Advice on impostor syndrome, procrastination, and getting to your real work

“Every time I sit down to do work, my feelings of inadequacy take over.”

Welcome to the latest installment of my monthly advice column. This time I’m tackling two questions that seemed . . . sort of related? At least, they both reminded me that sometimes it takes so much work just to get to the work.


Dear Subtle Maneuvers,

Do you have any advice for getting past deep impostor syndrome and the procrastination that it fuels? 

I’m a professor in the humanities and I need to finish a book for tenure, but I find that despite all my attempts to sleep well, exercise, prioritize my schedule for writing, and reduce internet access, I can’t break out of the cycle of procrastination. Every time I sit down to do work, my feelings of inadequacy take over. I keep pushing my deadlines forward because I can’t seem to commit to what’s on the page. I worry it will never be good enough and so I just delay and delay, which deepens the sense of impossibility, since it’s hard to produce good work in a shorter time frame. 

How can I stay focused and commit to putting words on the page consistently? Is there a way to look at my objective achievements thus far and reassure myself that what I produce will be good enough? —Ursula in NYC

Dear Ursula,

Thanks so much for writing in with this dilemma, which I think a lot of people can relate to (I know I can). Impostor syndrome, in particular, seems to be rampant these days. Out of curiosity, I did a quick Instagram poll last week and 80 percent of the people who replied said that they suffer from it. This was a very small and highly unscientific survey, but even so I found the results comforting. Like, we can’t all be impostors!

I read somewhere that the people who tend to suffer from impostor syndrome are precisely the ones who are the most competent at what they do—i.e., it’s the Lisa Simpsons of the world, not the Barts, who secretly feel like frauds in their professions. That makes sense to me. It takes someone sensitive to the nuances of a job to understand just how difficult it is to get it right, or how far their performance is from the impossible ideal they hold in their heads.

But it’s infuriating too. The people who rise to the top of their professions are, very often, people who are supremely confident in their abilities—and a lot of that confidence is misplaced! Also, a lot of that confidence tends to accrue to people in positions of privilege, especially white men. A friend of mine texted that she can lessen her feelings of imposter syndrome by “thinking about all the mediocre dudes out there thinking they are capable of so much without reflecting on their lack of experience and talent, mansplaining left and right.” Might be worth a try?

Not surprisingly, women are more likely to suffer from impostor syndrome—and, as this article persuasively argues, even labeling it “impostor syndrome” may be yet another way for individual women to shoulder the blame for problems that really require society-level solutions.

I’m guessing that you already know and appreciate a lot of this. The problem is when you sit down to write and “feelings of inadequacy take over.” Pesky feelings! They can be so hard to reason with.

It’s interesting that you ask if there’s a way “to look at my objective achievements thus far and reassure myself that what I produce will be good enough,” because that’s exactly what I was going to suggest. In terms of how to do it: You could make a list of your achievements and pin it to the wall above your desk, or keep it on your phone to review when you need a boost. Or you could start a folder with tokens of your achievements—certificates, photos, published work, flattering notes, whatever. Or here’s another idea (with more in the replies):

This exercise might feel a little silly at first, but however you choose to do it, I think you should go all in—like, make the most insanely flattering version of the list/folder you can. No one else has to see it, so just absolutely soak yourself in evidence of your brilliance and nerve and tenacity.

(Really, all of us should do this. It’s a goddamn feat just to make it to adulthood, not to mention surviving the last four years, not to mention surviving the last year. Any work accomplishments on top of that deserve to be celebrated.)

The tricky thing about your situation is that, while I absolutely agree that you need to review and celebrate your accomplishments, I also think that you may need to accept that this particular book project may not be the glorious, towering achievement that you want it to be.

I know, for me at least, that’s where the procrastination kicks in. I set out to write something brilliant and original, and then I start to write and it is . . . well, not brilliant and original, to put it mildly. And that gap between vision and reality can be acutely painful. As the struggling-writer narrator of Iris Murdoch’s novel The Black Prince put it: “Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea.”

But that’s just the nature of the job. What I’d like you to try to believe is the following: What you’re writing may not be as good as your highest ambitions, but it is going to be good enough. If you can accept that, I think you might start to see this urge to procrastinate ease up.

However, if procrastination remains a constant companion in your work life, I have a book recommendation for you. I’m generally skeptical of self-help-y titles, but this one really was helpful, at least for me: Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now.

The authors created and ran the country’s first procrastination treatment groups, at the University of California, Berkeley, and, as they write in an introductory note, these workshops “reinforced our idea that procrastination is not primarily a time management problem or a moral failing but a complex psychological issue.” And they do an impressive job breaking down all the components of that heady psychological brew. If you’re too busy to pick it up right away, here’s a small excerpt from the book, a list of things you can try telling yourself when procrastination rears its ugly (but also oh-so-alluring) head:

Finally, I’d like to invite everyone to add your own advice for Ursula by leaving a comment below. As usual, I’ll be reading and replying throughout the week.

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Also, on Instagram, I asked for people’s advice regarding impostor syndrome and got some really smart replies. Here’s a selection:

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Dear Subtle Maneuvers,

I am a very active journal writer. It’s the first thing I do when I get up in the morning. I make coffee, sit down at my desk, and write in my journal for about an hour. Once I hit the hour mark I usually say to myself, "Ok, now it’s time to get to the real work," which, to my mind, means trying to write fiction. Needless to say, the fiction comes nowhere near as easily as the journal writing. Oftentimes I find that much of the time I devote to fiction writing I spend staring out the window, asking myself why I suddenly can’t write anymore. I tend to view journal writing as a distraction from the "real thing", and during these periods I often find that I’m kicking myself for having wasted so much energy on the chronicles of my own private life rather than focusing on devoting myself to the work I hope to one day share with the world. 

That being said, I find that the journal writing heavily informs my views on fiction writing. I’m not a science-fiction or fantasy writer. I don’t have any interest in writing fiction that strays too far from the truth and the reality of the world as I experience it. There’s enough fiction in this world as it is, to my mind—but maybe that’s another subject entirely. 

So my question is, do you have any advice on the value of journaling for an aspiring fiction writer? I don’t know what the right way to look at it is. —Andrew in Bologna, Italy

Dear Andrew,

Interesting question! I’ve also gone through periods where my journal-writing flowed easily but my “real” writing was completely stuck. I don’t think the reason why is such a mystery: Journaling is writing without all of the pressures of writing. Since you’re not planning to show it to anyone, it doesn’t have to be smart or sensitive or original or even grammatical. And it can be relentlessly inward-looking and personal-grievance-focused, which is always a pleasure for the writer (and almost never a pleasure for the reader).

Even so, there might be a way to tie your journal-writing more directly to your “real” writing. Reading your question, I immediately thought of the Canadian writer Sheila Heti, whose work I love. A few years ago, when I was putting together my second Daily Rituals book, she kindly told me about her process over email. The thing that stuck in my head is that a lot of her writing is done in a way that for most of us would be indistinguishable from journaling. She told me:

More and more as I get older, I want my writing and my life to interweave. I don’t want my books or writing itself to be something separate from what I would do anyway, or to be about something apart from what I am thinking anyway—my writing should be no different from my thoughts going through the day. I don’t know if I have come to this because I can’t seem to separate out a privileged space for writing, in which I imagine other worlds, or if it’s the reverse, but it’s important for writing and life to be fairly seamless; to be the same thing. So that I can come to the computer at any time—night or day, for ten minutes or two hours, and begin writing from where I am—from what I am thinking about. I want writing and living to be one thing, so that writing is just me living, but on the page—an extension of the living I was doing before I sat down to write.

The important thing to point out, however, is that only a very small fraction of this writing actually makes it into her books. Heti said, “I write maybe twenty-five or fifty pages for every page that I end up publishing.”

So maybe there’s a scenario where your journal-writing and your fiction-writing are one and the same—or at least the journaling feeds into the fiction in a very direct way. If could be an interesting experiment: If you took everything that you’ve been writing in your journal and gave it a proper edit, cutting most of it but keeping and expanding the best parts, would you end up with some slivers of the “real” writing that you’re having trouble producing?

If that approach doesn’t work for you, a more moderate solution might be to simply try to imbue your “real” writing with some of the freedom and spontaneity of journaling. Like, OK, it doesn’t have to be the exhaustive, uncensored chronicles of your private life—but maybe the reason you’re stuck is that you’re trying too hard to be serious or “literary” in your fiction and you need to indulge a bit in whatever’s really running through your head, even if doesn’t feel like the kind of writing you think you ought to be doing.

This reminds me of Geoff Dyer’s wonderful book Out of Sheer Rage. Dyer set out to write a study of D. H. Lawrence and instead ended up writing an entire book about not writing his study of D. H. Lawrence. It’s a tour de force of procrastination and avoidance that is also very funny. And I’m quite certain that it’s more insightful and entertaining than the study he was supposed to write would have been.

Finally, there’s another possibility: You may need to stop journaling! Or at least not open your journal until after you’ve done your “real” writing for the day. It may be that you only have so much peak creative energy a day and you’re using it all up on the journal.

On a related note: Sometimes I feel like the secret to writing is to make a list of all your current projects and goals—and then cross out half the things on your list. Like, if you want to write seriously but also aspire to keep a journal, do some gardening, exercise regularly, eat healthy, spend quality time with your loved ones, keep up with the latest prestige TV series, and sleep eight hours a night—OK, that sounds lovely, but if you’re really serious about the writing you can only do that plus let’s say three other things from your list. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.

Finally, I just want to say that your description of not working— “staring out the window, asking myself why I suddenly can’t write anymore”—sounds to me like how a lot of writers describe the periods when they are working. Remember Iris Murdoch on the secret to writing fiction: “You have to spend a lot of time looking out the window.”

Readers, if you have your own advice for Andrew, please add it in the comments section below—thank you!

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SUBTLE ADVICE

That concludes another possibly overlong installment of this advice column! To submit your own creative dilemma, email me at subtlemaneuvers@substack.com (or just reply to this email) and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into writers’ and artists’ work habits.

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(Read my past advice here.)


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