Master procrastinator ... Jim from The Office.
For the last few years, I’ve been trying to write a novel. It’s a bit of a cliché to say you’re doing that to try and impress people, I know, and I regularly do precisely that at dinner parties. But I have managed to finish them before, although I wish I could remember how.
The novel I’m currently writing was supposed to be finished 18 months ago, but I still haven’t finished it. In the meantime, I’ve completed lots of other tasks that objectively aren’t as important to me in the grand scheme of things as finishing my novel, but which I temporarily convinced myself were so urgent that the book could wait. Essential tasks like, say, spending three hours reading about the bridges of New York City and its environs. (Note: my novel is not set in New York City.)
As a result, while I know very little about motivation, time management or writing novels, I have become quite the expert in the art of procrastination. Please allow me to share my secrets with you in lieu of anything important that you need to do.
There are two levels of procrastination. The most straightforward is finding things that will prevent you from sitting down at your desk in the first place, or whatever it is you want to do – it doesn’t have to be a novel, and given the state of the book industry, it probably shouldn’t be. I have found that my procrastination skills are valuable for preventing me achieving any number of other goals, such as embarking an exercise programme. But the more advanced level, which is the level at which I’ve recently become adept, is when you convince yourself that these other, objectively irrelevant tasks are in fact an important part of your work process. Nowadays, when I have clearly been doing anything but buckling down and typing, I’m nevertheless able to pat myself on the back for a good day’s work.
Find the perfect working music
I like listening to music when I write, but generally it needs to be vocal-free, mid-tempo, and avoid major dynamic variations, all of which can distract me. Often I listen to jazz piano, because I find that only having one instrument helps with this, and Art Tatum is a particular favourite. But it’s always a temptation to find something new, and tell yourself you couldn’t possibly start typing until you do.
Now, if you’re writing a proper historical novel, or anything that aspires to depth, Wikipedia will not be sufficient for your research needs. If you’re me, and just need to check the odd fact here and there, Wikipedia is perfect. But it is also a brilliant source of ongoing distraction, because every article is full of links to other articles. Instead of simply checking the information you need, enclosing the page, you can instead click on one of these links and read about something else, and then on that article, click another link, and so on, to infinity, or at least the 4.2 million articles Wikipedia currently contains.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’re looking up the Sydney suburb of Potts Point, where my novel is set. Its main street is named after Alexander Macleay, who was a member of the Linnean Society, which is into zoology, a subsection of which is herpetology whose meaning I’d forgotten but involves studying amphibians such as the newt. And suddenly I’ve jumped from Research Which Is Helping Me Write A Novel to reading about the toxicity of the newt. (Did you know that they “produce toxins in their skin secretions as a defence mechanism against predators? I didn’t! Fascinating!) Now, the great PG Wodehouse used newts extensively in his Jeeves novels, but it’s hard to see how his little poisonous friends will help me.
I can and do follow these Wikipedia chains for hours, and unless I step back from the computer and managd to ask myself exactly how the page I’m reading is fitting with the work I’m doing, I will simply keep clicking and telling myself that I’m getting the book done.
This is one I’ve been using since high school, when I convinced myself I really shouldn’t begin studying for the HSC until I’d rearranged my bedroom three times to achieve the perfect working environment. If you need additional motivation, just convince yourself that feng shui is real, and that your current environment is stopping you from getting things done. I can guarantee you that moving furniture around will definitely stop you from getting things done.
Game of Thrones
Television is a time-honoured means of procrastination, and early in my writing process, I found myself lying on my sofa, devouring the HBO TV series Game of Thrones. That helped me waste a few dozen hours. But – and this is where things get a little more advanced – I somehow convinced myself that after I finished the TV series, it was absolutely essential for me to also read the books by George R.R. Martin, to gain insight into how to write bestselling novels with popular TV adaptation. And so it was that I convinced myself that finding out more about House Stark of Winterfell’s protracted struggle with House Lannister of Casterley Rock temporarily seemed a great deal more important than, say, my own work.
The brilliant thing about the books is not only that, well, they’re brilliant, but that they’re very long to boot. Whereas most novels – and certainly mine, touch wood – come in below 100,000 words, the word count for Martin’s work is currently 1,770,000 words, so it has the capacity to distract you for months. It also significantly increased the number of dragons and spooky undead warriors in my novel, which might prove awkward since it’s meant to be a contemporary romantic comedy.
Yesterday somebody asked me why I’d embarked on my current exercise kick. You’d think a quick look in the mirror would be enough to convince me that I should hasten to the nearest gym forthwith, but when writing this article I suddenly realised that it’s another form of procrastination. I only have a few hours in my work day to devote to writing before I have to go and do my day job, and if I spend them doing something else inherently virtuous like exercising, it’s much more difficult to feel guilty about the lack of progress on my book. I’ve also found several studies which argue that regular exercise improves concentration, so I figure that all of the exercise will help with writing a book once I eventually get around to it.
I don’t usually bother to cook much for myself, as I’ve discussed previously. But with a novel to write, I’ve become quite the home chef – or at least, a mediocre home chef. It’s very easy to convince yourself that you can’t work well on an empty stomach, which is true, and that it’ll be healthier if you cook yourself, which may also be true unless, like me, your most commonly cooked dishes involve melted cheese. I’m not alone in this one – in fact, the term ‘procrastibaking’ has emerged to describe the trap of cooking instead of working. Kudos to whoever coined that instead of finishing an assignment.
Grand Theft Auto
I haven’t used this for a few years, but immersive, long video games can be a real trap. Grand Theft Auto was appealing because it has a long-form narrative like a novel (hello, ‘market research’) and makes you question – or in fact break – society’s rules. I used to tell myself that driving stolen cars around on pavements stimulated creative thinking outside the square.
Font and layout
I’m quite proud of this one. Even when you’ve finally written your first sentence, you can then spend a great deal of time playing around with how it looks. I used to try to format my Microsoft Word pages to look like novel pages, with the right size and line spacing and indents and everything. (Now I use Scrivener as my writing software, incidentally – it’s amazing, and has a handy fullscreen mode to prevent procrastination.) I tried out every single text font to pick the right one, and even printed quite a few test pages to see how they looked. Hint: Wingdings really isn’t much use.
The above should be more than to get you procrastinating like a pro. The best strategies, though, come from within, so please let me know how you procrastinate in the comments below. But in the meantime, I’d better get back to not writing my novel.