You sit down to write a paper. You’ve done all the research you could possibly need to do, but for some reason, you just can’t get started.
Does this mean you’re procrastinating? Ask most anyone and they’ll tell you that you are, but it’s not necessarily true. The things we write aren’t simply a culmination of the research we’ve done into a topic. The mind needs to process new information before it can work with it, and even then, there’s still the matter of what you are going to write about it.
You might think you just need to do some research and get writing, and this is why you sit at the screen unsure of where to start. You haven’t let the project germinate, and it’s like trying to harvest the fruit from a tree while it’s still a seed in the ground. Your brain needs to process that research before it can work with it.
Now, I’ll add a disclaimer here because statements like these often become excuses for those who are truly procrastinators. Just because you sit down and can’t get started writing doesn’t necessarily mean you need more germination time. It may just mean you’re plain lazy. If you’ve been sitting on that 500 word article for a month and haven’t started writing yet, I’d put a bet on the fact that you’ve had enough time to incubate your ideas. But this is all relative to the size of the task and, continuing with writing as our analogy since that’s what I do all day every day, a month’s germination time won’t be anywhere near enough time to mentally flesh out a twelve-book fantasy saga.
I’ve spoken to computer programmers in the past who have found the same thing; if they run head first into coding, they hit walls, even if they’ve sketched out some diagrams that look workable. On the other hand, if they spend the afternoon washing dishes while the programming is relegated to the back of their mind, or they sleep on it, the subconscious gets the time to process all the information and goals and feed the mind with ideas.
Allowing a germination period works so well that programmers, writers and other creators alike can often end up spending just hours or days tackling a project that would’ve taken weeks or months had they rushed in.
Not Just for Creatives and Problem-Solvers
This principle doesn’t just apply to those who produce the written word or computer software or works of art for a living. It applies to everyone who has to do something that doesn’t come with an instruction book.
For instance, if you know you’re moving house in a month but you’ll only have a weekend between the time you get your new keys and the time you give the old ones back, the best thing you can do is let that problem sit in the back of your mind unattended for a few days, maybe a week. The first instinct most of us might have is to panic. This interferes with problem-solving, whether it’s conscious problem-solving or background problem-solving.
Once you return the problem to conscious thought, you may find you’ve got a good idea of how to prepare things in advance so that your move only takes a weekend (even though it’ll probably involve hiring a removalist and a cleaner!).
No Manual Required, But it’s Not Easy
This is such a simple concept. How is it that we miss the signs that we’re simply not ready to get started on the production phase of a project?
I recently read somewhere that many Westerners confuse thirst for hunger because we’ve been trained to eat to solve all of our problems. I’m not vouching for the truth of that statement, but it’s a similar thing we’re talking about here. Western culture wants us busy all the time, producing, producing, producing. Unproductive workers are bad for the bottom line.
So, spending some time thinking is discouraged. We have to produce results NOW. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), the mind doesn’t work that way. It needs to spend the time taking information in, and then it needs to be left alone to do the “pre-production” as we say in the music production world.
Thus, it’s not easy to set a project aside and wait until it is ready to be tackled (whether that’s an hour away, a day, or more). That doesn’t make it difficult, but it’s not easy, either. Even as a guy who works from home and doesn’t have to keep up appearances looking like a busy bee in the office, I feel guilty when I put the production work off and let some information settle into the empty vortex at the back of my skull (back where my brain used to be).
I can’t offer a quick way to help you feel less guilty about doing this, unfortunately, because this is a part of the way you see the world and that makes it a mental adjustment that takes time. It’s hard to get out of the negative feedback loop that the guilt of taking time to think causes while others think you’re just procrastinating. Persevere, stick with it, and when you’re estimating the time it’ll take to complete something, factor it in.
I’m still getting to that guilt-free stage myself.