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?

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