Ask TCI: How do I get over my procrastination and fear of failure in order to meet my deadlines?
FROM : Anonymous (via Ask TCI on our homepage)
Q: How do I get over my procrastination and fear of failure in order to meet my deadlines?
A: Resistance to creative work takes many forms and you mention two of them: procrastination and a fear of failure. For some, it’s fear of success that stops them from creating, or maybe creation isn’t the problem, but the quality of the creative work is. I think all forms of resistance share a common foundation: a fear of what is inside oneself. What makes much creative work so different from other ways of being—especially in our hyper-connected, technology-mediated era—is that it comes from the self. One is not reacting to external stimuli; the stimuli is internal. This is wholly at odds with how we operate during most of our waking hours.
How can you become more relaxed as you engage with your inner space—a place filled with pain, trauma, and thoughts and feelings unfamiliar to your conscious mind, over which you have no control? First of all, you have to allow yourself to start where you are. Imagine you have not exercised or been to a gym in ages. Your first workout will need to be light, otherwise you’ll injure yourself. The same is true of creative work. If you are not used to sitting with yourself, first try it in short bursts, five or ten minutes at a time. Be with yourself, away from any external stimuli.
Just as during a workout you can feel when you are tired and need a rest, during creative work you should be able to feel when your inner tension becomes “too much” and you need a break. Give yourself one! Allow yourself the comfort of engaging again with the outside world.
Repeat this process until you build up the capacity to sit with no external stimuli for longer and longer periods. Then, when you feel ready, start to add creative work to this practice—bracketing off the external world completely save for the dimensionality of the creative object you are working on. I sometimes tell my students that creating a work of art is like visiting a room you do not want to go into because you know your most horrible traumas and deepest fears are inside it. (By the way, this does not mean these things are necessarily the subject of your work. I find that even in creating “lighter” work, areas of pain and agony are still often accessed.) Initially, you can only open the door a crack, peek in, then quickly shut it again. Over time you are able to open the door a bit wider, look a bit longer. Maybe soon after that you are able to take a few steps into the room before turning around and hurrying out. The goal is to be able to walk into the room, shut the door, lock it, sit down in the middle of that space and open your eyes to everything that is inside.
Most of us cannot get to that place in a day or a week or even a month. It takes time to build up the psychic strength to face all that. The important thing is to have the daily discipline to consistently move towards that. It cannot happen too quickly or it risks shattering us, and yet if we don’t push painfully into our discomfort, it may never happen at all. The only way into that room is to each day go a little further, and stay a little longer. We will never want to live in this room, but with discipline we can visit it for a long enough time to get our work done.
How does all this relate to deadlines? Sadly, it doesn’t. Art and creation unfold at their own pace, not according to a calendar. If a deadline is really hard and fixed, rather than self-imposed, then you will just have to be content with creating something that is part art, part product.
Bonus tip: If you find entering this solitary practice difficult, you might try finding a therapist. If you are in a big city, you can almost always find a good clinician at a reasonable fee. Sometimes we need someone to walk in that room with us a while before we can do it on our own.
I’m a big believer in overcoming dread and procrastination by just breaking everything down into small steps, so my goal was just for 15 minutes every day to pick up a guitar and just play around for a little while. If you come up with something, great! If you don’t, when that 15 minutes is over you can get up and go do something else. You’ve done your job today.
And I love procrastinating, actually, because that pressure at the end really helps. A lot of the process happens without the gears crunching, too. If you know it’s happening and you know you’re putting it off, I find myself thinking about it in the back of my head but in a more romantic poetic way. It almost feels like the algorithm is engaged. Then when it comes time to harvest it, you go in there and be like, “So, what have you done?” Pick all the fruit.
I think I wrote more because it was what I shouldn’t be doing. I should’ve been looking harder for work, and I was procrastinating by writing. I did end up writing really quickly, but it was not a routine. It was very spastic.
One thing I do want to talk about that a lot of people don’t cover is how important it is for you to fail. You have to fail. Failure is more important than your success, so like, please fail, please. Fail happily. Because there’s a saying that goes, “Nobody has failed more times than the master.” And I think that’s very true. I encourage people to fail, please do, it’s so important.
I always followed my heart and I definitely never lost my enthusiasm. There’s the one quote from Churchill that I always think about, something like “success is what happens after an incredible accumulation of failures.”
Take risks. Be brave. Put yourself out there even if you’re worried it won’t work out. It often won’t. But the times where it doesn’t are actually more valuable internally than the times when it does work out, because failure is the best teacher. It is so dumb that societally we talk about “failure” in such negative terms. People who don’t fail don’t grow.
Often we’re the ones limiting ourselves through fear of failure or fear that we’re not going to fit other people’s expectations. But that’s in our heads.
Yeah, but there’s no way to know that without just fucking fail, fail, fail, fail, failing at it. I mean, failure is such a boring old trend now. Everybody knows that failure is the key to everything. But then what’s next? If we know that failure is the way to get anything done that feels good, then it’s about getting the space to imagine the actual utopia that follows it. So yes, fail, but also allow yourself to imagine what could come next—not the perfect world inside of this world, but the perfect world that seems impossible. That is the thing that I hope comes out of a million failures.
I’m good at knowing when to step away, and I’ve gotten good at knowing when to say something can wait until the next day. Part of this is because I’m really intense about deadlines. I take deadlines pretty seriously, much to the joy, I’m sure, of the editors who have to work with me. I view deadlines as getting stuff off my plate, so I can write a poem, read a poem, or read something else I love. That doesn’t mean I rush through deadlines. I take great care in the stuff I work on, but I do take deadlines seriously because for me, getting something off my plate and doing it well allows for me to put something else on my plate that I might really love discovering. I might find something new or find something exciting that I can put on my plate.
The thing that works best is having an ambitious deadline, because then there’s fear in my heart and I’m like, “Okay, I really have to do this.” There’s a kind of stress or anxiety that motivates. I make small checkpoints and have small goals. Every day when I come back to my studio, there’s at least a portion of the day that’s just about grinding out something that needs to be done. Right now I have hundreds and hundreds of these poetic little fragments of text that are populating this world, and I just need to get those into place. I want to try to get like 100 of these in place today. They should take me two or three hours, and then at least I have something.
I’m not the type of writer that is aligned and really locked in and my intention clear if I’m just trying to make a deadline as a writer.
I’m a very fearful and anxiety-ridden person. I feel like part of my life project has been walking up to things that freak me the fuck out and just doing them because otherwise I’d be mad at myself. That’s really important to me. I feel like that’s why I’m drawn to horror.
I think a big part of my process is about overcoming this social anxiety/inability to connect and communicate with other people in a normal way. So when I’m thinking about it like that, I’m considering how people are responding to my words. I’m seeing it as a way of me being able to communicate with people, maybe in a way that isn’t normally possible for me.
One of the most important things I kept telling myself once I started writing the book again was that I couldn’t be afraid of failing. I can’t. If I’m going to fail I want that failure to be spectacular. I want it to be big. I don’t to inch my way into it. I just want to push as far as I can and see what happens. If I fail I want to fail ambitiously, and not in some tepid way where I second-guessed myself to death.
Christopher Shinn has written over a dozen plays, one of which—2008’s Dying City—was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a Guggenheim fellow, as well as a recipient of an Obie for Playwriting.
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