Below is a summary of the major points of my book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block. This is the material I have been honored to teach at SavvyAuthors for nearly a decade. Our classes always have a warm, supportive vibe, and many students do report increased productivity by the end, so I hope you will join us.
Before I get to the Seven Secrets themselves, you should know that procrastination is not due to laziness, lack of commitment, lack of willpower, etc., but disempowerment – meaning that there are forces separating you from, or blocking you from using, your skills, strengths, talents, energy, etc. (Writer’s BLOCK, get it?) Laziness, etc., are not causes of procrastination, but symptoms. I promise you that once you use the Seven Secrets to overcome your disempowering constraints you’ll “magically” reclaim all the energy, commitment, etc., you think you’re missing.
Also remember that your reasons for procrastinating are always valid. Always. Confusion, fear, depression, poverty, lack of support, and personal or family problems are all perfectly valid reasons not to want to do your work: procrastination is just a suboptimal response. Whenever you are underproductive, therefore, skip the shame, blame and guilt, and simply work to identify and resolve the underlying problems, preferably within the context of a competent and supportive community.
The Seven Secrets of the Prolific are the key behaviors separating productive/prolific people from those who are underproductive: each addresses a major category of disempowering constraint. They are:
1) Overcome Perfectionism. Perfectionists define success narrowly and unrealistically, and failure broadly, and then punish themselves harshly for the perceived (inevitable) failures. They also: overidentify with their work, so that every failure becomes a kind of ego demolition; are grandiose, so that they expect quick and easy success even for difficult endeavors; emphasize product over process; and over-rely on external rewards and measures of success. They also: are shortsighted (the current project is always do-or-die), use a lot of negative labels (e.g., “lazy” or “loser”), relentlessly compare themselves to others (and always lose in those comparisons), and dichotomize (everything is either a “total success” or “total failure”).
In a typical procrastination scenario, you begin your work, and then the perfectionist kicks in with an abusive litany: “That’s horrible! Whoever told you you could write [or do art or activism, etc.]? You’re never going to succeed at this rate. And why don’t you write more, anyway? You’re so lazy!” It’s a desperate attempt to get you to perform “up to spec” and thus avoid the terrifying prospect of failure, but, of course, it only makes you more terrified – so that you are forced to procrastinate simply to escape.
There are three voices in that scenario, those of the fragile creator, bullying perfectionist, and procrastinator – who, by the way, is not your enemy but the valiant defender of the bullied creator: only, because she’s invoked by fear, she’s regressed and therefore limited in her coping options. I picture her as a smart and empowered 15-year-old who, like most teens, reacts to bullying either by opposition (“Screw you and all your rules!”) or learned helplessness (“Why even bother trying?”). That’s the heart of your procrastination or block right there.
The missing voice is that of the wise and compassionate adult who understands the true challenges of creativity, and also that abuse is not only ineffective, but morally unacceptable. That’s the voice you need to grow within yourself, and when you do, you’ll find your fears around your work lessening, and also your need to procrastinate. You grow that voice in three ways: (1) journaling, and especially dialoguing with the perfectionist; (2) timed exercises where you practice doing your work in the absence of judgment; and (3) participating in compassionate and humane (in the broadest sense) communities. (More on strategies 1 and 2here.)
2) Resource Yourself Abundantly. The underproductive worker is typically the one working on a flaky computer in a dusty basement with the mildew and cobwebs and last season’s wardrobe. The prolific worker, in contrast, claims the best room she can, decorates it to her taste and needs, and invests in top-flight equipment. (While it’s true that some people don’t have a lot of money to invest, it’s also true that many who do choose to spend it anywhere but their work.)
3) Manage Your Time. Productive people live consciously and deliberately. They know their values, needs and priorities, and align their actions as much as possible with them. They budget and schedule their time, and invest as much of their time as possible in high-value activities that: (a) are mission-focused, (b) leverage their strengths, and (c) create impact or change in the real world. They are comfortable saying no to tasks they can’t or don’t want to take on, and they also delegate constantly. They avoid time- and energy-sucking dysfunction and drama, and also live frugally (a win for the environment, too!) because they understand that too many possessions, and too much debt, are a kind of slavery.
4) Cultivate Effective Work Processes. Underproductive people tend to approach their projects linearly: they try to finish A before moving on to B, C, etc. This is a precarious way to work because if A, B or C happen to be difficult, you’ll get stuck. Productive people, in contrast, see their works as 2D or even 3D landscapes, and work on whichever part seems easiest or most appealing. (Among other advantages, this lets them work “around” the hard parts till those parts get easier.) When writing, they do lots and lots of drafts, each a tiny improvement over the previous one, instead of limiting themselves to a few excruciatingly honed drafts.
5) Overcome Internalized Oppression and Ambivalence. Internalized oppression is when you buy into negative stereotypes about you or your work. If, while you’re trying to write a novel, do veg activism, or even just live your life according to your own values, a part of you is thinking such endeavors are wrong, stupid, silly, futile, etc., that’s going to create a huge ambivalence that can stop you dead in your tracks. You need to be absolutely clear on who you are, what you value, and why you value it – as well as what you’re willing to invest and sacrifice to attain your goals.
6) Avoid and Overcome Traumatic Rejections. Most underproductivity is catalyzed by traumatic rejections, so if you experience one, cope strenuously via journaling, discussions with friends and mentors, and (in some cases) speaking your truth. Always seek to avoid traumatic rejection in the first place, however, by only dealing with fair and honest people in a context of equality. Avoid oppressors or exploiters no matter what benefit you think you’ll derive from the association, and recognize that rejection comes in many forms, including harshness, callousness, neglect, marginalization and deprecation. Finally, don’t believe anyone who says you need to get a thicker skin: the goal is to have a thin skin so that you can be sensitive and alive and responsive to the world around you – and to surround yourself with people who are the same.
7) Create an Empowered Career. Empowered careers are characterized by equality, nonviolence, collaboration and a sense you’re using your strengths and skills to good purpose. They feel good, create positive impact/change, and surround you with other empowered beings. We all know that there are many disempowering jobs out there – and that many employers are taking advantage of the recession to further disempower employees – but there are also many empowered ones. If you are stuck in a disempowering job it is very important that you leave. See my free ebook It’s Not You, It’s Your Strategy for a good job-search strategy.
So those are the Seven Secrets. Please note that it would be perfectionist to expect to accomplish all of them in a short time. The path of empowerment, productivity and joy is one you travel along for life, taking mostly small steps.
Check out Hillary’s workshop – 7 Secrets of the Prolific – starting on 22nd of February.
Hillary Rettig is a Boston-based author, coach and workshop leader who helps people overcome procrastination, perfectionism and blocks. For many years she has taught classes on that topic, and on writing for social change, at Grub Street Writers in Boston, and has also given workshops at creative, activist and business venues throughout the U.S. She is author of The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way (Lantern Books, 2006), a guide to living a happy and productive life that includes a strong progressive mission, and is currently working on The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism and Writer’s Block, which will be out in 2010. Hillary is also a member of the New England chapter of RWA, and a graduate of the Clarion science fiction writing workshop. Learn more about her work, and download free ebooks on overcoming procrastination and other topics at her website hillaryrettig.com or email her.