A writer’s guide to overcoming procrastination

The next great novel may be at your fingertips—if only you could manage to stop watching YouTube videos.
A bad first draft is better than no draft at all. Glenn Carstens-Peters / Unsplash

Storytelling is in our nature and even helps with our mental health. So it’s not surprising that every day people are challenging themselves to finish writing books, essays, or movie scripts. They do it even knowing it can be a daunting task. Because writing is not easy. 

And as someone who does it for a living, I can confirm that, sadly, there are no hacks or shortcuts. To get some writing done, you actually need to sit down and do the writing, no matter how tempting it is to do something else instead.

Fortunately, there are plenty of tools out there to help you bust your procrastinating brain into gear, and help you finish that precious first draft. 

You need to get words (any words) on the page

One of the main reasons we procrastinate, especially around writing, is perfectionism. We want to write something good, but we’re afraid we won’t be able to, so we put it off altogether instead of trying and failing. (It’s something I’m guilty of at the moment with my never-likely-to-be-released novel, and ironically, this article, which has taken me two weeks to complete). 

[Related: Become a better writer with these online tools]

The trick, as most writers eventually learn, is accepting that your first draft will be terrible. But before you throw your ambition to become a writer out the window, keep in mind that anything, even the most flawed and inane rough copy, is better than an empty page. Writing is a process where you constantly build off of a previous draft. And to improve terrible writing, you first need to have some writing you can improve. 

Another way of overcoming perfectionism is remembering that anything that has ever been published has been edited and reworked repeatedly by two or more people. Comparing your rough first draft to someone else’s polished, edited, published work just doesn’t make any sense. 

Finishing that first draft is one of the biggest challenges you’ll face when writing, but there are a couple of different ways achieve it. 

Commit to a short session

The Pomodoro technique—named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer—is my secret to getting my writing done. And I hate it. 

The idea behind it is simple—you’ll boost your productivity by committing to short work sessions with small breaks in between. In practice, this means writing for 25 minutes, taking a five-minute break, and repeating the entire process three times before taking a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes.

The best thing about the Pomodoro technique is how incredibly effective it is. Taking breaks helps reset your brain and keep you focused. By forcing you to sit down for short periods of time, and ignoring your urge to procrastinate, you’ll actually get some writing done. If you want to watch something on YouTube, knowing that you don’t have to work too long will make it easier to follow the rules and just wait until your break. 

When you’re feeling really unproductive, there’s no need to commit to a full Pomodoro session. I regularly just do one or two 25-minute stretches. Remember—when it comes to nailing down that first draft, any work is good work. 

There are lots of different Pomodoro apps out there for Android, Windows, macOS and iOS. Start with the official one or just use your smartphone’s timer. If you’re feeling extra fancy, you can even get a physical sandglass

Go distraction-free

If you can’t trust yourself not to browse Instagram, even for a few 25-minute blocks, you might need to force yourself to actively turn off all distractions. 

Apps like FocusMe (available for Windows, macOS and Android) and Freedom (available for Android, iOS, Windows and macOS) enable you to create lists of apps, websites, games, and programs you can block to avoid any distractions. You can then set up a schedule to allocate time for Twitter scrolling, or use a timer to keep you from falling into that Reddit rabbit hole. If these apps don’t keep you from putting off work, at least they’ll make it a lot harder. 

[Related: Six tips for writing emails that aren’t absolute garbage]

And if a gentle nudge in the right direction won’t stop you from procrastinating, there are more extreme options. The Most Dangerous Writing App (now owned by Squibler) is a free tool that forces you to write for a set period of time or number of words. If you stop writing for more than a few seconds, everything you’ve written starts to fade to red, and then gets deleted. It’s a powerful way to focus your mind. 

Make writing a habit

Like most things, writing gets easier the more you do it. Turn it into a habit, and you’ll be well on your way to success. 

The web app 750 Words is a platform that encourages you to write about three pages—you guessed it, 750 words—every day. Those words can be anything: a personal journal, your thoughts on a local ordinance, even the fifth chapter of the next great American novel. Once you start, 750 Words will encourage you to keep going so as not to break your streak. 

There are a lot of writing platforms you can use to boost your skills, but the best app is the one that works for you. I personally do my journaling with Day One (available for macOS and iOS), whose streamlined design actually invites you to open it every day. But if you don’t want to download anything, you can keep it simple and just use a basic text file. 

[Related: Think you’re too busy to journal? These apps let you do it on the go.]

Don’t worry about reaching big goals either: even a few sentences every day will start to get your word count ticking up. 

Add some consequences 

If the satisfaction of starting something and following through isn’t enough to keep you writing, you might need to add some consequences. 

For the writing of my book, I went with the simplest option: I told my brother that if I don’t finish or at least put in a good effort by the end of this year, he’s going to publicly roast me about it and never let me forget I failed. Not something I want to happen. 

If the threat of public ridicule isn’t enough, though, you can up the ante and put some real money on the table. StickK (available for Android and iOS) is a commitment platform where you can pledge a donation and pick an impartial referee to help you stay on track. If you don’t stick with what you set out to do, the referee has the power to make the donation in your name. But if losing money is not motivation enough, make a pledge you truly hate, and let the thought of giving money to an absurd cause, like The Partnership to Give Sauron the One Ring, push you all the way to the finish line.

[Related: One notebook could replace all the productivity apps that have failed you

Another good option, depending on what kind of thing you’re writing, is to sign up for a competition or event. This will provide you with a real deadline and a fair amount of pressure to finish your piece. For novels, there’s National Novel Writing Month, and if you prefer short stories and essays, there’s NYC Midnight’s Microfiction Challenge, and many more

Keep writing until it’s time to move on

Nothing you write will ever really be finished—and that’s okay. If you re-read something you wrote a few weeks ago, you’ll most likely find something you’d like to change. This is why most writers don’t so much finish their work as they get fed up with it or run out of time. 

And if you accept that the best you’re ever going to get to is a draft you’re mostly happy with, it’s just a matter of turning that draft into a reality. Your book or essay is never going to be perfect—but it’ll be better than a blank page.