seem bonkers.
Just spice the process up. Do interesting things. Change up the scenery, and see writing as an adventure, not a task you must complete with iron discipline.
Finding new ways will help you avoid the discomfort of boredom and instead see the novelty in writing.
So here are the fours steps again:
#1 Make time for writing
#2 Acknowledge the resistance
#3 Understand where it’s coming from
#4 Find new ways to approach writing
So what’s the magic potion to beat the Tantalus curse? To stop procrastinating and reaching for things we don’t really need?
The potion is the 10-minute-rule.
When you feel resistance coming, distraction crawling your way, and feel the urge to succumb to something that will distract you from writing, give it ten minutes.
Allow yourself to indulge in whatever you want to – but only in 10 minutes. Because once resistance appears, and you still press on, relieved by the sense that you will be able to do it later (in only 10 minutes), you’ll likely forget about the distraction.
So when you sit down, feel the urge to procrastinate, acknowledge it for what it is and give it ten minutes to subside.
Unlike Tantalus, you have better things to do than to reach for the emptiness. You are a writer. Trust the passion for your work to pull you towards writing.
What are your strategies to beat procrastination? Share them in the comments below!