For many people, the easiest thing to procrastinate about is working on a big report, or really anything that requires a substantial amount of writing. With each new assignment, you tell yourself, “This one will be different. I’ll get started right away.” But it’s hard, so you put it off. And then even when you finally convince yourself to get started, it’s easy to let almost any other task take precedence. Eventually, there’s no way to put it off more—the deadline is looming—and so you have to make a panicked sprint to the finish.
If you want to be better at making steady progress on big writing projects, here are four things you can do:
Break it down
One factor that creates paralysis in this type of writing is the size of the project. If you’re working on a report, there may be financial statements you need to explore first, or data from consumers, or results of focus groups. Even after you decide what you want to say, you need to organize the report into sections and then actually turn those into text. You might even need to enlist the help of other people to get sections of the report together.
When faced with a big project like that, it is tempting to push it to the side in favor of smaller tasks that are easier (and therefore more satisfying) to complete. Instead, you need to turn that report into a series of smaller tasks that are easier to complete. The first step is to create a list of everything that needs to be done in order to get it finished. After that, start putting some of those smaller tasks on your agenda or on your calendar to make sure you’re getting something done. (This process works for just about any big task you have in front of you.)
Actually make an outline
Even when you have a list of tasks, a big document feels unwieldy. Writing an email isn’t that hard. You know the components. Have a greeting up front. Make your request or share your news. Have a closing. You’re done.
With a report, it may not be obvious initially how it should be structured. If you just try to start writing, you can be forgiven for having some difficulty knowing exactly what you are supposed to write.
So make sure you generate an outline. If you’re having trouble getting that started, just make a list of the various sections you think you’ll need in the report. You can reorder them after you get them all written down. After that, make a list of the more specific elements you need in each section. Again, you can put those in their proper order after you get the list together.
You will have a lot more confidence writing the report if you have a clear sense of its overall structure. Of course, it is okay to deviate from the outline once you get started. The outline is just there to make sure you can wrap your head around everything the report needs to include.
Just get something down
There are times when having an outline still doesn’t lead you to write much. The problem is that the sentences that emerge as you type don’t always feel good. You may have qualms about your word choice. You may write a tangled sentence with an unclear meaning. It is easy to stare at that sentence hoping it will untwist itself into something beautiful.
That is a sure way to hale your progress. Think of it this way: When I was a kid, my mom gave me a joke book about dinosaurs. It contained the joke:
Q: How do you make a statue of a dinosaur?
A: Take a block of marble and cut away everything that doesn’t look like a dinosaur.
Writing is the same thing. You need to start by just getting a bunch of sentences into your word processor that relate to the outline you constructed. Then, you can go back and edit to get rid of everything that doesn’t look like the dinosaur.
Remember that almost every great piece of writing you ever read started off as a first draft that nobody but the writer would understand. It isn’t the quality of the first draft that matters. It is the ability to get it started so you can revise it into something worth reading.
Write for five more minutes
Because writing can be frustrating, you may quickly find that you feel like you need to walk away from it. It is easy to tell yourself that you’re going to take a short break only to go down a rabbit hole of email, other tasks on your to-do list, or Instagram videos.
Instead, when you feel the urge to quit writing, tell yourself that you’re going to write for five more minutes. Five minutes isn’t that long, and you’ll probably write a few more sentences, or maybe even a whole other paragraph. You might even get a second wind and write for more than five minutes.
More importantly, you are training yourself how to deal with the feeling of frustration that often makes you stop. Rather than using that feeling as a signal that you should quit writing, now you’re associating that feeling with continuing to write for at least five more minutes. In the long run, you’ll find that the feeling of being stuck will stop being a cue to quit. That will help you to stick with it longer and to finish your projects faster.