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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Wise Writers Step Back From Procrastination


one step forwardOne step forward, one step back. Two steps forward, two steps back. Does this sound like a route through the push-pull of procrastination?

It is. And it makes perfect neurological sense.

Let me tell you about our dog Kelda to illustrate. As I mentioned in a previous post, Kelda notices anything that is out of place or different. She used to be fearful in these situations, but she learned to be brave by following the “check it out” command.

“Check it out,” means Kelda should touch the palm of my hand, which I hold close, but not too close, to whatever it is that startled her. When she touches her nose to my hand, I give her a treat. Then I move my hand closer to the startling object and repeat the process until Kelda learns that what scared her is really okay and actually a source of good stuff (i.e. treats).

Kelda studies her next move

Kelda studies her next move

Our trainer told me it’s essential that I let Kelda back away from the scary object after she checks it out. In other words, let her take one step forward and one step back. Then ask her to take two steps forward and let her take two steps back.

When you challenge yourself to step toward a writing goal that makes you anxious, your limbic system will trigger, which turns off your creative and problem-solving cortex.

If you then take a step back, your limbic system will back off, too. You disengage the limbic system and bring your cortex back online. You can relax and feel good about what you did.

Then you can challenge yourself to take a slightly bigger risk. When you take two steps forward, you start with your limbic system disengaged. Because the first step will be familiar, it’s less likely to trigger your limbic system. When you take the second step, your limbic system will engage, but by then you have forward momentum.

On the other hand, if you take one step forward (which triggers the limbic system), and instead of allowing yourself to step back (to disengage your limbic system), you immediately challenge yourself to take another step forward, you start that second step in an already anxious, fight-or-flight state. The stress escalates. And the procrastination gets worse.

It is much easier to step into a challenge when you’re in a neutral state than when you’re anxious before you even start.

If you keep your brain in a near-constant state of anxiety and stress, you quickly get entrenched in the push-pull of procrastination. You keep yourself too scared to move forward because you never let yourself back up long enough to let your limbic system calm down.

If you’ve been in the habit of driving yourself or if your push-pull procrastination pattern is entrenched, you may need to repeatedly practice taking one small step forward and one step back to rewire your limbic system. You need to learn that you can relax after taking a risk.

Stop thinking about stepping back as “slacking off.” You aren’t procrastinating – you’re calming your limbic system so your cortex can choose your next creative step forward. Or you’re doing the cha-cha.

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