When the Clock is Ticking, Stop Writing and Do These 3 Steps Instead

Last week I shared my own procrastination tendencies with you, as well as a free resource to help you conquer those pesky long-term projects.

But if you sometimes struggle with procrastination, you know firsthand that if you let a project go for too long, lack of time is not the only problem you’ll face.

Let’s say you’re assigned an essay on a school novel. You think, “I really understood that book well. I’m sure I’ll have no problem coming up with a theme to write about. It’s in the bag!”

So you leave the assignment for a while. It doesn’t feel like procrastination. You got this! You’re confident that as soon as you start writing, the essay will just flow out of you.

But when you finally sit down, open the book, and flip through your notes, you realize that you have no idea what to write.  

Sure, you have a lot of ideas about the book. You want to say something important about one of the big themes. You see words like justice and innocence in your notesBut where do you go from there? How can you build an argument? Where should you start looking for quotes to use? What will your thesis be?

With the deadline looming, every fiber of your being is telling you, “Just write something! Anything!” But what? Should you just spew out the first couple hundred words that come to mind and hope for the best?

No! You won’t be doing yourself any favors if you try to “power through” and get words down on paper without a plan! An essay that says nothing isn't going to impress your teacher or get you a good grade.

So what should you do instead? Here are the three actions you can take right now to save your bacon.

1. Slow Down

I know, I know: time is running out! But you know when we use the expression “So-and-so was running around like a chicken with its head cut off”? Well, good old So-and-so was probably going really fast, but not in any useful direction.

Don’t be a headless chicken! Stop desperately trying to hammer out a draft that’s going nowhere.

An old boss of mine used to say, “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.” For me, this ungrammatical expression perfectly sums up the difficulty of trying to get a task done by focusing on the looming deadline. We tend to panic. We end up doing the same part of the task over again a few times because we’re distracted, thinking about how we’re running out of time!

I hear you -- the deadline is coming! But your plan can’t be to think about the deadline as you write. Take a moment and try one of these stress-reducing techniques:

  • breathe deeply to the count of five for each inhale and each exhale
  • meditate
  • stretch
  • go for a quick walk
  • look at your surroundings and really focus on what you see and hear
  • watch a really short (1 minute or less!) funny or cute video that makes you either laugh out loud or feel all gooey inside

2. Make a Plan

Once you've gotten out of full anxiety mode, you need to assess where you are. What do you already have and what do you still need?

  • Do you have a ton of notes on important passages? Time to start looking for the concepts that connect them so you can identify big ideas to write about.
  • Do you have some broad ideas? Find the three that work together best to use as your body paragraph topics, and brainstorm what connects them so you can write a thesis statement.
  • No evidence yet? Before you reread the entire book and use up all your remaining time, think about which facts, scenes, or events would help you support your argument. Once you know what you’re looking for, locating it will be a whole lot easier! You can use your class notes and returned homework and quizzes (or even the summaries on SparkNotes for literature!) to remind yourself where to find the details you want.

3. Prioritize

I’m sorry to say it, but you’re not magical and you may not be able to do everything you’d like to make your essay your best.

So use the time you have remaining to make a prioritized to-do list. It’s probably unwise to write two or three drafts of your first body paragraph before you have the other two nailed down. Generally, it’s best to have a complete draft that’s rough around the edges than an incomplete draft with a few polished components.

If you have a rubric for this assignment, use that to help you prioritize tasks! What will you be graded on? What are the non-negotiable elements if you want to receive a passing -- not perfect -- grade?

Use what you know about your teacher and about your performance in this class. If you’ve gotten repeated comments about sparse analysis, put in your time there! Maybe you can go for a shorter introduction and conclusion as a trade off.

Seriously. Don’t panic.

It feels crummy to write under the gun. But it will feel a lot less crummy if you can stop, drop your anxiety level, and roll out a plan.

And if you need help doing that, I’m here for you! It can be really difficult to turn off your “hurrier” mode and see clearly enough to make a plan that will work. If you need help making a plan to move forward, I'm here to help with a Writing Jump Start. I'll help you get moving again so you can make the best use of the time you have left and turn in quality work. 

What’s your story?

What do you do when you’re under the gun to finish a writing assignment?

What techniques do you use to stop panicking and finish your project?