Procrastination

Happy Birthday to my Mom, a woman who never procrastinates.

Friend and fellow writer Deborah Atherton recently blogged about procrastination. I filed my nails for four days and finally read her blog. I’d been in a rut—nothing going on except the worrying that nothing was going on. In case you’re wondering, not writing was the nothing going on.

It’s quite odd to not get started on something you really want to get started on. It got me thinking about the cause, and it was at this point that I read Deborah’s blog and the article she refers to, which puts forth several good theories. When none of them resulted in an aha moment for me, I continued my pondering until some surprising conclusions surfaced.

For many years, I’ve fought the idea that a writer must write every day. As an unstructured person, I never did and it didn’t seem to be an issue. I chalked it up to personal preference and never understood why others made such a fuss. But suddenly, I’m rethinking that. I realize that for me it’s all about momentum, and that procrastination is a symptom of the loss of momentum, stemming, I think, from the dread of the effort it’s going to take to get back on track.

Case in point, last year I was in a regular exercise routine when August arrived and I jetted off to Scotland for two weeks. When I returned, I never resumed exercising. Just. Stopped. Completely. There were some attempts to restart but nothing took hold. Then, in April of this year, I decided to take the advice of Olympic Gold Medalist Jennifer Azzi, who recommends never letting two days pass without doing some kind of exercise. Almost seven months later, I have stuck to that. I exercise every day or every other day. Missing two days has happened only on rare occasions. Last month, I went on a two-week holiday to Italy. When I returned, and let me admit that re-entry was difficult, I realized that I wasn’t getting back to the routine and recommitted to Azzi’s principle.

I think we can all relate to how difficult it is to start an exercise routine when you’re not in shape. Writing is no different. When I’m engaged, the ideas are flowing along with the ink. Even if I miss a day, my mind is still simmering and “writing” in thoughts that will later be committed to paper. But when I’ve let it all go mid-novel, when I haven’t worked in weeks or months (or, dare I say, a year) and can’t remember where I left off, the thought of picking up the pieces is torture. I can’t just start writing at that point. I need to first find the novel on my cluttered desk, and reread it to figure out what the heck I was thinking, consult my notes about the various thoughts I had as I was writing, and then resume the work. Contemplating how much has to happen before I can dig in again is draining. It would have been so much easier to stay in the groove. I think it’s time for me to apply Azzi’s rule of exercise to writing. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

There was one more point that nagged at me. What is it exactly that takes me out of a task? I love to write, why would I stop? I feel great when I exercise, why would I stop? In the absence of a commitment to a principle such as Azzi’s, it comes down to something as simple as my personality type. I am a “putterer,” easily distracted. I jump from one task to the next. My friend Richard Lamb, who writes a regular movie blog (and even had posts ready to run while he was away on vacation…sigh) says I’m like a magpie, a bird prone to thievery, according to folklore, because of its penchant for shiny things. I can be in the middle of one task, when “something shiny,” as he says, catches my attention and I’m off on another adventure. He’s right. And so, it’s not the lack of desire for the task at hand, but the promise of something new that gets me every time and usually distracts me long enough to break my much needed momentum.

Lucky for me, the shiny bits this week were Deborah’s blog, Rich’s good example, and the memory of Jennifer’s sage advice. Let the writing begin anew.

Update 1/25/2011: See my new blog series Magpie’s Shiny Things.

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