The Art of Procrastination: What We Can Learn About Writing From How I Met Your Mother
Don’t be Ted Mosby.
In season four of How I Met Your Mother, Ted Mosby quits his architecture job to start his own firm. Robin continually chastises Ted for doing everything but calling clients and working on projects.
Throughout the episode, Ted finds many ways to avoid work. He chooses the official pens for use by his solo firm (then changes his mind). He goes on “Wisdom Walks” to listen and absorb inspiration from the world around him. Ted even hires an assistant to remove distractions so he can “focus”.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Similar to Ted, writers will find a million writing-adjacent things to avoid putting words to page. Typically working from home, we are fantastic procrastinators. Here are four ways writers procrastinate and tips to overcome them.
In Dare to Lead Brené Brown defines numbing as “food, work, social media, shopping, television, video games, porn, and booze”. Numbing is everything we do “chronically and compulsively” to escape reality for a moment.
Numbing is an easy way to avoid writing. Sit down to watch an episode of How I Met Your Mother and, before you realize, you’re in season four seeing Ted Mosby procrastinate.
There’s no judgement because everyone numbs (clearly). I have no statistical proof, but I’d venture to guess numbing is the most common form of procrastination and it’s a tough one to conquer.
Brown’s advice to cure numbing? Lean into the discomfort we often mask with numbing.
Instead of asking ourselves “What’s the quickest way to make these feelings go away?,” ask, “What are these feelings and where did they come from?”Brené Brown
A daily journal habit is a great numbing cure. Processing your thoughts and feeling through writing not only keeps the focus on personal growth but strengthens your writing muscles too. It’s a win win!
Another common form of procrastination is marketing our previous writing. Instead of writing, we spend a ton of time marketing our existing work or endlessly tweaking the design of our websites. I might have spent an entire day coding a Siri Shortcut to tweet links to old articles.
This form of procrastination is troublesome because we’re doing necessary work. Marketing our writing is important, especially when our income is at stake. When marketing becomes our sole focus, we enter Ted Mosby territory procreating our primary responsibility.
The cure for over-marketing isn’t to avoid it, it’s scheduling it.
Whether writing is your full-time job or a part-time hobby, it’s important to approach it with a plan. If you’ve got all day, give yourself an hour for marketing time. Maybe that’s your after hours focus on Thursdays. Schedule time that works for you while leaving plenty of time to write. No matter how good you are at marketing, you ultimately need something to market.
“Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is almost 200-years old, but it contains truth for our modern world. Writers are looking for the app/notebook/pen/coffee shop/whatever that fits just right. We move from thing to thing until we discover the perfect one.
Over the last year, I’ve changed my writing home three times. After a long stint with Ulysses I switched to iA Writer. I also attempted a physical notebook, but let’s not kid ourselves — my handwriting is atrocious.
Each new app has a million settings to tweak. What font should I use? Do I want to highlight sentences or paragraphs when typing? What about the color scheme and output settings? A new app (or pen or coffee shop or thing of choice) brings a world of possibility. We can justify time spent making these choices because eventuallythey will enable us to be more productive. But at the moment? It’s just another form of procrastination.
The cure here? Ignore our inner Goldilocks and stop looking for perfect. Instead, we need to find something that fits pretty well and just start writing. It might not be the perfectly weighted ink stroke or an app that has every preferred feature. But if it works enough to allow the words to flow? Well, that should be enough.
Like marketing, tapping into the writing community is important for every writer. This connection is the reason The Writing Cooperative exists. There’s also #WritingCommunity on Twitter and countless writing groups on Facebook and LinkedIn. Finding community and interacting with other writers is important, but getting lost in a black hole is procrastination.
You know how it goes: you pull up your favorite writing group page to check out the latest comments. You spend a few minutes interacting with people and that red bubble pops up. Before you realize it, thirty-minutes have gone by and you’re looking at your college roommate’s vacation pictures. It sucked you in.
The black hole steals time easier than all the other procrastination methods. Short of deleting our accounts, it’s also really difficult to cure. We want to connect with friends and the writing community but we don’t want to put off writing. So what do we do?
Thankfully, the cure doesn’t rely on our own self discipline. We can use tools like Apple’s Screen Time or Facebook’s activity monitor to keep tabs on (and turn off) our access to these services. When you know the app turns off in fifteen minutes, you get in and connect with your community and get out.
The writing team for How I Met Your Mother understood how creatives procrastinate and gave Ted Mosby every excuse in the book. The writers also understood getting over ourselves. At the end of the episode Ted sat at his desk and got to work.
We can learn from Ted what procrastination looks like, we can also learn that sometimes we just have to sit down and begin. Yes, writing might be difficult and yes procrastination sounds more fun, but if we claim to be writers, we write.