“Procrastination is the thief of time.” Edward Young 1683-1765
My father used to quote this, with a chuckle. He would then add, “But I need a wide margin of leisure to my day.” For years I didn’t know where this second quotation had come from, even though I knew it had to be from somebody. Recently, I discovered it was Thoreau.
My father was industrious, which you might not think from his wide margin of leisure comment. He worked five days a week and a half day on Saturday. But he did believe in letting yourself sit and think or daydream a while. Which leads me – of course -- to a problem writers worry about all the time: procrastination.
Michael Allen Dymmoch talks about her methods of procrastination:
Court watching--greatest free show in town, Monday through Friday. Call a friend and arrange to have lunch, dinner, or coffee. Meetings--MWA, Sisters in Crime, Society of Midland Authors, CAPS. Recycling opportunities are endless. She says, “Chicago has the greatest collection of diversions in the world. I belong to the Shedd, The Art Institute, Chicago Botanic Garden and Field Museum, and can tell you about art Galleries (free admission) all over downtown. Book hunting in resale stores or at garage and rummage sales. (And all my recent purchases are catalogued and covered.) Movies. TV. Research. Answering e-mail queries. Housework. Yesterday I washed my car. If all else fails, repot or wash the houseplants, and brush the cats. Once I do sit down to write, I spend a lot of time repaginating my outlines.”
Libby Hellmann says, “My most common procrastination technique is surfing the web, usually reading blogs. It’s a curse. But it is fun... I try to limit myself to a few minutes at a time, but time has a way of expanding, don’t you know....”
Marcus Sakey says, “Email. That's my number one procrastination tool. I close it, try to write, stare at a blank screen, and watch the clock tick. One minute. Two. Maybe I better check my email. Something important might have happened."
One reason writers procrastinate is that writing is scary. There’s the monitor [or clean sheet of paper if you work that way] saying, “Sit down. Now be creative. Be funny. Be suspenseful. Be evocative. Do what you want, but BE INTERESTING.” Who wouldn’t be scared?
A second reason writers perceive themselves as procrastinating is that the book is always with you. It’s never done until it’s done. It’s always hanging over you, isn’t it? It’s not done at midnight and it’s still not done by breakfast time. And after you finally send it off, you’re supposed to begin work on the next one.
For years I’ve heard writers complaining about their time-wasting habits. It used to be that FreeCell was the biggie. Now it’s WarCraft or blogs or email.
My big time-waster is reading other people’s crime novels. I tell myself this is market research, but it isn’t. It’s fun.
However, in a general way, I’ve come to realize that I cycle in roughly twenty-minute segments. After twenty minutes of writing, I feel like I’m inputting garbage. So I go read for twenty minutes or so. Then I do something more physical. It may be really physical, like going for a walk, or just hand work, like chopping vegetables for soup. But once done, I come back to the writing fresher. I beat up on myself less now than I used to.
There is the procrastination you do because you’re blocked by something in the work. There’s the procrastination you do because your body needs a change. There may be procrastination that happens because you’re weak and lazy, as you fear, but I’d bet most of the time that isn’t it. Maybe you should cut yourself some slack. Procrastination may be your brain’s little way of telling you to take a break.
Of course, I waited until the very last moment to post this.