The Art of Procrastination

Niagara_falls_victoria_park_04.07.2012_12-14-42Writer’s block. We might deny its existence, but we’ve all felt the sharp sting of its teeth as we stare blankly at a word document and know that we should be writing, but we simply cannot figure out hwat happens next. Or maybe you know what happens, but you cannot remember how to string words together into a coherent sentence. Or maybe you’re writing, but the dialogue is so bad that it deteriorates into: “And then he said something clever that I’m really too brain dead to think of right now, and stuff happened.”

Usually at this point you give up on being productive, and head over to Facebook or Tumblr to fritter the day away staring at cat pictures, reading up on io9 articles, fuming about world issues, or simply frying your brain on stupid little phone games. This is called procrastination, and you’ve been taught your whole career that it is bad. Stop procrastinating! Get back to work! Easy to say, less hard to do. How exactly do you “get back to work” when you’re in the throes of a pity-party, an overwhelming feeling of inferiority, or simply a depressive slump? “Just keep writing” say the experts. But staring at a blank page isn’t going to improve your self-esteem, or the quality of that horrendous dialogue. So what’s a writer to do?

I firmly believe that constructive procrastination is an essential part of the writing process. You are not a machine who can just crank out brilliance on demand. Ideas need time to ferment. Just as forgetting is a crucial part of memorization, not-writing is an essential step to getting your thing written. If you don’t know what comes next it’s because you need time to think through the possibilities and implications. And while you’re doing that you need to be engaged in something that allows your brain to work on the problem, rather than being consumed by guilt and self-doubts.

And sometimes, of course, you simply don’t want to write. Writing is work, it’s a lovely day outside, and you don’t want to sit and try to figure out what happens on that dark and stormy night. But you feel obliged to meet your word count goal because you want to make a career of this, and you won’t be distracted! Which means that, come the days end, you have neither written anything nor gone outside and are, therefore, neither healthy nor happy. If you honestly don’t want to do something to the point where it’s not going to be done either way then you might as well throw in the towel and give up for the day. Go do something that will make you want to come back and put those words in, and productivity will result!

Procrastination is an art form, one that I have mastered. It’s a skill I’m quite proud of, and I’m always coming up with new and exciting forms of procrastination. People have marvelled before at how prolific I am while still inventing new ways to procrastinate, and now I’m going to reveal my secret. Procrastination isn’t a way to get out of writing–properly done, it’s how the writing happens. Here are some of my favourite procrastinatory methods, and how they actually work.

Dishwasher_with_dishes#1: Housework

If you live by yourself then you probably shirk on housework all the time because no one is making you do it. And if you live with your family, then you probably have household members constantly complaining that you don’t do your share of the cleaning. (You’re a writer, don’t try to deny the fact that you shirk on chores.) So if you find yourself in a slump and wanting to do anything, anything rather than write that next chapter then get up and go wash the dishes, fold the laundry, or sweep the floor.

Can’t find any cleaning to do? That’s not an excuse! Organize the bookcase, rearrange the china cubboard, or change the sheets on your bed. There’s always something to fiddle around with in the house. And while your hands are busy, your brain is free to process whatever it is that’s blocking your creativity. And if it’s something you really hate, like cleaning out a clogged drain, you might decide that anything, anything is preferable–even going back and writing your novel.

#2: Read a Book

I know, this sounds like the epitome of lazing around, but I’m serious. If you sort of want to write but lack the will-power then every sentence you read will be a call to arms. Every well-turned phrase will awake a desire to write as well, and reinforce the guilt you feel at not actually writing. When you get stuck in your WIP and are overcome by a desire to fritter the day away on Candy Crush, pick up a book instead. And if it’s a boring or poorly written book then it will double as penance for not being what you’re really supposed to be doing–writing.

#3: Take up a Hobby

Spinning, knitting, crocheting–these are all valid forms of procrastinating on a novel. Photography, painting, photo-manipulating are also valid. Learn a new programming language, write a text based adventure game, or redesign your website and blog and it will clear away the cobwebs of your brain, introduce you to new patterns of thinking, and jump-start your tired imagination battery.

#4: Clean Out Your Inbox

Don’t give me that look. You don’t want to clean out your inbox and catch up on those six-month-old emails? Fine. No one’s making you. Just go write your book like a good little writer and you won’t have to.

#5: Formatting

#6: Write Something Else

Sometimes if you’re stuck on a project, working on another project will help get you unstuck. Dig out that novel you write when you’re fourteen and draft a new outline for it that would bring it into your adult level of writing skill. Write a few extra blog posts so you’re ahead on your schedule. Send an email to the pen-pal you’ve neglected since you graduated from highschool. These are all important, valuable things so you won’t feel like you’re just wasting time, but they’re not really necessary things, so you have the option to drop them if you get hit by a sudden flash of inspiration.

#7: Get Out

Go for a walk. Go out to dinner. Go skiing. Go to the movies. Go to the ballet. Go to the local community theatres production of Steel Magnolias. Just get out of your house for a while, mingle with out people, and give your synapses time to recharge. Something might spark your imagination and, more importantly, absorption of sunlight is known to spark inspiration!

That’s it!

Now you can procrastinate like a pro! What are your favourite ways of jump-starting the imagination, and getting out of those writing doldrums?


The Art of Procrastination — 1 Comment

  1. All good advice! I particularly like going out for a walk when I get stuck, or just when I’m burned out for the day. Walking gets my brain going again, and the fresh air helps too. Other hobbies are definitely good, as I’ve been discovering this year, and I’ve been known to have organizing fits and clean out my closet and drawers and storage bins, usually on a day when I just don’t feel like writing.

    I’m finding #6 works well too. I recently saw a tweet by Austin Kleon (author of Steal Like An Artist, which I bet you’d like) in which he recommended having two projects going and procrastinating on them with each other. I think I read once that Louis L’Amour did the same thing; he literally had two typewriters with a manuscript going in each, and would switch when he got stuck.