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Is Procrastinating Part of the Writing Process or Simply Wasting Time?

While writing my book, I did what many authors do — I procrastinated. I checked my email way too often; I watched thousands of videos on YouTube; I sought out offbeat covers of songs I loved; I organized my closets; I asked and answered obscure questions on the Q&A site Quora. I even paid bills. And when my boyfriend would come back after a hard day at his job to find me doing these things — and when he noticed a stream of Facebook postings — he often would give me "the look" and ask if I'd really worked as hard as I should have.

"It's all part of the process," I would say to him.

But is it?

The answer is: yes, no, maybe.

First: Yes. The truth is, I don't think many people can sit at a desk for seven or eight hours at a time and just write. Most writers agree that it's helpful to do something else every now and then — like make tea or get up and walk around. And the brain needs downtime, too — time to wander, refresh itself, problem solve from oblique angles.

Second: No. Or, rather, just because some procrastinating is part of the process doesn't mean all is, or that procrastination doesn't often simply lead to more procrastination, or that all procrastination is created equal. I think every writer, when she or he is being honest, knows the difference between taking a break and being self-indulgent.I think every writer, when she or he is being honest, knows the difference between taking a break and being self-indulgent. I find that there are certain activities that are self-limiting — like making tea. You can really only stretch out that task for so long before the tea is too strong to drink. But there are other tasks that are addictive and endless, like checking out the most popular videos on YouTube. More often than not, when I take a break to do something addictive and endless, I'm just wasting time until I can call it a night.

Third: Maybe. I took an informal poll among writers I've published and other writer friends and asked them about their procrastination habits. And they all agreed that perhaps the greatest procrastination trick of all is to engage other writers in a conversation about procrastination. In essence they told me this: sometimes procrastination is helpful; sometimes it's not; and if you are spending time thinking or talking about it, that's a sure sign that it's time to get back to work.

÷ ÷ ÷

Will Schwalbe is the author of The End of Your Life Book Club and coauthor of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better. He has worked in publishing (most recently as senior vice president and editor in chief of Hyperion Books); in digital media, as the founder and CEO of Cookstr.com; and as a journalist.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The End of Your Life Book Club 1st...
    Used Hardcover $8.95

Will Schwalbe is the author of The End of Your Life Book Club 1st Edition

2 Responses to "Is Procrastinating Part of the Writing Process or Simply Wasting Time?"

    Sam Tornatore October 4th, 2012 at 7:26 pm

    Great advice, one thing I would like to add if I may. Too many people choose goals that set them up for failure. In other words they pick a goal this is highly likely to cause procrastination. The more they think they want it the more they sometimes procrastinate about it. One of the many reasons for this is that the goal is not consistent with their internal value system. Fortunately once some guidance is given this procrastination problem can be solved.
    Sam Tornatore

    Will Schwalbe October 5th, 2012 at 10:11 am

    Thanks so much for adding the words on realistic goal-setting. That's tremendous advice!

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