Monday 17 February 2020

Is there Power in Procrastination?

By Candy Gourlay


I've fired up my favourite productivity app and typed the chapter number on top of the page.

I am ready to write this thing and remind myself of that quote from my new favourite screenwriter Greta Gerwig:

"You have to will it into existence because no one needs it until they know they need it."

This is what I'm gonna do today: will my story into existence.

But then I go downstairs and mop the floor.

Sounds familiar?

The good news is, I know I am not alone. All I have to do is check my Twitter / Instagram / Facebook feed ... and there they are, all my writing friends, in various stages of procrastination. It's a wonder that anything gets published at all.

If we're all procrastinating, is this a normal thing? And if it is, how do we avoid it?

Apparently screenwriter Aaron Sorkin likes to say:

"You call it procrastination, I call it thinking."

Hmm. Somehow when I'm giving those skirting boards one more polish, it doesn't feel like thinking.


Tim Urban, describes procrastination perfectly on his blog Wait But Why.

He says it's like there are several characters fighting over the steering wheel to your brain.

One is the Rational Decision Maker, who can visualise the future, see the big picture, make long term plans.

Unfortunately, the other character is the Instant Gratification Monkey, who lives in the present moment, has no memory of the past and "only cares about two things: Easy and Fun".

Explains Tim: "The Rational Decision Maker will make the rational decision to do something productive. But the monkey doesn't like that plan. So he takes the wheel and says, 'Actually let us read the entire Wikipedia page of the Nancy Carrigan-Tonya Harding Scandal because I just remembered that that happened ... then we're gonna go over to the fridge and see if there's anything new in it since ten minutes ago.'"

Then there's another character: the Panic Monster. The Panic Monster is in hibernation most times, but emerges in a frenzy when there's a deadline.

Panic is the only thing that can scare the Instant Gratification Monkey away from your brain's steering wheel.

(You can watch Tim's Ted Talk, Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator below – but scroll down and read this blog post first.)

But what if you have to go sit in your garrett (without anyone nagging you to do it, of course) and come up with fresh chapters time and again.  How do you fight procrastination when, like many of us, you are still – in Greta Gerwig parlance – willing into being a novel that nobody is waiting for?

(Though this is a bit of a rhetorical question for me as my publisher is DEFINITELY waiting for me to finish writing my novel – yikes!)

Tim says creativity takes emotional and mental toil over time.

"Procrastination forces you to slow down, which is why it can be a direct asset."


Procrastination, an asset? Say what?

"If you really stretch time a bit and go deep into something, it gets more and more interesting, the deeper you're into it."

This is Tomas Hellum, a Norwegian TV producer who came up with Slow TV, streaming hours sometimes days of television.

Notes the New Yorker: "Most art, even the naturalistic stuff ... comes in espresso form: the complexities of human perception are picked when ripe, roasted to intensity, milled, tamped down, and infused into something that’s quickly consumed. It is surprising, then, to find a challenge to this ancient premise arriving in a novel entertainment form—suddenly everywhere—known as 'slow TV.'"

But Tomas insists that this is precisely what people need. "We are living in times when coherent stories and context is somehow exotic. People are longing for some kind of connection or an unbroken story."

"Slowness gives you the ability to take back some control."

1.2 million Norwegians watched Tomas's first seven hour film of a train journey to the Arctic Circle. Slow TV programmes have even been streaming on Netflix.

Listening to a Ted Radio Hour programme on Slowing Down, I was struck by how much my/our art – novel writing  – shares with the slowing down sensibility.

What we write has to compete with the bite-size snacking offered by social media, which has regrettably come to define leisure expectations around the world – entertain me with something easy, quick, disposable.

It's becoming harder and harder to hook readers into long reads, harder to persuade them to invest time and emotion into stories that require concentration and time.

So the idea of Slow TV gives me hope for my art.

But this is by the by. It's not just the consuming of art that needs to slow down, but the creating of it.


Have I mentioned that Greta Gerwig is my new favourite screenwriter? Watching her take on Little Women had me listening to every writing podcast I could find that featured her.

In The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith, Jeff asked Greta about her process. Did she outline? Did she plan? How long did it take her to write her award winning films, Lady Bird and Little Women?

She said she keeps her writing "diaphanous" as long as she can, that she doesn't even put the manuscript in a screenplay form until much later because anything that looks final "gives you the illusion it's a final draft – it gives you a cosiness that you haven't earned" making it harder to change it.  "I find when I outline before I write its the fastest way to kill all my ideas. It makes everything quite literal for me."

Screenshot of Jo March laying pages of her manuscript on the floor  from the film Little Women
 Writing is a messy business – documents everywhere, sheets in longhand, she even writes using a typewriter. "I write a lot of scenes, gather a ton of material. I write until it feels like I can see a shape to it."

Tacked above her desk is a sign:


"I got good advice at the beginning: write everything. Write the things you think might be boring because there might be something in it. I think sometimes, when you're writing you’re in such a hurry to entertain, you can miss something that could be fruitful.”

FYI here is Greta Gerwig's Annie Leibowitz cover for Vogue

"It’s not about output it’s about sitting with the problem. That’s the thing about writing."


Hearing Greta explain that she is more interested in earning that final draft than writing it, is fascinating to anyone who feels the pressure to perform, especially in the children's book world, where your reader can outgrow you before you've finished writing a series.

American psychologist, Adam Grant tells the story of how Martin Luther King Jr was rewriting his speech until seconds before he took the podium before a 1963 civil rights rally in Washington, then leaving the speech in his chair to utter the words "I have a dream ..." which was not in the script.

"By delaying the task of finalising the speech until the very last minute," Adam says, "he left himself open to the widest range of possible ideas. And because the text was not set in stone, he had freedom to improvise."

Adam says we often misunderstand procrastination as laziness when it is actually discouragement that makes you want to flee a particular task. The danger is that the procrastinator might "rush ahead with their simplest idea because they didn't have time to work out their creative ones." But the non procrastinator is in as much danger of being less creative: "(non procrastinators) tend to rush ahead with our first ideas which are usually most conventional. We also make the mistake of thinking in very structured, linear ways."

In fact, says Adam, studies have shown that procrastination can boost creativity as long as it doesn't take too long. "People who started (work) early and then put it away for a while and then came back to it were more likely to do divergent thinking and incubation. Actually boosting their creativity."

Here is a video clip of what Adam said about procrastination in his Ted Talk The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers (watch it after you've finished this article!):


We procrastinate because of doubt.

Self doubt - an inability to believe in yourself – can be paralyzing.

Idea doubt, though, the kind that makes me mop my floor instead of writing the next chapter, is different. It can be energizing.

Says Adam: "It motivates you to test, to experiment to refine, just like MLK did.

"Instead of saying I'm crap, you say the first three drafts are always crap and I'm just not there yet."

Like Greta Gerwig, we need to put off our final draft as long as we can, we need to earn it. Says Adam: "Procrastination can become creative when you've actively grappled with the problem".

There is actually a name for why we are advised to set aside a manuscript's first draft before attempting an edit. The Zeigarnik Effect – named for the German phsychologist who identified the process  – describes how we unconsciously continue to work on incomplete tasks that we've set aside.

Explains Adam: "When you finish something, you check it off your to do list and  it's erased ...whereas incomplete tasks ... Your brain continues to work on a problem, testing out different ideas" even as you are pursuing other activities.


I was inspired to write this after listening to the Ted Radio Hour Podcast on the theme Slowing Down.

We writers often talk about how showing up is half the battle of writing a novel. But how many times have I shown up and ... no matter how hard I stared at my screen, could not make my writing go to the next level ... then, after setting a project aside in  despair, found myself refreshed, full of new ideas again?

I am always impatient when I write, wanting to churn out chapters quickly, religiously recording my word count, and hating myself when I fail to meet my objectives.

But learning about slowing down, thinking about Greta Gerwig's advice to "sit with the problem", I realise that I have known all along what gets my novels written.

I must turn up, yes. But I must also give myself permission to take time. Procrastination is taking time. It allows your brain to work on the problem. It's good for you, Adam Grant says, as long as you grapple with the problem first, and don't take too much time.

So I mustn't let it be a source of stress, but of creativity.

Besides, my house will be cleaner for it.

Candy Gourlay is the author of Bone Talk, which was shortlisted for the Carnegie and the Costa children's book awards. Her next book is a biography for young readers on the explorer Ferdinand Magellan. In the UK, it will be published in paperback by David Fickling Books this April. Pre-order here. In the United States it will be published in hardback by Abrams in September. Pre-order here.

First Names: Ferdinand Magellan by Candy Gourlay Illustrations by Tom Knight

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