Just think of tomorrow

Procrastination gets a bad rap. I’ve sometimes said that procrastinating is an important part of my writing process. I was only half-joking.

Appropriately enough, I’m writing this blog post the morning it’s due, but I think it’s worth pointing out that procrastinating is different from being too busy, or having poor time management skills, or simply forgetting you were supposed to do something. I’m not saying that any or all of those apply in this particular case, I just want to clarify on that point. To me, procrastinating means putting off something you have to do, and usually that means I have plenty of time in which to do it. I’ve also said that deadlines are the key to me getting anything done; usually a deadline eliminates the opportunity to procrastinate, but not necessarily the desire. (Also worth noting: procrastinating is different from getting distracted by social media and other shiny things on the internet, though its very closely related.)

But that’s the real value of procrastinating—because if you put off something long enough, the deadline becomes urgent, and then I get it done in a short period of time. And probably no one but me knows that I started it later than I should have and worked right up to the last minute. At least, not if it’s any good.

Do deadlines have you feeling like this? (If you haven’t watched Dark City, go do that right now. You can do that other important thing later.)

Procrastination seems related to the idea of “writer’s block.” In fact, they might even be the same thing if you look at them sideways. Basically, I believe writer’s block is usually a sign that your story has gone wrong somewhere. See, the thing with procrastinating is you’re usually putting off something unpleasant, a task you don’t want to do. But if you’re a writer, why wouldn’t you want to write? Maybe the topic isn’t that interesting (if you’re a freelancer or journalist), but more often I think it’s a matter of fear.

Fear prevents some people from writing entirely, and it can halt progress for even established writers (even those on deadline). It’s the fear that you can’t write something, or won’t be able to do a subject justice, or someone won’t like it, and so on and so forth. Fear, in short, of failure. Of course, never writing it at all is only a different kind of failure.

Recently, while wasting time on the internet when I was supposed to be writing something, I came across an article titled “The psychological importance of wasting time.” As if I needed any encouragement or validation! And yet, there’s something to it. The author, Olivia Goldhill, posits that we need to give ourselves breaks. If you’re a writer, particularly a writer with deadlines and/or a day job, a family, etc., chances are you are always working. Which means except when you’re sleeping (and even then) your brain is always working. That can’t be healthy.

Social media, checking Facebook, reading blog posts are all ways to give my brain a chance to rest—because writing, especially creative writing, is a lot harder than anyone gives us credit for. Typically, when I’m working at a rapid pace on a book or story, I’ll write a chapter or scene and then allow myself a few minutes online to not write or think about writing, or at least have the option of not thinking about writing.

I think if you’re prone to procrastinating on a certain project or at a certain time in your life, that may be your mind telling you it needs a break. Procrastinating may not mean putting off something unpleasant; rather, it’s a desire to do something more pleasant, or less demanding, like watching Netflix, reading a book, or playing a video game. There’s also a good argument for the value of giving yourself more time to think about what you’re writing; often during downtime, whether it’s a short break or a longer bout of procrastination, I’ll come up with better ideas I wouldn’t have had if I’d simply been writing in the first place. We’re wired to feel guilty and increasingly anxious as the clock ticks down on a project–we aren’t doing enough or working as quickly as we should!–but maybe we simply need to schedule more fun and relaxation in our life as rigorously as we schedule deadlines and word count targets and project goals.

Perhaps, if you put “Watch a movie” on your calendar, one day you’ll end up putting that off to write instead…

How do you feel about procrastination, and what place does it have in your life?

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