On Overcoming Procrastination, Writer’s Block, and Impostor Syndrome

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Three of the most common email questions I receive from readers are:

I want to start a blog, but I’m scared that I won’t have enough stuff to write about. Should I start one anyway?

I want to apply for higher-paying jobs, but I don’t feel that I’m qualified. What should I do?

I want to spend more time working on my side projects, but I keep finding ways to put them off. How do you overcome procrastination?

Here are my responses to these three questions.

Writer’s Block

Question: I want to start a blog, but I’m scared that I won’t have enough stuff to write about. Should I start one anyway?

The problem: Writer’s Block

I receive this question more than any other. People want to write more and publish more, but they believe they’re limited by writer’s block. According to Wikipedia, writer’s block is defined as:

“A condition, primarily associated with writing, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work, or experiences a creative slowdown.”

The solution: Sit and struggle more often.

So, what’s the cure? How can you push beyond this invisible force and just start writing on a consistent basis? 

I think author Anne Lamott said it best. In her book Bird by Bird, she says that a student once asked her for advice on how to become a better writer.

Lamott’s reponse:

“You sit down, I say. You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively. So you sit down at, say, nine every morning, or ten every night. You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on the computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind — a scene, a locale, a character, whatever — and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind.”

In a nutshell, there is no “secret” to writing. You simply show up on a regular basis and struggle. That’s pretty much it. The more you sit and work through the struggle, the better you become at putting your thoughts into words. And rest assured, you’re not the only person out there who struggles with writing. Lamott also once said:

“I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts. All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her.”

Best of all, the more you consistently sit and write, the more observant you become in your daily life because you’re always look for ideas and topics to write about. In reference to how she comes up with her own ideas for writing, Lamott shared:

“I took notes on the people around me, in my town, in my family, in my memory. I took notes on my own state of mind, my grandiosity, the low self-esteem. I wrote down the funny stuff I overheard. I learned to be like a ship’s rat, veined ears trembling, and I learned to scribble it all down.”

Always be on your toes. Notice the things around you. Jot down notes to yourself. Keep a running list of ideas on things to write about. The more you do this, the more patterns you’ll notice and the more connections you’ll make. Do this enough and Writer’s Block won’t stand a chance.

Impostor Syndrome

Question: I want to apply for higher-paying jobs, but I don’t feel that I’m qualified. What should I do?

The problem: Impostor Syndrome

According to Wikipedia, Impostor Syndrome is “the persistent fear of being exposed as fraud.”

The Solution: Recognize that everyone struggles with this. Also recognize that most people are interested in your strengths, not your weaknesses. At some point you have to let go of fear and apply for the position you want. If you do get rejected, you’ll at least learn about what areas you need to improve in.

When I landed my current job as a data scientist, I struggled with impostor syndrome in a major way. Sure, I had a master’s degree in applied statistics. I had the experience in a previous job with programming. I knew my stuff. But I still felt that I was a fraud, that my coworkers and new bosses would soon discover that I wasn’t good enough, that my skill set just wasn’t up to standard.

What I have found over the past couple of years from working in Corporate America is that virtually everyone struggles with this. Everyone secretly thinks they’re the worst at what they do and that their skill set isn’t good enough. The truth is, many people (especially over-achievers) focus most of their time and attention on the things they’re not good at while forgetting all the wonderful skills they actually do have.

For example, my programming skills are below average because I didn’t major in computer science in college. On the flip side, my knowledge in statistics is probably above average but I often ignore this fact. I constantly focus on my weak points and assume that other people judge me based off my weaknesses as well. 

In reality, most people don’t care that I have weaknesses. They’re happy to pick my brain about the knowledge and skills I do have, while also offering to help me improve my weaknesses. And in turn, I’m happy to help other people learn more about stats.

So, if you want to apply for a higher-paying job but you’re struggling with impostor syndrome, just recognize that it’s normal. Obviously you should work on improving your weak points so that you’re somewhat qualified for the job you’re applying for, but at some point you have to let go of that fear and apply anyway. In the worst-case scenario, if you get rejected you’ll simply be in the exact same spot you’re in now.

Procrastination

Question:  I want to spend more time working on my side projects, but I keep finding ways to put them off. How do you overcome procrastination?

The problem: Procrastination

Webster’s dictionary defines procrastination as “the action of delaying or postponing something.”

The solution: Recognize that you will face the strongest desire to procrastinate when you’re working on the things that are most important to your self development. Then make a conscious choice to sit down and do the work anyway.

Steven Pressfield once wrote in his bestseller The War of Art,

“Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.”

Pressfield says there exists an invisible force that prevents us all from doing our most important work. He refers to this as the “Resistance” and says it’s something that never goes away. 

Whether you’re trying to write a blog post, write a piece of code, write a cover letter, work on a side project, or craft an important email, you’ll always be faced with Resistance.

The only way to overcome this force and actually do the important work is to sit down every single day and face the work head on. Even if it’s hard, challenging, annoying, or boring at times, you have to train yourself to embrace the drudgery.

As The Minimalists say, “Everything meaningful resides on the other side of the drudgery.”

I realize this isn’t a sexy answer, but it’s not meant to be a sexy answer. It’s meant to be an effective answer. Anyone out there who has ever done important, meaningful work has at some point had to face the force of procrastination and overcome it. 

Your other option – giving in to procrastination – is a deadly alternative. Pressfield also shares in The War of Art,

“The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit. We don’t just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed. Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second we can turn the tables on Resistance. This second, we can sit down and do our work.”

The more you procrastinate, the more natural it will become. The only way to overcome procrastination is to sit down and choose to do the work over and over again, even if it’s hard.


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One Reply to “On Overcoming Procrastination, Writer’s Block, and Impostor Syndrome”

  1. Awesome advice as always Zach. I have a serious problem with the “Procrastination” part and you’re completely right – I just have to do it. Luckily I haven’t experienced Writer’s Block yet and so far only write when I’m inspired. Let’s see how long that can last 🙂 . I also plowed through my Imposter Syndrome about 2 years into my career. I still feel it, but I don’t let it stop me from applying to a better position – even if it requires a lot more years experience than I have. So far I’ve gotten all those jobs despite the years requested. Focusing on strengths is a great idea to take this to the next level – I still struggle with that.

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