The Writing Process

The Curse of the Procrastinating Mind

Procrastination – or time-wasting, if you prefer to call a spade a spade – is written into my DNA, as intrinsic to my makeup as my eye colour. An example: I once just about managed to hold down a dreary office job. Like many a dreary office job, once you stripped away all the highfalutin terminology my duties basically consisted of moving pieces of paper around, in between brewing tea. There being a limit to how many times you can rearrange stationery, I was frequently at a loose end. I suppose I could have gone and begged my boss for more work; indeed, some would say that I should have done just that.

Image credit: Alexandre Normand | Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Alexandre Normand | Wikimedia Commons

I didn’t. I’ve always believed that a sound way to approach hateful day jobs is to kill time without killing brain cells. To this end, I soon discovered the joys of Project Gutenberg, whereby I could download copyright-expired books for free. And, crucially, from a distance it looked like I was swotting up on work documents. I still feel a tad guilty when I think about my fraudulent reputation as a paragon of worker-ly devotion, at least amongst my employers. Those on my own level knew better, not least because sometimes, on Friday afternoons, when the bosses had all swanned off on their yachting or golfing trips, my fellow drones and I would bring out the bouncy balls we’d all constructed out of elastic bands, like this one…

Image: author's own
Image: author’s own

…and usher in the weekend with an impromptu game of catch. Happy days. Sort of.

The office job has gone the way of all things, but that doesn’t mean that my genius for procrastination has diminished. Oh no! Yesterday, for example, I had an entire morning set aside for writing. An entire morning! This doesn’t happen often, so it stands to reason that I should try to make the most of it. I promised myself I’d get a lot done; I even set myself a word target.

So what happened? Did I tempt the Muse out of hiding? Did I fly high on the wings of inspiration? Or, failing that, did I sit down and put in several hours of craftsmanlike, hard graft? Did I meet my target?

Er, no. No, I didn’t.

What actually happened was as follows, roughly:

9a.m.: Sit down and switch on laptop. Cup of tea at elbow, distractions at a safe distance. It’s time to go!

9.01a.m.: All right, I’ll just have a quick look at my email inbox first. There follows an hour of reading emails, tweets, Facebook updates, blog posts and articles.

10a.m.: The morning is not lost; it’s still fairly early. But first, the dog’s hammering at the door, demanding to be let out…

10.01a.m.: Cup of tea is cold. Might as well make another. And while I’m waiting for the kettle to boil, I can load the washing machine.

10.05a.m.: Return to laptop. Sun comes out. Spend approximately five minutes staring out of window, wondering whether the good weather will last over the weekend.

10.10a.m.: Open WIP Word file. Find place in manuscript. Read preceding paragraph. Not good. Spend half-an-hour tweaking, rearranging, rewriting. End result not substantially different to original.

10.40a.m.: Slowly write another paragraph. The going is tough; I seem to have hit a brick wall. Perhaps a short break will help?

10.50a.m.: Take the dog for a walk. Pause on garden path to pull up some weeds. Reflect that I’d better buy some weed killer at the supermarket. Wonder whether weed killer is dangerous to humans as well as plants, and if there is an organic alternative. (This question is still bugging me, by the way. If anyone knows of anything, please tell me.)

11.15 a.m.: Snack time. Crack open the biscuit tin. Read a blog post while I’m eating, and leave a comment.

11.25 a.m.: Set to work once more. Again, the going is tough. It’s not surprising: this tiny laptop screen is destroying my eyesight. Wonder whether to invest in new laptop, or whether this choice of font is best. Try out different fonts. Revert to initial font. Sternly tell myself to stop wasting time.

11.55a.m.: Another paragraph written! I’m making progress! Pity it isn’t any good. In fact, reading it back sets my teeth on edge. Realise I have written a grand total of 400 words so far this morning.

12p.m.: Open new Word file, and tap out this post instead. It’s not what I planned to do, but I can at least console myself with the thought that I’m doing something

An example of what a procrastinating mind can achieve... Image credit: Davidcrehner |Dreamstime Stock Photos
An example of what a procrastinating mind can achieve… Image credit: Davidcrehner |Dreamstime Stock Photos
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11 thoughts on “The Curse of the Procrastinating Mind

  1. Ha, Ha, Mari, horribly familiar! An excellent witty article, and I love the cartoon.

    Your work is refined and edited to perfection, that must be partly why you feel you take one step forward, two back. I was amazed that Elizabeth Gaskell almost never edited, but it shows in places – words repeated twice in a sentence, mistakes with dates, etc etc. You can tell Jane Austen edited like anything…

    … And the writer isn’t entirely to blame with the Social Media Time Warp, as there’s all this pressure to ‘take advantage of social media’ (but is it taking advantage of us?).

    I have a horrible way of beginning the day, which is to write for an hour or produce four hundred words in the old fashioned way, longhand, in a notebook in my terrible handwriting before early morning tea – I’m not human before that, but I try and force myself. Later in the day, I type that up, get overtaken by media stuff, etc etc. This worked well for my last two, but then I wrote about a quarter of a novel that way I wasn’t satisfied with, having become intrigued by the notion of the Complex and Intransigent (spelling? can’t look it up) Villain who avoids all chances of reform in the meantime So I set that aside, meaning to return to it amended after a sequel for ‘Scoundrel’. At the moment I’ve got through about 6,000 words done, but the gleam of satisfaction, or insane excitement, has only taken me over in fits and starts.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to this mysterious next of yours.

    1. Hi Lucinda, and thanks for the comment (and the compliment). Your way of writing longhand sounds good to me – at least that keeps you from social media – but I’ve a nasty feeling that if I wasn’t being distracted by Twitter I’d only be distracted by something else instead. It’s interesting that Gaskell didn’t edit a great deal, though I suppose it makes sense: back in her day, a great deal of editing would obviously have entailed writing out the entire manuscript again, and paper and ink were expensive … It shows, though, what a fabulous writer she was. My first drafts are dire, almost unreadable.

      Given my procrastinating nature, the mysterious next will be a very long time in coming… 🙂

  2. Oh man, as the above commenter said, is this ever familiar! I have to turn off my internet, and even then I start thinking, “Oh, I really should do those dishes” or “I’ll just read through that last scene I wrote.” Two hours later: No new words written, destroyed previous scene with edits. I fully understand the procrastination DNA make-up.

    My most recent bout of procrastination happened just yesterday. I need to write a review of a master’s thesis. Pretty much the simplest writing assignment I could get for homework these days. And I’ve put it off day after day after day. Two days ago, I managed five pages, and I really only need to write a few more paragraphs. I intended to do that yesterday. Instead I spent my hours learning how build a gaming computer. I can now give you a rough overview of computer parts and the necessary RAM, GPU, and CPU requirements for a decent computer; I couldn’t begin to tell you what’s in the last few pages of the thesis I’m supposed to be reviewing. Zero words written and I had the whole day.

    1. Hi Michelle, and thanks for the comment. I’m glad to hear it’s not just me! I too have a tendency to do just about anything other than what I should be doing. I’ve just spent a considerable amount of time virtually wandering around the streets of a certain city using Google Streetview. I tell myself that this came under the heading of research, but I spent a great deal more time trailing around there than was altogether necessary…

  3. Oh, no, Mari, I know that feeling! No writing has happened at all for me this week, for various reasons. That said, 400 words sounds a pretty good return for a morning’s work.

    Most weed-killer is dangerous to the planet all round. I never use it. There are organic alternatives and on the one occasion that I needed to use one, it worked.

    1. Hi Paul – I’m sorry to hear that the writing isn’t going so well, but relieved that I’m not alone! I suppose 400 words isn’t too bad, but it’s much less than I hoped to get done.

      Thanks for the information about weed-killer too: I’ll have to see if I can get hold of an organic one. I’ve a feeling the local health-food shop might stock some…

  4. I wish we worked at that office job together, Mari. You make it sound like fun. I also used Project Gutenburg as a way to survive a particularly boring office job. I read Bartlby The Scrivener and, wow, I was so pleased I to tell my boss, “I’d prefer not to.” Ah, I’m such a bad little corporate drone!

    As for procrastinating during writing time, I am guilty of that as well. It’s like the more time I have, the less I get done. I find that if I know I have exactly one hour, I can get right to at least staring at the page rather than tweeting, browsing, commenting. I don’t understand the perverse recoil from actually using my extra writing time to, well, write. I suspect fear is the driver. Fear that it won’t match what I see in my mind, fear that I will blank, fear that I’m accidentally telling a boring story that someone else has already managed to tell in a way that is not boring. Yes, I think fear is the root of procrastination.

    That and weeds in the garden. Those really do distract me from writing!

    As ever,

    -aniko

    1. Hi Aniko, and thanks for commenting! The office job would have been much more bearable if I’d had a co-worker like you. We could have started our own Project Gutenberg book club!

      You may be right about fear being a big part of procrastination. I often worry that I’m wasting my time writing something that’s a load of complete rubbish, or even simply not quite good enough. Working in shorter bursts might be a good idea too. When you think that you have a whole morning to write, it’s easy to think that you have time to waste…

  5. The romance, the excitement, the sheer creative high of being a writer encapsulated in a cold cup of tea and four hundred words. Can it get any better? Must try being one, sometime. Where’s the tea…

    1. Hi J.D., and thanks for commenting! What glamorous lives we lead, eh? Still, procrastinating or not, I don’t think you need worry about being a writer – I’m currently reading AND SOON THE SONG, and it’s amazing!

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