The fine art of procrastination

So, you’re there at your keyboard, picking away at the letters, frowning at the screen and generally struggling with an aspect of the plot. Your mind wanders. It’s hard to keep focussed for a long period, especially when the human brain seems designed to be lazy. You fancy a cup of tea, or a cigarette, or whatever your poison may be. But no, you tell yourself, this is my writing time. I can’t prevaricate, must go on, on, on.

I’ll let you into a little secret. In some writing sessions I spend almost as much time in something entirely unrelated. A classic for me is choosing music; the amount of time I‘ve wasted staring aimlessly at my CD collection is frankly ridiculous. Another is doing the washing up or putting the laundry on. Cigarettes are out for me: I’m quitting. But I do drink an obscene amount of coffee.

But this isn’t wasted time. By no means. Repetitive manual tasks especially are when your subconscious is working hardest. Novels grow in the dark. That’s what JD Salinger said. I take that to mean that the problems are solved when you’re not thinking about them. Indeed, not thinking can trump mental effort – sometimes, in some ways.

Don’t think this is an excuse for not getting down to it: on the contrary. There are times for slog, for grinding on and there are times to give your brain a break. It’s not always easy to know the difference. But I always get (mildly) annoyed by articles ‘teaching’ you how to be more productive. Temporarily disabling the internet, taking the phone off the hook, setting up a timer and saying, ‘right, no breaks for half an hour’.

Sometimes the words come easy. When you know where you’re going, when you understand your characters and all you have to do is set down the story, then you can fly. At times like this distractions don’t even enter the brain and you’re amazed when you glance at the clock and realise an hour has passed.

But most writing – and certainly most editing – isn’t like this. It’s a puzzle. A constant search for the right twist, the proper angle, a viable future. You’ve got the ass up the minaret and can’t, for love nor money, work out how to talk it back down. This is where I think advice to steam on, steam on, don’t ever veer away, is at best unhelpful and at worse the cause of abandonment.

Tempted to take a break? Take one. Leave your work prominent on the screen, or proud upon your writing table, and do the vacuuming. Your subconscious will be picking over the problem even as you fight with your flex-length (a problem that mostly affects men) and worry whether the bag needs emptying. And when you’ve finished, get back to the writing. You’ll find that the problem won’t have vanished, but you’ll be able to get a few more words down, a few paragraphs, maybe, and before you know it you’ll be on the next problem. Well, it was just about time for a coffee anyway.

And, unusually for something I’ve written, there’s actually proper scientific evidence to back this up. My lovely fiancée, having met me, put the sent the following article in my direction: http://nautil.us/issue/8/home/best-of-2013-how-to-waste-time-properly. Its conclusion is that “engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving.”

But that’s enough from me today. I’ve got a novel to edit: no time for such flim-flammery.

So what music will we have on today..?

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One thought on “The fine art of procrastination

  1. Pingback: Feeling Lazy | Is My Geek Showing?

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