Most people have issues with procrastination in one or more areas of their life, some (me) more than others. And in the year of our Lord 2019 there is an unlimited supply of things to distract ourselves with, each one designed to keep our attention at all costs. So, for writers and artists of all kinds, how can we avoid procrastination and get our work done? Especially since more and more of us are doing it after our usual 9-5 jobs, right when your brain is telling you that you need to relax and take a break. What if we chose to procrastinate and feed our creative minds, rather than passively accepting it and punishing ourselves for it?
First, let me tell you a little story. I’ve been writing a novel for, oh, I don’t know, a million years now, and last year just before Christmas I finished my first full draft. I won’t go into exactly how I did this, though I will say I was working a very slow job at the time and was able to write at least a few hundred words every single day at work. My family are from the middle of nowhere Donegal – no internet, no phone service – and I always go up for Christmas so I figured I would get a whole lot of writing done. This time, that did not happen. My sister got internet for the first time ever and seemed to have unlimited movies on her television, so I literally watched 9 hours of movies a day, and I loved it. I don’t think I wrote or edited a single word while I was there, and I made a conscious decision not to write. I’d spent the previous few months hammering out a word count and felt like I needed a break and deserved one.
When I came back to Dublin I was focused more on my burlesque dancing and performing, getting back into singing, and supporting other artists, so editing a second draft fell by the wayside for a while. I’m sure we’ve all heard the tip that you should put your draft away for a while before coming back to it and I definitely did that and did so much better coming back with a fresh mind to edit it for querying. I’m doing that at the moment, but my time spent resting my writing mind taught me so much about how I had been sending my time previously, how much I guilted myself and punished myself for going to the cinema or taking a night off to see a friend. I realised that I’d gone back to my Leaving Cert. days where just sitting down to watch the Simpsons when I knew I should be studying gave me heart palpitation – and I didn’t really give a rats ass about the LC. Procrastination is often, though not always, a sign of underlying anxiety, something I do struggle with, a fear of failing so you don’t even start or leave everything to the last minute. But these days there’s so much more than that, so much more to distract us it’s almost impossible to stay focused on the things we really care about and thus end up feeling like we are failing, even though everything around us is designed to grab and keep our attention. We are living in a world designed to make us passive.
Why We Can’t Relax Anymore
We are all constantly on our phones, there’s no two ways about it. Even if you profess to hate social media like a lot of the people I follow on Twitter seem to think, you’re still on there, scrolling and like, comparing and judging, and it just isn’t healthy. Most of what we see also isn’t realistic. Think about it, if you follow loads of people but they only post when they’ve done something cool or a product to sell it looks like everyone is constantly doing more than you are and we all think like that! We can’t relax because we can see how much other people are doing with the same time and resources and we feel like we’re wasting our lives because we aren’t building businesses, or ‘brands’, or volunteering, or travelling. To sit and do nothing but scroll is to sit and do nothing but stress. Here’s an article from Moodpath that delves deeper into this.
And even when we aren’t on social media, we are all accessible, ALL the time. Anyone else have family who look their collective shit if you don’t answer the phone immediately? I’ve been trying for a long time to figure out how we made plans and kept them before mobiles and I honestly can’t remember. We are never actually alone anymore, and as an introvert, that sucks.
Our fear of missing out leads us to constantly pick up that phone, even when we don’t want to, even when it makes us feel bad, EVEN when we have a project that we are passionate about and want to finish – it’s so hard to stay focused. Eve calling it a project feels somewhat wrong when you’re motivation is coming from the heart, it’s so mechanical. I feel like this is also the reason why I can’t read like I used to. Even in college I could finish books no problem, but since I started using smart phones, I find it very hard to make it through a single chapter even without checking Twitter, which is insane! I even procrastinate procrastinating by watching a movie, then ignoring it and scrolling through Instagram. We can’t relax because there’s always more content to consume, always more to catch up on, ALWAYS more ‘hustling’ to do. No wonder we’re tired all the time.
The Weight of Guilt
Do you ever sit down to watch a movie or tv show and feel guilty? Does scrolling through your list on Netflix make you feel like you are a failure? You are not the only one.
I have only recently been talking to friends about how we used to LOVE getting to the weekend because you got to just do nothing at all. Absolutely nothing. Can you remember the last time you did that and it wasn’t linked to depression? I feel like these days the only time I do nothing is when I am so overwhelmed I just can’t, instead of purposefully doing nothing and enjoying the freedom of not having a to-do list, not having a schedule, and not feeling like I’ve failed when I don’t get things done. These days, weekends are for doing the things you can’t do during the week, or for some of us, to work on what we really want to do outside of the job we need to pay the bills. For me, Saturdays are for running errands and cleaning things, Sundays are for classes I’ve scheduled, updating social medias and this blog. Every spare minute of every week day is for writing, including lunch at work. I have to schedule in time TO DO NOTHING like it’s a real chore or something, and isn’t that weird?
Our Self Worth is Tied to Productivity
I believe, and there seem to be some studies that show that people in general these days, are more anxious than previous generations. Obviously there are different types of stress and anxiety, there are different things that make our lives easier and possibly make them worse, but our constant access to everyone around us and to so many types of ‘product’, ie videos, podcasts, photography, music, books, art etc. that other people are making, it shows us that we can do those things to. This can inspire, but it can also crush your soul. Yeah you could have all that too, but you aren’t doing anything to get it. I could have written multiple books and worked hard to get them published by now, but I haven’t. I’ve wasted my time right?
No, just because you aren’t constantly being ‘productive’ it doesn’t mean you are failing. Everything you do when it comes to art is a choice, most of the time there is no one pushing us, no hearts to break if you don’t pant that picture or finish that story, we have put the pressure on ourselves and that is why it’s hard to get things done, because we are the ‘Boss’. Artists of all kinds these days are struggling to keep up with the constant demand for new content and few spend the time that they should creating something that is whole and finished. It takes so much time to write a book, or create a show, or an album, but we demand more stuff, more often. Binge culture is feeding into this and the pressure to get something out as quickly as possible is killing so much creativity.
Blindboy Boatclub from the Irish comedy duo ‘The Rubber Bandits’, has a podcast about art and mental health, and in it he points out that we need conscious relaxation to take in other people’s art in order for your sub-conscious to later create its own art. We are all filters of the world around us and the art and experiences that we consume and have. If we never watched movies, read books, listened to music, put blinkers on and only wrote our own stuff, we would never get the fuel for further art. Eventually our inspiration would run out and we would again feel like failures.
Coming Back After a Break
When I came back from my intentional break, did I have anxiety about writing? Of course I did! I freaked out for a bit, thought maybe I’d forgotten how to do it, had fallen out of whatever semblance of a routine I’d made for myself, but I definitely don’t regret taking that break. I watched all the movies I’d been missing because I felt like I wasn’t allowed to do anything but write for so long. I had basically been punishing myself, and though this worked sometimes, more often than not it just wreaked havoc on my mental health and made me feel like a failure no matter what.
And you know what’s really irritating? Constantly complaining that you aren’t writing, or you haven’t written enough. Your friends and family will get real tired of that, real quick, even if they don’t want to admit it.
If you are going to procrastinate and watch Youtube videos or listen to podcasts, or hel make bracelets out of coke can tabs (yes I do this), do it on purpose. Do it consciously. Focus on the things that you are using to distract yourself. Get rid of the stress, get rid of the pressure to get back to writing. Now, when I sit down to watch movies or read books I’ve bought, I focus solely on that one thing, put my own book aside and know that I will get back to it. I know that what I take from the experience of that other piece of art will feed back into mine, maybe even plug up a few plot holes, or teach me how to set a scene better.
Do you have a problem with procrastination? Do you feel guilty or anxious when you aren’t writing? Let me know down below.