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Storytelling Communications

Clean Floors, Missed Deadlines: How Procrastination Can Hurt Your Freelance Writing Career

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Here’s a secret about me: when I’m putting off working on freelance writing assignments, I suddenly become the perfect homemaker that I certainly am not the rest of the time.

Out of nowhere my bathroom closet requires organization, the innards of my washing machine need scrubbing, and the tiles in my shower require regrouting. I refold my baby’s onesies because the drawer is a bit too disorganized for my taste, make my bed to hotel-esque perfection, and break out my box of so-called “important paperwork” (that probably isn’t important at all) so I can sort through it. All that, and I manage to attempt a completely new-to-me recipe for my family’s dinner.

Clean room

I like to call this positive procrastination. I convince myself that even though I’m not doing what I should be doing in the moment, I’m at least working on something that needs to get done. It’s not the smartest course of action, but it beats scrolling through my Facebook feed for hours.

But what happens when the minutiae of everyday life shifts—and all of a sudden there are more demands placed on you than those looming deadlines you’ve put off for far too long?

Imagine: a snot-dripping, coughing, sleepless baby; a trip to the doctor’s office for yourself that you leave with an ear infection (technically you had it before the appointment, but still); waiting for your prescription at the pharmacy only to learn 45 minutes later that they forgot to fill it, and, oh yeah, those five writing assignments that need to be finished by the end of the week—including two from your most challenging client and one from your newest. Did I mention it’s already Tuesday?

I’ve been here. You don’t want to be.

Listen, life happens. Whether you’re sidelined with an illness, a car accident, spotty Wi-Fi, or even missed communications from your clients, the work still needs to get done. Even more important, you need to complete it on time.

Does a sparkling-clean house pitch in when the going gets tough? The answer is no. The floor may shine, there may be no dust in sight, but you—and you alone—are left to solve your dilemma: how to make a comeback from procrastination-turned-panic.

Why Is Procrastination So Prevalent?

In a study published in Psychology, researchers found approximately one-fifth of the adult population and half of the student population struggle with procrastination, which sounds about right to me. When a human is stressed about a particular activity, it’s often much easier to put it off and do something else. Well, at least temporarily. The putting-it-off part tends to create chaos as time winds down, particularly in the world of freelance writing. Procrastination delays the inevitable: your deadlines. Yes, it’s a motivating force, as the heavy wait of stress and anxiety and even adrenaline pushes a writer to the brink. But is binge writing even worth it?

The ugly truth is this: procrastination is rampant because its allowed to happen and is regularly reinforced.

Every time you delay your work with excuses (valid, invalid, or the gray line between the two), every time you complete writing assignments at the very last minute and take a deep breath of relief when you hit submit, you’re only reaffirming that the behavior is acceptable. A choice was made, over and over again, and somewhere throughout the process, you’ve convinced yourself that this cycle is normal.

It’s not. Binge writing, or the practice of procrastinating and then purging, hurts your work. According to Natalie Goldberg in her book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, “It is odd that we never question the feasibility of a football team practicing long hours for one game; yet in writing we rarely give ourselves the space for practice.” So why aren’t we practicing?

With all the time we waste on other, less-pressing duties, we could have finished our work with time to spare. Those extra minutes, hours, days even, could have been used to send communications to find new clients, to strategize business goals, or, even more importantly, to enjoy the company of our friends and family.

Why Do Writers Procrastinate?

1. The Work is Too Simple

When you’re talented, writing often comes easily. So, if you know it won’t take much time and effort to complete a project, it’s much easier to binge watch The Walking Dead or 90 Day Fiancé. You’ll get to your work later, right? Of course. However, will it be your best work? If the answer to that question is yes, I have one more for you. Are you challenging yourself enough? If you’re taking on work that is easy to write, edit, and gets published as is, take a step out of your comfort zone. Seek out assignments that keep you on your toes. The harder you’re willing to work to find challenging work, the more likely you are to get paid for your talent.

feet on a rock

2. The Work Is Too Challenging

As Megan McArdle wrote in The Atlantic, “Forced into a challenge we’re not prepared for, we often engage in…’self-handicapping’: deliberately doing things that set us up for failure.” When a writer accepts an assignment outside of their comfort zone or possibly in a different niche, fear overtakes the first draft. The article—that we were once so eager to write in the first place—suddenly paralyzes us. So, we resort to tactics that have worked for us in the past, such as avoidance, or even hypervigilance. Sometimes, procrastination masks itself in the form overworking. If you spend countless hours reading and researching, you’re still working, right?

Freelance Journalist and Copywriter, AJ O’Connell, said, “Often, if I work on a complicated piece about a topic I’ve never written about before, I will spend hours researching it. Like too many hours. All the hours. It’s a terrible way to go about working for a couple of reasons. It drives my hourly rate way down, for one thing. For another, if you do too much research, you stop reading authority sites and end up on content aggregators, which really don’t help.”

3. They Feel Like Impostors

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been worried an editor will one day realize you’re not as good of a writer as they claim you are. (Imagine me waving both arms in the air enthusiastically.)

Believing in yourself takes a lot of effort. And, similar to procrastination, negative thoughts can completely derail a freelance writing career. O’Connell said, “It’s easier to ignore the things that scare us. If we have to write about an intimidating new topic, if we’re stressed because we really want to impress a new client with our first assignment, or even if we are worried about our ability to focus on work when we’re stressed out, it’s easier to say we’ll write later, when we’re more centered. Or, when we have more time. Or, when we have a better handle on the topic. The problem is, ‘later’ doesn’t come. At least it doesn’t come until we’re on deadline and need to get our piece in immediately.”

I want to tell you a secret: your editors enjoy working with you. If not, you wouldn’t have been hired or continue to get work from them. Don’t waste your time waiting to be found out. Instead, shine.

4. They’re Waiting for Flashes of Genius

A binge writer truly believes that the content s/he ideates in those final moments before a deadline is, in fact, true genius. It’s not. Your last-minute strokes of genius aren’t (necessarily) your most brilliant. They are simply ideas that work. And, in that moment of desperation, any idea that works is good enough. What happens is that some time goes by, your work is published, and when you look at what you’ve written, you realize you could have done better. Does that sit right with you?

“Ten years of working on tight deadlines in the newspaper industry—where your mistakes can be really, really public—taught me that last-minute flashes of genius aren’t a thing. Even if you’re working on a squeaker of a deadline, you have to plan your piece out as soon as you can. In some cases, if I had to write a meeting up in half an hour, that meant reciting my lead to myself over and over in the car as I drove from the meeting back to the newsroom,” said O’Connell.

How Procrastination Hurts Your Career

Before I forayed into the world of freelance writing, I worked as a managing editor. When you work with writers for quite some time, you begin to know their skill levels. Remember those “flashes of genius” that came to you in the 23rd hour? To us, they read like possible great ideas that really needed more ruminating and research for development. We can tell when your work needs to get fleshed out. We can tell when you’re not giving us your all. It’s also easy to notice when writers are holding back from fear. And you know what? It bothers us, and for many reasons.

First, we want the best from you. An editor’s job is to keep the best writers on their team. Sometimes that means we have to advocate for you to our higher-ups. When you’re not producing the quality we expect or we have to stick our necks out for you, we feel let down.

Similarly, if we know you’re capable but you’re underperforming, there’s a chance we’ll look elsewhere. It takes more time to edit poorly written work than it takes to find qualified writers. Your editors enjoy working with you, so, instead of procrastinating, motivate yourself. If fear is holding you back, reach out to your editors. Ask questions about the assignment or run your outline by them. An editor would rather work with you then receive sloppy work that requires a lot of effort to pull together on their part in the final moment it’s due.

One final note: remember that procrastination is, in its simplest form, a choice. Whether you’re spending time over-researching or dusting your crown molding and baseboards, you are the only one in control of your time. Take charge.

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Erin Ollila graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. After a 12+ year career in human resources – specializing in employee health and dental benefits, as well as wellness programs– she's jumped headfirst into digital strategy and content creation. Erin believes in the power of words and how a message can inform – and even transform – its intended audience. Her writing can be found all over the internet and in print, and includes interviews, ghostwriting, blog posts, and creative nonfiction. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things social media. She lives in Southeastern Massachusetts, neighboring Providence, Rhode Island, one of her favorite small cities. Learn more about her at www.erinollila.com.

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