Constructive Procrastination

I sometimes joke about finding ways to label things I do for fun “work” and consider it part of my process, calling this “advanced procrastination techniques.” But the truth is that procrastination isn’t always a bad thing when it comes to creative endeavors.

Our society is bad about prioritizing productivity. Work doesn’t feel like work unless you’ve got something to show for it. If you don’t have a word count, are you really writing? But I’ve found that the longer the span between the first spark of the idea and the time I start actually writing, the better the outcome. Although I get a lot of valuable information from research, intensive character development, “casting” characters and watching movies and shows with my cast members, coming up with playlists, etc., I think the main value comes from feeding my subconscious and giving it time to work so that the idea is more fully formed and developed before I start putting words on paper (or screen). Once I actually start composing the text, that seems to lock things in place. Even though I can still edit and rewrite, the story doesn’t seem as malleable once I put it into words.

For instance, I’ve been visualizing the opening scene of the book I’m developing for at least a year. I see the “movie” in my head, and I keep making little tweaks as I keep thinking about it and how it will fit into the book. This week, I came up with a new character who’ll be involved in that scene (just by thinking about the logistics of who will be there), and this character’s presence completely shifted the scene, plus it brought about a question I hadn’t considered that may somewhat adjust the plot. If I’d written this scene down when I first thought of it instead of just replaying it over and over again in my head, I’m not sure I would have realized this thing. I might not have realized that this character needed to be in the scene, or I’d have come up with a different character to fill that role. My editing and rewriting would have been fixing that original scene, not coming up with something different. Giving my mind time to play with it before I committed to the scene probably means the book will be better than it would have been if I hadn’t been “procrastinating.”

There are a lot of ways to do constructive procrastination. One is to do work related to the book that doesn’t involve actually writing the words. That’s stuff like research, filling out character worksheets, brainstorming, mind mapping, making playlists of your story’s “soundtrack,” watching things that remind you of the story, setting, or cast, doing writing exercises, etc. These are all things that may help develop the story while also giving your mind time to play with it. To fight that sense that I’m not really being productive since I have no word count, I use a stopwatch to track the amount of time I’m spending on these activities.

Then there’s physical or mindless activity that’s entirely unrelated but that gives your mind a chance to play in the background. Long walks are excellent for creativity. Some of the best ideas come while taking showers. Housework and organizing may look like procrastination, but you can do a lot of high-quality thinking while washing dishes.

How do you know when you’ve crossed the line from constructive procrastination to plain old procrastination? I think one sign is when the thing you’re doing to procrastinate doesn’t have any value in and of itself and doesn’t make you feel better. When you can make a direct link to your project or when you get something else out of it, like exercise or a clean house, it’s probably still constructive. If it’s bad for you (like spending a whole day eating junk food and binge watching that’s not sparking any ideas) and doesn’t leave you better off than you were before, it may be ordinary procrastination.

I find that I know when a story is ready for me to start writing it. There are two peaks of enthusiasm. One comes when I first get the idea and I’m so excited about it that I want to drop whatever else I’m doing to work on it right away—I call that Shiny New Idea Syndrome because any new idea is going to be more exciting than the project in progress. Writing down what I know about the idea generally shows me that there’s not much to it yet and I don’t need to start writing it. Then there’s all the research and development, planning and plotting, and I finally get to the point where I’m seeing the “movie” in my head. I’m hearing distinct voices for my characters, seeing them vividly, noticing details in the scenes I see, and I’m getting so excited about it that I can’t wait to see how it all comes together in a book. I want to be able to read this book. That’s when I know it’s time to start writing. There’s a little fear about starting and committing to a direction, but it’s outweighed by wanting to get into this world and play.

Constructive procrastination can come up again during the writing process if I get stuck or reach a turning point and want to really consider what comes next. Then I may do some of my usual pre-writing activities or I may take a break and take a walk or do housework so I can mull it over. This is when I have to be really careful about the difference between constructive procrastination and regular procrastination. Do I really need to think about this, or am I just avoiding it because it’s hard?

All of this presumes no deadlines, of course. I usually only do this extreme level of preparation for the first book in a series. After that, they come more quickly because I’ve already got the world and most of the characters in my head.

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