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?

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.