How a Little Procrastination Can Help Your Creativity

I’m one of those people who can get an amazing amount done when I’m trying not to do something. Maybe you are, too.

If not, you’re probably wondering what the hell I’m talking about. Here, let me explain…

When I have a deadline for a project that I’m anxious about or that just isn’t lighting my creative fire, my mind invents productive distractions.

Need to submit that article to an editor next Friday? Then maybe I should work on the next chapter of my novel today. Or maybe that book review I’ve been meaning to put together. Actually, I think I need to fix the leaking drain on the kitchen sink before I can do any of that.

According to John Perry, author of “The Art of Procrastination“, this little phenomenon of one large task spontaneously generating a list of non-related smaller tasks that seem to trump its importance is called structured procrastination. It was structured procrastination that allowed me to repaint my kitchen, plan and install new garden beds, and clean out all of the closets in the house when I was on deadline for a short story recently. Why didn’t I just sit down and write the story instead of doing all of that other work?

Because my mind just wasn’t ready.

I’ve come to the conclusion (and lots of other writers have, too) that if I find myself avoiding a project or even dreading it, then there is some underlying reason why. Usually those reasons fall into one of a few neat little categories:

  • I don’t know enough about the subject. If my research isn’t ready and I don’t have enough supporting material to work with, then I need to avoid writing by hitting the library and going on a microfilm treasure hunt or finding more books to read on the topic. You may not think of this as procrastination, but believe me, you can fall down some pretty deep rabbit holes in research and find yourself taking notes for days on end about the wonder of traveling circuses in the Depression Era instead of the Wreck of the Old 97 like you were supposed to. Ask me how I know.
  • I don’t know the audience. Sometimes I freeze up in my writing because I feel detached from my reader. Exactly what kind of person is going to be taking the time to read and process these words I’m writing? If I can’t clearly picture the reader in my mind, then I need to avoid writing to browse back-issues of a publication, dig through online message boards about my own or a similar topic, or (if the project is large enough) to mix with the intended audience at conferences, conventions, or other social events.
  • I’m inexperienced in the genre. Dabbling in an unfamiliar genre can make your mind fill with frightening scenarios of all the possible ways you could screw up. This can usually be overcome by reading all the tips and advice you can find from experienced writers of that genre and then jumping in and practicing. Have a trusted beta reader who enjoys the genre have a look at your work when you’re done. There’s no firing squad waiting for you if you don’t nail it the first time you try.
  • I just don’t know where to start. There are times when I have the drive to write, but my idea or material is simply unorganized or overwhelming. Maybe I have a group of characters already in mind, a sharp plot, and a jaw-dropping conclusion, but I have no idea where in that plot I should begin the story. Maybe I’m working on non-fiction and have a ton of material, but haven’t quite figured out yet how to best structure it to educate and entertain my reader. Or, and this one’s so common that it’s practically a pandemic in the writing community, I have a seed of an idea that I’m excited about, but that I’ve not fleshed out into a workable size for a project. If I’m feeling the burden of not knowing where to start, I typically look for something to distract myself physically so that my mind can really wander and have a chance to come up with creative solutions. I’ll clean the house, ride a bike, paint a room, mow the lawn, or simply take a walk. It may look like I’m avoiding the writing task, but I’m actually giving it more space and time in my mind to work out all of the kinks.

You’re probably asking yourself by now, “Is she seriously recommending that I dawdle and lollygag a little longer instead of putting my butt in the chair and getting to work?”

Yes, but only if you’re letting that creative brain of yours stretch while you’re goofing off.

There’s a precarious balance that you’ll have to find between structured procrastination and complete avoidance of your writing task. If you figure out why you are procrastinating, you can use it to your advantage by distracting yourself with activities that chip away at that roadblock, just be careful not to fall into the trap of binge-watching Breaking Bad on Netflix instead of clearing your path towards the satisfaction of a finished writing project!

If all else fails, a tried and true method of writerly procrastination that’s pretty much guaranteed to knock off the rust and get your creative wheels turning is to write something totally unrelated to what you need to be writing. You reconnect with the physical and mental feel–the groove–of the writing process. It’s a heady drug.

What holds you back from starting or finishing a project? How do you think structured procrastination might help you to overcome that? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!