Self-doubt and the cure for procrastination


The well-known ailment of any artist, writer, illustrator, photographer, comedian, actor – anyone creatively inclined at all, in fact – is of course creative block. So often, this mental obstacle that seems to stifle our ability to think clearly about creative challenges is met with hours of another well-known symptom: procrastination.

Indeed, this symptom is increasingly common throughout the world – in office blocks and class rooms, in the student dormitories of undergraduates and post graduates not working on their theses or essays, and in our own homes, where chores are put off in favour of watching that latest episode of Catastrophe, or simply staring at a spot in the wall above the fireplace until you can’t tell whether you’re asleep, awake, or in some crazed semi-reality where everything is off-white and always out of focus.

These life-draining hours spent putting off new projects is often predicated on the illusion that tomorrow will contain more favourable – or even optimal – conditions for beginning it. And this theory itself is of course based on the clear untruth that there will ever be any perfect or optimal conditions for doing anything, anything at all.

Yet what so often happens when trying to begin a new creative project – or that novel you’ve been working on – is that the more we stall and procrastinate after the initial spark of inspiration, the more we stifle the force it fired within us, until eventually – tragically, inevitably – we douse it completely without catalysing a beginning at all.

Part of this may have to do with overthinking, which is an especially common form of procrastination. Picasso famously captured the error with thinking that art can begin with planning or a novel can begin with a thousand post-it notes when he said: “To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.”

Another great artist articulates the psychological underpinnings of this tendency with an uncommon clarity and vulnerability. Eugene Delacroix’s journal provides us with a transcendental, moving meditation on procrastination and self-doubt.

delacroix self-portrait, 1837

Eugene Delacroix – Self Portrait, 1837

In an entry from April of 1824, two weeks before his twenty-sixth birthday, Delacroix writes:

“I’m always having excellent ideas, but instead of working on them while they are still fresh in my imagination, I keep telling myself that I will do them later on — but when? Then I forget about them, or worse still, can no longer see anything interesting in ideas that seemed certain to inspire me. The trouble is, that with a roving and impressionable mind like mine, one idea drives another out of my head quicker than the changing wind alters the direction of a windmill’s sails. And when I have a number of different ideas for subjects in mind at once, what am I to do? Am I to keep them in stock, so to speak, quietly waiting their turn? If I do that, no sudden inspiration will quicken them with the touch of Prometheus’s breath. Must I take them out of a drawer when I want to paint a picture? That would mean the death of genius.”

Delacroix’s solution to this is to turn to the classics as a clarifying force of inspiration:

“I believe that when one needs a subject, it is best to hark back to the Classics and to choose something there. For really, what could be more stupid? How am I to choose between all the subjects I have remembered because they once seemed beautiful to me, now that I feel much the same about them all? The very fact that I am able to hesitate between two of them suggests lack of inspiration… What I must do to find a subject is to open some book capable of giving me inspiration, and then allow myself to be guided by my mood.”

Four days later, he returns to this topic, reasoning that at the heart of procrastination lies self-doubt – and the most effective cure for it is immediate action:

“I must never put off for a better day something that I could enjoy doing now. What I have done cannot be taken from me. And as for this ridiculous fear of doing things that are beneath my full powers…. No, this is the very root of the evil! This is the mistake which I must correct. Vain mortal, can nothing retrain you, neither your bad memory and feeble strength, nor your unsuitable mind that fights against ideas as soon as you receive them? Something at the back of your mind is always saying: “You who are withdrawn from eternity for so short a time, think how precious these moments are. Remember that your life must bring to you everything that other mortals extract from theirs.” But I know what I mean. I think that everyone who has ever lived must have been tortured by this idea to some degree.”

Procrastination is by no-means a modern phenomenon. No doubt Homer spent days picking sand from his toes after walking on the beaches of the Aegean rather than pen the Iliad. Shakespeare undoubtedly spent many weeks talking about how high the price of apples were rather than start working on Romeo and Juliet.  And it spares no-one: not the troubled French artist nor those writers we celebrate as geniuses: after all, Steinbeck reasoned, that to avoid procrastination, one simply had to get on with it: “One never feels like awaking day after day. In fact, given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all […] I must get my words down every day whether they are any good or not.”


One of Delacroix’s stunning illustrations in Goethe’s Faust.

Yet in our digital world, it is undoubtedly harder to concentrate, and procrastination is far easier to fuel when the means of distraction are all around. We know, for instance, that digital devices are disrupting our creative tendencies when all we really need is silence and – in fact – boredom.

To steady ourselves in a thrashing sea of distraction and procrastination, then, The Journal of Eugene Delacroix remains an invaluable source and reference book for all creatives struggling with creative block – and two centuries after it was first written. Not only does it provide readers with an invaluable record of the inner life of one of humanity’s greatest artists; but also serves as a timeless trove of insight into the universal afflictions (and their cures) which take the challenges of the creative life and turn them into art.



What would Hemingway do? Minimalist typewriter, anyone?


The ‘Hemingwrite’ – a minimalist typewriter for distracted writers

Aspiring writers the world over know the perils of the digital age better than most. You’ve spent the morning vacuuming, organising your junk email folder, sorting all the fast-food leaflets stuffed through your door into alphabetical order and watered your geraniums – and you’ve finally sat down in front of your shiny new laptop to write that novel you’ve been working on. But, oh no! Disaster. Somehow you’ve found your way to a website for creatives who believe in giraffe sporting equality and are reading an article about some new-fangled typewriter. You check your watch and suddenly it’s 8pm and you’ve lost the day to youtube videos of cats riding tortoises and obscure articles about chaffinches. You’ve been distracted by the ravaging digital background babble. But don’t worry – there’s always tomorrow.

Of course, there are a whole host of ideas for how to get around this (apart from the obvious action of actually just writing your novel). You can press a button to turn off the internet. Or you can go cold turkey from social media. You could even pay a friend to tie you to a chair, sit you in front of your computer and unplug the Wi-Fi – promising not to return until you’ve produced this generation’s version of On The Road. But it’s another idea that’s got us talking here at Nothing in the Rulebook – the ‘Hemingwrite’: a minimalist digital typewriter.

Modelled as a distraction-free ‘smart’ typewriter, which stops you surfing the web but still lets you save files to the cloud, this is a Kickstarter-funded tool for procrastinators of all creeds.

A pair of designers have added a modern twist to the traditional typewriter, the inventors – Adam Leeb and Patrick Paul – insist “it combines the simplicity of a typewriter with modern technology like an electronic paper screen and cloud backups to create the best possible writing experience”.

And, because it doesn’t allow access to the web, it is claimed the Hemigwrite will help writers work more efficiently.

The device includes a mechanical keyboard, and e-ink display that can be read in daylight, and access to cloud storage, such as Dropbox and Google Drive.

The portable word-processor’s battery is also reported to last 4 weeks. Which, while longer than your average laptop, still falls someway short of the traditional – ahem – typewriter, which has a battery life of well, for ever, since it doesn’t actually need any batteries.

Retailing at around £300, the device may appear less for poor, broke writers and more for people who quite like the idea of popping up in Starbucks with a new hipster-typewriter to order a mochalattecino while they brood in a leather chair and loudly laugh at quotes from Machievelli, as if it were an olden-days version of Seinfeld.

Now that the prototype has been developed, its creators have lined up a leading manufacturing group to begin making these writing tools en masse. Mr Paul said: “The 2015 Hemingwrite will ship with a minimalist interface but we will also support a development kit (SDK) to fulfill the needs of more specialized professionals like screenwriters.”

Professor Wu’s verdict:

“Obviously, in theory any new device that helps writers concentrate on putting words to paper seems like a good idea. But for much less than half the price of one of these new-fangled gadgetizmos, you could just buy an actual typewriter. And if you want to access the internet and the opportunity to save your files, just stick with your laptop or desktop, and get on with the task at hand. The only way you’ll ever find out if you “have it in you” to write a novel, or a collection of poems, or a screenplay, is to get to work and see if you do. It’s hard to write, of course; but it can be harder not to. Maya Angelou said there was no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. It’s true. The only way to override your distractions is to focus on that agony and to produce. So stop reading this article, get to your desk and ask yourself ‘what would Hemingway do?’” Professor Wu says.

“In fact, the man himself told us exactly what we needed to write, and it’s pretty simple. All you need, he said, is “The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, and luck.””