Constructive Procrastination


Recently one of my Gentle Readers commented on my post about writer’s block. She says, “When I procrastinate I don’t write. … When I am unsure what to write, I might troll the Internet (procrastinate), which always puts me onto tangents and then an hour or more will go by and BOOM! I haven’t written a thing. So for me procrastination causes a block.”

I would argue that procrastination doesn’t cause the block any more than a stuffy nose causes a cold. We procrastinate because we need something and the style of procrastination can tell you something about what it is you need to get in a more effective way so that you stop procrastinating and start writing. I would also argue that Procrastination Isn’t Bad any more than water is bad, even though water—hot, cold or in between—can kill you. And yes, you can quote me.

The Internet is an interesting place, full of information, pictures and people. When we look for information on the internet because we don’t know what to write, it is possible that we haven’t narrowed down the “what” yet. I should have asked our friend what kind of writing she does, but I know for myself the rabbit’s hole of story leading to story ad infinitum the Internet can be. This is one case where a kitchen timer is your friend. Actually, when it comes to procrastinating constructively, a kitchen timer is almost always your friend. Do the procrastination behavior for a predetermined amount of time, say twenty minutes (as Francesco Cirillo, the developer of the Pomodoro Technique* would say). Then do some writing, also for a predetermined amount of time. Alternate back and forth between writing and one or more other activities. Over the course of an afternoon, you can get a lot done.

The Internets pictures (and videos) and people also are temptations for writers in particular. If I am bored with my writing topic, watching a cat video or reading a web comic might wake my brain back up. Facebook in particular is helpful for writers because, let’s face it, writing is lonely. So give yourself the opportunity to “socialize” in the virtual environment of your choice for, you guessed it, a predetermined amount of time. Then get back to work.

Our friend also says, “It’s like walking the dog or playing with the cats (‘for their sake,’ but I’m really procrastinating), and again nothing gets done, except some exercise for me and the pets.” Hey, don’t knock the exercise for you and them. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, oxygenated blood flow, which has got to improve the thinking. And socializing with your animal companions also helps allay the lonelies.

“With a real writer’s block, not caused by procrastinating—“

But again, I would argue that procrastinating is a self-defensive technique that we use in an attempt to fulfill needs that the writing can’t fulfill…

“—if a deadline looms or just blocked, I put my but in a chair and push through because it (deadline) must get done. When there is no deadline looming and I’m blocked, I do the time-tested technique of just writing for five minutes without lifting the pen (yes, on paper) and no censoring my thoughts. Sometimes it will show me what the problem is; other times it gives me ideas. Once in a while, I get both, which is wonderful, but rare.”

Free-writing! Woohoo! I have only met one person in twenty years of teaching who could not write for several minutes (I usually go for ten or twenty), and he was seriously ADHD. Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (a book that I imagine has saved lives) relies heavily on timed free-writing to get stuff Out of Head and Onto Paper (or, for those of you young whippersnappers, on your screen). Don’t judge; just write. Eventually your brain gives up and gives you what you are asking it for. And the more you do it, generally, the easier/quicker the process goes.

Lastly, our friend says, “Sometimes I think my problem is thinking too much.”

Heaven forbid, girlfriend! Thinking? Too Much? How is that even a thing? We’re WRITERS fer cryin’ out loud. Thinking is what we DO. Day and night. Personally, I think about writing 24/7. Yes, my dreams are very strange.

16 comments on “Constructive Procrastination

  1. PJS says:

    There’s procrastination and there’s avoidance. They may overlap, but I don’t think they are necessarily the same thing.


  2. PJS says:

    That;s you job! 🙂


  3. PJS says:

    your job


  4. PJS says:

    Seriously, procrastination seems more like a putting off (Merriam-Webster: origin of procrastinate: Latin procrastinatus, past participle of procrastinare, from pro- forward + crastinus of tomorrow, from cras, tomorrow) than a getting out of. I procrastinate when it comes to things that I might like to do and want to do but are difficult/daunting (like writing), but I avoid things that are distasteful but not necessarily difficult (like grading). I think there’s some kind of difference there . . .


  5. PJS says:

    I didn’t think that what I was saying contradicted what you were saying. Procrastination can be fruitful, but avoidance? Not so much.


  6. PJS says:

    Procrastinatjng? (And watching “American Horror Story.) 😄


  7. Excellent! You make up for how boring Hunt can be. Or possibly the rest of our jobs.


  8. Interesting. You wrote, “procrastinating is a self-defensive technique that we use in an attempt to fulfill needs that the writing can’t fulfill…” I have never thought of procrastination in this way. I think of it as a way to avoid things we on’t want to do., but you makes sense. Maybe I need affection, so I walk my dog (and cat, as he walks on a leash), though don’t see this need and therefore call it procrastination of the writing I should be doing while waking the dog / or cat or whatever I do when not writing (when should be writing). I agree with this, it makes sense. But . . .

    How do you figure in the self-defense? What would I be defending myself from, exactly, if I am getting something I need?

    Are you also saying you think all, or most all, procrastination is helpful by fulling a need maybe we are not consciously aware of, and therefore even healthy?

    I’m fairly new here, but I am going to venture a guess that you like making people think, even if it causes a ruckus (with good intentions, not to rile readers). I wonder if you have scared your quoted reader away. This is a very thought provoking post.


  9. If I need affection, I am defending myself from loneliness, etc. I do think much procrastination is in this vein, although I have met a scattering of people who if you invited to buy them their favorite ice cream would still put you off. But the majority of dissertation writers and college freshmen and artists and entrepreneurs that I have worked with have made me see this topic in this way. I hope I don’t scare anyone away. I know I can sound very didactic on this topic because I have been thinking about it for so many years now.


    • I’m not scared. I like how you think. You make me think. Agreeing or disagreeing is not as important as making me think. I enjoy having my world challenged, enlightened, and/or widened. I don’t know about many of those you work with, but I know about college freshman and they can be very frustrating when it comes to writing ability. I often wonder if kids being tested so much has taken away a teacher’s time to teach something other than test preparation. Most of the kids I met had poor writing skills. But this has nothing to do with procrastination.


      • The procrastination issues are much more at the graduate school level, especially at MIT where they are writing in their 2nd or 3rd language the longest thing they’ve ever written with an impressive advisor who is generally over-busy… and then they get the flu or sprain their ankle. Perfect storms happen more often than they should.


      • Are you the impressive adviser? IN grad school, not MIT, the writing still was not steller, and this was their first language–at least it was supposed to have been. 🙂


  10. I certainly hope not! I mean like these Nobel prize winning scientist types who don’t give their grad students enough guidance or time. And secondary school isn’t what it used to be and that doesn’t always get fixed in undergrad, alas.


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