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Beating pandemic procrastination

Image credit: Anna Barker


Anna Barker

My writer friends mostly agree when it comes to the effect of the pandemic on our writing lives. If writing was hard before the lockdowns, it got much harder after three of them. But why? With more time than ever and fewer distractions, surely it was the perfect opportunity to press ahead with that extra reading, or the chapter that needed a stretch of time without distraction so you could really concentrate? Yet instead of speeding up, our creativity, productivity and motivation actually slowed down.

Over the past few months, many of the routines we had to give up have returned. There’s no doubt this has helped many of us chip off that pandemic rust and get back to where we were previously. But it’s not true in every case. Recently, I’ve spoken to many PhD students who report feeling overwhelmed after their long period of less productive time. Instead of looking at the workload in front of them and feeling energised to tackle it, they are experiencing ‘post-lockdown procrastination’—putting off tasks and failing to progress with their writing.


Tim Pychyl, Associate Professor of Psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, suggests that procrastination is not a time-management problem; rather, it is an emotion-management problem. The biggest mental-health challenges of the pandemic have been increased stress, anxiety and depression. It is easy to see how the emotions created by these conditions can fuel procrastination.


For me, when I sense I am procrastinating, I turn to an old friend: freewriting. The technique challenges you to write for a set period without stopping to correct the words on the page. It has helped me overcome procrastination before, and true to form, it worked again this summer. I started to accumulate pages of rough writing – not great work – but it was something, where before there had been nothing.

Yet when I came to working up the writing into something publishable, I hit a wall. Charged with pre-pandemic energy, I’d have worked on my freewriting draft, revising and expanding it until it improved. Instead, I felt the wheels slow again. Doing what I’d done pre-lockdowns didn’t work. I needed an extra step to help me get closer to a draft I could really work with on screen, something that felt a little closer to the finished product I was aiming for. So I developed a freewriting ‘bolt-on’.

Freewriting bolt-on

The following technique makes the freewriting process work a little bit harder for you.

1 Write a prompt

Find a quiet space free from distractions. Find a notepad and pencil, turn to a clean page, then write a prompt at the top. It could either be something related to the reading you have been doing around your current topic, or something to do with the overall message you’d like your reader to take from your project, chapter or argument. Phrase it as a question. Some examples might be:

  • What interests me most about this topic?
  • In what ways do I agree/disagree with this study/method/approach?
  • What do I want my reader to understand after reading this section/chapter?

2 Write freely

Once you have your question, set a timer and write your response to the prompt. You should not stop to correct yourself. Write freely and roughly for 7 minutes. Remember that no one else will see what you write. If you can’t think what to say, put anything – blah, blah, blah will do – until a new thought comes to mind. The key is to keep going, until the timer stops.

3 Note interesting ideas

Now read through what you have. Are there any ideas in the rubble of sentences that strike you as interesting or useful? Underline them. Then think about the first one. Can you rework it into a topic sentence so that it makes a point?

4 Develop your point

Now see if you can grow the point into a paragraph. Consider:

  • What nourishment in the form of evidence from other sources might support it?
  • What other questions could reasonably lead on from the point you have made?
  • What is the significance of the point?

It doesn’t matter how rough the paragraph is; you can work on it later. For now, you are only looking for ways you can ‘grow’ the point.

5 Develop more points

Now go back to your other underlined sentences from your freewriting. Can you develop another one into a paragraph in a similar way? You may need to freewrite on it first, giving it space to develop.

Be kind to yourself

You can repeat these steps as often as you need to. The most important thing is to remember to be kind to yourself. If you were prone to procrastination before the pandemic, it is likely that everything about the crisis has fuelled this writing enemy. It takes time to get the writing engine up to temperature, so stay in your notebook, keep it rough and avoid the blinking cursor on your screen for as long as you can. Don’t worry too much about how you sound. This work of digging around for points you can make is—and should be—messy work. Trust yourself that once you have got going, you can develop what you have into a more polished draft.

Perhaps you could give this technique a go with your next chapter or essay. See if it helps chip off your pandemic rust and get you closer to a complete draft.

28 October 2021
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