Victor Hugo on How to Beat Procrastination and Finish Anything You Start

Lessons from one of the writing greats on how to follow through on your plans.

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Francesco Carta fotografo/Getty Images
Francesco Carta fotografo/Getty Images

In July 1830, a young twenty-eight-year-old named Victor Hugo, struggled with procrastination, and almost gave up on writing his book.

Hugo was due to submit the book to his publisher by April 1829, but he missed the deadline — in fact, he hadn’t written a single word. And as a result of this, Hugo’s publisher threatened to pursue legal actions against him. [1]

After much pleading and negotiations, Hugo’s publisher agreed to extend the deadline till December 1830. But once again, Hugo procrastinated on writing the book and missed the second deadline.

This time, Hugo’s publisher had had enough and gave Hugo an ultimatum: if the book wasn’t submitted in five months, Hugo would pay a fine of 1,000 francs for each week it was late (the equivalent of 13,000 dollars today). [2]

Hugo knew he had to do something drastic and figure out a way to beat procrastination, and finish writing the book.

Here’s what he did next.

You Are Under House Arrest

Shortly afterwards, Hugo bought a grey woolen body-stocking that covered his body from head to toe, a new bottle of ink, and locked his clothes in the wardrobe to prevent himself from leaving the house.

According to Hugo’s wife, Adele Hugo: “[He] entered his novel as if it were a prison.” [3]

Each day, from dusk till dawn, Hugo would write his book, and only leave his working desk to eat, sleep, or read the drafts of the book to his friends, for an hour after supper. [4]

In short, Hugo self-imposed a house arrest. And after a few months, his strategy finally paid off.

On the 14th of January, 1831, Hugo finished writing the book — weeks before the deadline — and named it The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (French for Notre-Dame de Paris).

Within the first 18 months of the book’s publication, it sold three thousand copies — a lot for the early 1830s — and today it is widely regarded as one of the greatest books ever written. [5]

But Hugo couldn’t have overcome procrastination and finish writing his best-selling book without using a special strategy.

This strategy is called the house arrest strategy, and here’s how you can also use it to beat procrastination and finish anything you start today.

How to Beat Procrastination Using the House Arrest Strategy

Here are three simple steps to use the house arrest strategy to beat procrastination.

Step 1: Write down a deadline in the near future.

Deadlines are one of the five things to do to overcome procrastination and follow through on your plans.

A good deadline is short enough to force you to take immediate action and long enough to finish the task at hand.

In Hugo’s scenario, the publisher’s five month deadline forced him to get started on writing his book.

Step 2: Create negative consequences for inaction

The next step is to use “stakes” or negative consequence, to punish yourself if you fail to meet the deadline.

For example, Hugo’s negative consequence for failure to meet his publisher’s deadline was a fine of 1,000 franc per week of delay.

Step 3: Design your desired future action

The final step is to put something in place today that will ‘lock in’ your actions tomorrow — this is what psychologist call “commitment devices.” [6]

Examples include: buying small plates to avoid overeating, locking away credit cards to avoid getting into debt and paying upfront for exercise classes.

Hugo’s commitment device was locking away his formal clothes and buying a bottle of ink to start writing his book, and prevent himself from leaving the house.

Personally, I’ve also used commitment devices to stick to my writing habits.

On May 2017, I announced to the public that I’d write and publish an article each week, and aside from two short sabbatical, I’ve written at least one article every single week since then. This is just another example of the power of designing your environment.

The best way to get started with commitment devices is to announce your plans to the public — friends, family and colleagues — and keep them updated on your progress on a weekly basis. This way you’ll be held accountable to finish anything you start.

Motivation Isn’t Enough

Just like Hugo — prior to writing his book — we tend to rely solely on motivation and willpower to beat procrastination, but this often leads to failure to meet deadlines and follow through on our plans.

A better way to beat procrastination is to use the house arrest strategy in three simple steps: write down a deadline, create negative consequences for inaction and design your desired future action.

And just like Hugo, you’ll finally break the curse of procrastination that’s been holding you back from your achieving your potential.

Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.com, where he shares practical self-improvement ideas backed by proven science, philosophy and art, for better habits. To get these ideas to beat procrastination and improve your focus, you can join his free weekly newsletter here.


1. Barbour, Alfred. Victor Hugo and His Times (1883)

2. The franc was in the Latin Monetary Union, which used the gold standard around 1873. At the time, the franc was the equivalent to 0.2903225 grams of gold. That’s the equivalent to 0.0102408248 ounces. Today’s price of gold is approximately $1240 per ounce, which leads to one franc (in 1830) being worth about $12.70 today.

3. Hugo, V. (1978). Notre-Dame of Paris. (Trans. J. Sturrock)

4. Hugo, Adele. Victor Hugo: A life Related by One Who Has Witnessed It (1863)

5. Victor Hugo by Graham Robb

6. Gharad Bryan, Dean Karlan, and Scott Nelson, “Commitment Devices,” Annual Review of Economics 2, no. 1 (2010), doi:10.1146/annurev.economics.102308.124324.

Mayo Oshin writes at MayoOshin.com, where he shares practical self-improvement ideas backed by proven science, philosophy and art, for better habits. To get these ideas to think and live better, you can join his free weekly newsletter here.

Originally published at mayooshin.com on December 17, 2018.

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