Wasting Time Wisely as a Writer

Wasting time isn’t always counter-productive. Distraction is just as important as focus and discipline in the creation of good work. New ideas appear when you stop thinking about the problem. But you need the right kind of distraction.

Here’s an example from my own experience of unproductive distraction: jumping from a short story to an essay, from a novel outline to a photo caption, from a chapter draft to an email, all in one writing session.

On very rare occasions, this can be fruitful, if each thing feeds the others, snowballing into a mess of lucky productivity. I remember those times better than they deserve and pretend that today I can replicate it. I almost never can.

Productive distraction might be things like: Watching a video of waves crashing on rocks. Making the bed. Looking at feeds with visual art only, no text or links. Taking a shower. Scrubbing the kitchen sink. Staring out the window at trees and birds and the shifting colours of the morning sky. Going outside and spending time with trees.

Wasting time in the forest

My favourite distraction at work is filling my water bottle from the dispenser that takes a full minute to dribble out one litre. I’ve had a lot ideas emerge from nowhere while watching the water line rise.

Not checking bank accounts or looking at houses for sale or commenting on Instagram posts or thinking about renovations or checking Facebook updates. Not something that drags you into a different area of your life or into another space full of things to worry about and do. Not becoming so engaged that you lose the thread of the problem in your subconscious.

An essay by Greg Beato in Nautilus refers to this type of distraction as “ego-less.” It’s not really wasting time unless it’s personal, unless your sense of self gets too involved. The best distractions are “images which encourage you to think about the future or inspire a sense of exploration.” Like videos of goofy puppies and sweet clumsy kittens? Inspiring stories of human kindness and gorgeous photo spreads of mountains and rivers and valleys you’ll never visit?

Perhaps the best use of wasted time is solitary daydreaming. In Solitude: A Singular Life in a Crowded World, Michael Harris explains that while the mind wanders the brain remains active, drawing “a velvet curtain to ward off the interfering ego; a tinted screen to subdue the backseat driver called ‘I’. Our brains are then free to ‘wander’ — which is to say, they’re free to do some of their most intensive work.” The distraction is the means to get to where you need to go: solve that character problem, figure out how your climax will resolve, work out the path from point A to point B.

Clouds for wasting time

To take it a step further, anything may be a distraction from anything else. How do we really know where to focus our attention and where to seek out distraction? For further consideration, from In Search of Distraction by Matthew Bevis at Poetry:

“I’m writing this sentence as a distraction from a book about poetry that I’m meant to be writing, but also with a hunch that the book may get written via the distraction, that something in the book needs to get worked out — or worked through — by my not attending to it. Or perhaps the book was really always a distraction, and wherever the non-book resides is the place I’m supposed to be.”

So perhaps this post is a distraction. The novel outline I worked so hard on this week is a distraction. The latest novel draft is a distraction. The personal essay I started this morning is a distraction. It’s all a distraction. What is it that I’m really supposed to be working on?

Rupi Kaur’s Creative Writing Exercise

In a recent profile, Rupi Kaur (the Instagram poet, author of Milk and Honey and now The Sun and Her Flowers) describes a writing exercise she gave students in the classes she taught while herself a student: list poetry.

“It’s basically just a list of stuff,” Kaur explains. “I would ask them to write a list of things that they wish they were born with, and write the first thing that comes to mind. And then folks would write a list of 20 things, from physical things to abstract things, and it was super cool because then you would go around and you’d read them out loud and everybody had different answers. And the best part was they’d walk away, like, oh, I can do this, I’m a poet. I’m like, yeah, you are.”

Writing class

The exercise is so simple. The entry point is so low. It’s nothing like the creative-writing class I took in university, where we wrote mostly poetry and a bit of fiction.

We wrote roundels and villanelles and sonnets and sestinas. I agonized over those poems, trying to fit what I wanted the poem to be about into the structure I was required to follow. I could start off the poem with idea, an image, a metaphor, but to finish the poem I had to shoehorn the rest of the words to fit the frame. It made me feel like a terrible poet.

Not one poem came out the way I intended it to. Come to think of it, nothing I write seems to.


I first found about about Rupi Kaur in a bookstore when I saw Milk and Honey turned face out on a shelf. It was odd to see contemporary poetry I’d never heard of so prominently displayed.

I flipped through the book, wondering how on earth it got published. Something about it appealed to me, but it was confusing. Is poetry like this marketable again, casually typewritten with doodles? Is this what teenagers are reading now?

I learned some time later about the Instagram connection and it began to make sense. Rupi Kaur writes about heartbreak and loss, about feminism and womanhood. She writes these tiny doses of big emotion in Times New Roman.

Maybe this isn’t your type of poetry. It isn’t mine, although there are nuggets of treasure amongst the images and ideas that don’t connect with me. Kazim Ali has many excellent suggestions of poets to read alongside or instead. But if Rupi Kaur has a superpower, it’s that she can make us all feel like poets. Any one of us could be a poet. Or, at least, she leads us to a place where we can begin.

Twenty things

I tried to write a list of 20 things I wish I’d been born with, but all I could think of was a $500,000 trust fund that I would only have access to when I turn 35.

I thought of physical traits, but I like what I have. (That is, I would dislike anything I don’t have as much as I already do what I do have.) I thought of character traits, but I figure my childhood and adolescence would obliterate most of them, so the wish would be useless.

Everything else I could want feels like something I could get or have or be, if I really wanted it badly enough.

What about you?

Reading in Bed Before Sleep

The light from the lamp casts no shadows. Your book is propped at the perfect angle. The pillows are fluffed just so under your shoulders and head. The sheets are freshly laundered. Is that a hint of lavender in the air? Rain patters at the window and on the street outside. The distant sound of car tires slicing through puddles reminds you of an early Tom Waits song. A mug of tea or a glass of whiskey is close by. Your arms won’t get tired and your foot won’t go numb. You are cozy in bed with a book and you want it to last forever.

“There’s an intimacy in bedtime reading,” Howard Jacobson writes at The Guardian, “that might have something to do with the pillows and the sheets, but is more about what happens when you move your eyes across a page.”

Reading Positions - Kate Beaton

By the amazing Kate Beaton

Somehow that intimacy isn’t the same when you’re staring at your phone instead of a book. Or the TV. Or your laptop with Netflix playing, your eyes unblinking.

“Words keep any reader busy any time, but you feel you’ve earned your sleep when you’ve wrestled with the angel of meaning at the end of a long day,” Jacobsen continues. Is sleep truly better after reading a book rather than indulging in any of the various other pleasures one might enjoy in that rare and enticing moment of respite between day and night?

How to read in bed

Pretend you don’t have a million other things to do. Convince yourself you didn’t promise to get so many things done today that you didn’t. Forget about that meeting first thing in the morning, that call you need to make before the end of business day in Europe or whatever.

Put on your pajamas and get into bed at 8pm. 9pm if that’s what you can manage. Earlier if you can. Have a single book handy — perhaps one you absolutely must finish today before you sleep — or a stack of books to graze through at your pleasure, dipping into them one at a time. Be prepared to drift off into a daydream or to forget yourself completely. Before you sleep you’ll forget you have a body. Perhaps you’ll convince yourself, for a little while, that you’re someone else.

I try to keep the phone away, but it can help to have it nearby to take a note or look up a reference. I am seized with an idea for a new or existing story while reading in bed more often than any other time or place. However, I am often shortly thereafter seized with a desire to cycle through my apps for some shiny new bit of information to distract me. So maybe I should leave my phone in the other room.

Reading with your eyes closed

The greatest risk, of course, is falling asleep. What’s the point of reading in bed when it’s holding you back from the rest you so damn well deserve? While there is something soothing about falling asleep over an open book, it’s embarrassing to wake up hours later with your glasses hanging off your face covered in drool and the light is still on. It’s hard to recover from a scene like that. You might as well give up before you even crack the cover if that’s how your night will go.

But sometimes it’s worthwhile. Sometimes you can fall asleep just gently enough to be aware that you’re asleep, to feel like you’re still reading. Many times I’ve continued some character’s adventure, some relationship conflict, some worrisome story problem behind closed eyes.

Ideally I come gradually and gracefully awake, check the clock, decide it’s time to turn out the light. But usually I wake with a jerk, realizing that I’d been rewriting the book as I slept, and try to pick up the thread. But inevitably it’s time to turn out the light.

Roxane Gay: “I work too much. Don’t make it an aspiration.”

A reporter asked Roxane Gay (author of Bad Feminist and Hunger) on Twitter to share productivity and/or time management tips. Being a sucker for such things, I was eager for her response. It wasn’t what I expected, but I loved it anyway.

Roxane Gay - I work too hard. Don't make it an aspiration.

How to be productive

I can get a bit weak-kneed around articles about identifying priorities, eating frogs, spending 80% of the time on 20% of the work, finding motivation, having a growth mindset, doing productivity experiments — all that stuff. My interest in these topics has mostly come from the responsibilities of my day job, but it’s become increasingly relevant to my writing life as well.

There’s something so addictive about tricks and hacks, right? The headlines are just so tempting. I know I’m procrastinating on the next chapter of my novel, but maybe this article will help me figure out how to get to work!

Or maybe not. Maybe what I really need to do is close the tab and get back to work.

I go through cycles of enthusiasm and burnout when it comes to reading about improving my productivity. The first part of the cycle is gobbling up as much as I can, the second part is realizing I’m reading the same thing over and over again, with very little I haven’t read before with every new headline I click, and the third part is realizing I haven’t really applied any of these things to my life in any meaningful way.

Then I take a break to read a mystery or do a crossword puzzle or get absorbed in a series on Netflix, something to relax and get my mind off the notion of being more productive. After all, slacking off can actually help your productivity. And soon enough I’m back at the beginning of the cycle.

A different perspective

I love Roxane Gay’s response because it makes a case against the prevailing enthusiasm for life hacks and time savers. She is where she is now because she works hard, not because she found some secret shortcut. If you read interviews with her about her success, she says the same things:

“You have to be in it for the long haul. Sometimes it takes a lot longer than you thought, but cream rises to the top. It may not rise in the way you want, but it will get there.” (source)

“I just wrote every day all day. I would work on other things certainly, there were times when I needed to step away and clear my head and clear my heart a little, because of the intense nature of it, but I became fully immersed in the character and her circumstances.” (source)

“Finally, there came a time when I decided to ignore all the advice I had read and do the only thing I know how to do, which is write. I wrote what I felt like writing, when I felt like writing, how I felt like writing.” (source)

“Slowly but surely, I started to find my voice. And the more I found my voice, the more easily I was able to publish my work.” (source)

“I write like no one is going to read it so that I have the courage to put the difficult words on the page. It’s a very elaborate delusion.” (source)

It’s a consistent message, and one that feels directly aimed at me. There are no easy answers. The answers are effort, time, courage, immersion, focus.

“Don’t make it an aspiration.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about that line. The problem is, that is my aspiration. Hard work. Sacrificing the things that don’t matter anyway. Finding my voice through consistent practice and focused determination.

Is there any other way? I’m not sure there is. Can someone write a list about that and give it a headline I can’t resist? Something like “10 Ways to Become an Amazing Writer Without Putting in the Work.” Actually, don’t worry about it. I’m sure it already exists.

Put in the work

For writers, it’s not about finding shortcuts or the easiest way to get from point A to point B. It’s about working hard. Putting in the hours. Learning from every sentence written and rewritten and every word deleted and rearranged. As Samuel Beckett wrote in “Worstward Ho”: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Life hacks won’t make you a better writer.