Done right, procrastination and distraction can actually help you write more, and write better. They can be like fertilizer in a mental vegetable garden, drawing more and more from your mind and onto the page. Here are five ways you can use the natural human tendency to get distracted and procrastinate to actually get more, better writing done.
I’m a champion procrastinator, and the more I’m getting to know the engine that powers my productivity, the more I realize that I have to be. If I steadied my mind and focused on work for long stretches at a time, I’d burn out like a cheap Roman candle.
So I decided that, because procrastination and distraction are part of the way my brain is wired to work, I’d try to find ways to harness these “bad habits” and make it work for me. Here are the five best ways I’ve used to help turn procrastination into fuel for producing better work, faster.
1. Set Up Your Distractions Ahead of Time.
Distraction is a fact of the writing life, so why not make it work for you? I’ll leave a conspicuous pile of reading or research notes within arms’ reach of my computer when I’m sitting down to write, so that when I inevitably push away from the keyboard, I reach for the research before I reach for my iPhone, or the TV remote.
But I don’t stop there. I’ll leave a few items out, like a pile of laundry that needs to be put in the wash, that serve to either keep me in my chair (I don’t relish lugging a laundry basket up or down two flights of stairs) or, if I’ve got to get up, I’m not doing something so engrossing or fun that I waste a ton of time on it.
2. Build in Your Time-wasting… Time.
Lots and lots of well-meaning advice blogs say things like “schedule your breaks” and “make time to procrastinate” and, well, that’s really hard to do. Especially when you’re a writer, working for yourself, carving out time here or there, or billing by the hour, building in time for your brain to play runs counter to everything we think we know about work ethic.
Instead, consider filling in the “break” and “procrastination” spaces with other projects that don’t consume the same kind of mental load that your primary work does. I have a revolving plate of projects, some easy and kind of fun, some very difficult and time-consuming. Naturally, I procrastinate and put off doing the time-consuming ones the most, which means I spend a lot of time going through the easier projects. And the more time I spend staring at them, the more of them I’m going to eventually work on.
3. Get Off the Guilt Train
The problem with being a chronic procrastinator is that you also feel chronically guilty about your lack of ability to self-regulate. According to the Association for Psychological Science article, “Why Wait? The Science Behind Procrastination,” procrastinators tend to feel a lot of guilt about their level of productivity, and they also tend to make to-do lists—a lot of to-do lists. Does that sound like you?
If it does, try making something I call a “to-done list.” Sounds cheesy, but making a list of stuff you’ve already accomplished so far on a project can be a serious boost to your ego and your focus. And even writing, “Sat down in a chair,” and “Opened new Word document” means you’ve taken some action with purpose, and after all, every writer begins their work by sitting down, and pulling up their projects. And each time you accomplish something, add it to your to-done list.
4. Tune Your Writing Ear While Procrastinating
Perhaps the number-one way writers procrastinate is by reading, and telling themselves it’s “research.” But what if it can be? Like the old saying, “Garbage in, garbage out” what you’re wasting time reading can have a drastic effect on your writing. Conversely, if you’re distracted by reading something especially well-written, you’ll reflect that when you get back to your project. Keep a book by your favorite author next to you when you feel the urge to disconnect, or bookmark a few high-quality blogs with quality content, and make a beeline for those when you’re wandering away from what you’re supposed to be doing, and you’ll be doing yourself two favors in one: taking a needed break, and tuning your writing ear.
5. Answer the Question, “What Helps Me Recharge?” and Go From There
The biggest mistake you can make when trying to make distraction and procrastination work for you is to choose activities that are mentally draining. For me, those activities are things like iPhone games and catching up on social media. I expend so much energy thinking about how to beat a game or catching up on other people’s lives that by the time I actually get back to what I’m doing, I’m slightly more tired and totally unfocused. That is, if I get back there at all.
So, since we procrastinators love lists, here’s another one: Make a list of the stuff you enjoy doing that makes you feel really refreshed afterward (besides naps). Is it a walk around the block? Pushing your kids on the swingset? Whatever it is, make sure that your procrastinations and distractions consist largely of the stuff that will make you feel inspired and prepared to tackle your writing.
So I’m Conflating Procrastination and Distraction
I’m using the concepts of procrastination and distraction interchangeably here. I realize they describe different types of work avoidance, but I’m bringing both of them to the party because they stem from the same thing: The search for immediate gratification over long-term accomplishment. Because they have the same root, and we typically do similar activities when we’re being distracted (the Internet) or procrastinating (the Internet), I’ve found that these strategies can make my procrastination and my distractions a neutral part of my writing process, rather than a bad habit that produces guilt.
What about you? How do you procrastinate strategically? Share your experience in the comments.