On procrastination, good and bad

We tend to think of procrastination as a personal failing, even a moral flaw, a sin. For novelists in particular, marooned at our lonely desks and in our heads, facing enormous tasks and distant deadlines, procrastination is a besetting danger. The web makes the problem infinitely worse, with its little cruelty of turning the writer’s workspace, his computer screen, into an endless cabinet of wonders. Distraction is always just two clicks away.

There is now a small industry churning out advice on how to stay productive in the age of distraction, but it all boils down to this: put away your toys and get to work. In his wonderful The War of Art, Steven Pressfield advises, “Be a pro.” And that, honestly, is the bottom line. Just do it.

Personally, I try to live by that advice. By nature I am lazy and undisciplined, a lifelong procrastinator, so I rely on a set of formal strategies to stay focused. I work in a barren office, on an ancient ThinkPad T23 laptop that has no internet capability. I cripple my smart phone using various apps. (I fiddle constantly with how best to disable my phone during work hours, which, yes, I know.) When all else fails, I leave the damn phone at home.

Fellow weak-willed writers, I can’t say this strongly enough: do not burn energy resisting the temptation of the web. Just turn it off completely. Unplug. Research has shown that people who exhibit strong willpower are not better at resisting temptation; they simply do not expose themselves to temptation. They do not bravely refuse to eat the ice cream in the freezer; they never go down the frozen-food aisle in the supermarket in the first place.

Once I have unplugged from the web, I focus on starting. Not writing a whole novel or even a single scene, not writing for a certain period of time or hitting some daily word-quota. Just starting. As a writer, that is the most essential and difficult thing you will do: start. You must learn to start and start and start. Every morning, despite the awesome scale of the task, despite your own mounting anxiety, you must start. You will fail, of course. All writers fail. Most writers fail most of the time. Doesn’t matter. Get up, dust yourself off, and start again. If you start enough, in some small percentage of those attempts, you will achieve the blessed, transporting, trance-like state of flow that every writer treasures, and the residue of that deeply-focused work will be words on the page.

So that is my anti-procrastination strategy. In two words: unplug and start. I do not claim there is any special wisdom there, nor do these strategies work infallibly for me. I fail all the time, and I scourge myself for it. Probably you do, too.  if you are a writer. It seems to be a universal feeling in this job. But failure is part of writing. Tomorrow you will try again. What choice is there? As Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

With all that said, I would like to suggest that some procrastination is actually good. Yes, good. Sometimes a writer resists writing not because he is lazy or careless, but because the passage just isn’t ready to be written. Hemingway famously said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” Sometimes the way your shit detector goes off is by refusing to allow you to write shit in the first place.

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How (and when and where) to write

[There is] evidence that environments, schedules, and rituals restructure the writing process and amplify performance… The principles of memory retrieval suggest that certain practices should amplify performance. These practices encourage a state of flow rather than one of anxiety or boredom. Like strategies, these other aspects of a writer’s method may alleviate the difficulty of attentional overload. The room, time of day, or ritual selected for working may enable or even induce intense concentration or a favorable motivational or emotional state. Moreover, in accordance with encoding specificity, each of these aspects of method may trigger retrieval of ideas, facts, plans, and other relevant knowledge associated with the place, time, or frame of mind selected by the writer for work.

Ronald T. Kellogg, The Psychology of Writing. Read more at Brain Pickings.

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All alike

Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.

V.S. Pritchett, “Gibbon and the Home Guard” (via)

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George R.R. Martin’s “secret weapon”

I love this: George R.R. Martin writes his novels on a DOS-based computer using a vintage 1980’s word-processing program called WordStar. In this clip, he tells Conan that he actually has two computers, a modern one with an internet connection for ordinary tasks and an old DOS-based, web-free computer for writing. I do something similar, though my work computer is not quite as ancient as Martin’s. I have an old ThinkPad T23, one of the last ThinkPads made without built-in WiFi. It dates from 2001 or so. It has no internet access, and better yet it is heavy and battery life is awful, so it’s effectively immobile — it chains me to my writing desk. I write my novels on WordPerfect, a zombie word processor that I’ve been using since 1984, when my college roommate introduced me to it on his state-of-the-art Kaypro II computer. I have been a WordPerfect devotee ever since. Writers go to all kinds of extremes to seal themselves off from the insidious distractions of the web. I am surprised more don’t just use an old computer from the pre-WiFi era. In this case, less is more.

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Angela Lee Duckworth on Grit

I suspect that grit, not talent, is the single best predictor of success for novelists, too.

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Relax! You’ll Be More Productive

Working in 90-minute intervals turns out to be a prescription for maximizing productivity. Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University have studied elite performers, including musicians, athletes, actors and chess players. In each of these fields, Dr. Ericsson found that the best performers typically practice in uninterrupted sessions that last no more than 90 minutes. They begin in the morning, take a break between sessions, and rarely work for more than four and a half hours in any given day.

“To maximize gains from long-term practice,” Dr. Ericsson concluded, “individuals must avoid exhaustion and must limit practice to an amount from which they can completely recover on a daily or weekly basis.”

I’ve systematically built these principles into the way I write. For my first three books, I sat at my desk for up 10 hours a day. Each of the books took me at least a year to write. For my two most recent books, I wrote in three uninterrupted 90-minute sessions — beginning first thing in the morning, when my energy was highest — and took a break after each one.

Along the way, I learned that it’s not how long, but how well, you renew that matters most in terms of performance. Even renewal requires practice. The more rapidly and deeply I learned to quiet my mind and relax my body, the more restored I felt afterward. For one of the breaks, I ran. This generated mental and emotional renewal, but also turned out to be a time in which some of my best ideas came to me, unbidden. Writing just four and half hours a day, I completed both books in less than six months and spent my afternoons on less demanding work.

— Tony Schwartz, “Relax! You’ll Be More Productive

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Cory Doctorow: Writing in the Age of Distraction

When I’m working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I’m working on it. It’s not plausible or desirable to try to get the world to go away for hours at a time, but it’s entirely possible to make it all shut up for twenty minutes. Writing a page every day gets me more than a novel per year — do the math — and there’s always twenty minutes to be found in a day, no matter what else is going on. Twenty minutes is a short enough interval that it can be claimed from a sleep or meal-break (though this shouldn’t become a habit). The secret is to do it every day, weekends included, to keep the momentum going, and to allow your thoughts to wander to your next day’s page between sessions. Try to find one or two vivid sensory details to work into the next page, or a bon mot, so that you’ve already got some material when you sit down at the keyboard.

— Cory Doctorow, “Writing in the Age of Distraction

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Orwell in torment

It is now 16 years since my first book was published, & abt 21 years since I started publishing articles in the magazines. Throughout that time there has literally been not one day in which I did not feel that I was idling, that I was behind with the current job, & that my total output was miserably small. Even at the periods when I was working 10 hours a day on a book, or turning out 4 or 5 articles a week, I have never been able to get away from this neurotic feeling, that I was wasting time. I can never get any sense of achievement out of the work that is actually in progress, because it always goes slower than I intend, & in any case I feel that a book or even an article does not exist until it is finished. But as soon as a book is finished, I begin, actually from the next day, worrying that the next one is not begun, & am haunted with the fear that there will never be a next one—that my impulse is exhausted for good & all. If I look back & count up the actual amount that I have written, then I see that my output has been respectable: but this does not reassure me, because it simply gives me the feeling that I once had an industriousness & a fertility which I have now lost.

— George Orwell, 1949 notebook entry (via)

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Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Creativity, happiness and flow

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William James: Habit

There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all. If there be such daily duties not yet ingrained in any one of my readers, let him begin this very hour to set the matter right.

William James, Habit (read the whole essay here).

Update, 8.20.2017:

William James’s famous essay on habit is mentioned in Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey (wonderful book):

James was writing from personal experience — the hypothetical sufferer is, in fact, a thinly disguised description of himself. For James kept no regular schedule, was chronically indecisive, and lived a disorderly, unsettled life. As Robert D. Richardson wrote in his 2006 biography, “James on habit, then, is not the smug advice of some martinet, but the too-late-learned too-little-self-knowing, pathetically earnest, hard-won crumbs of practical advice offered by a man who really had no habits — or who lacked the habits he most needed, having only the habit of having no habits — and whose life was itself a ‘buzzing blooming confusion’ that was never really under control.”

James was also a chronic procrastinator. He told one of his classes:

I know a person who will poke the fire, set chairs straight, pick the dust specks from the floor, arrange his table, snatch up a newspaper, take down any book which catches his eye, trim his nails, waste the morning anyhow, in short, and all without premeditation — simply because the only thing he ought to attend to is the preparation of a noonday lesson in formal logic which he detests.

I actually find all this heartening. Maybe there is something in the undisciplined mind that enables it to imagine freely. Of course, it is too much to say that lack of self-restraint is a necessary condition for creativity; there are certainly creative people with rigorous self-discipline — William James’s brother Henry not least among them. But, at a minimum, one can say that a disorderly mind and unsettled habits are not a complete bar to great creative achievements, if William James is any example.

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Tweet of the Day

Good work tends to happen only at the end of day: when the fear of accomplishing nothing finally exceeds fear of doing it badly.

Alain de Botton

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Leonardo, procrastinator

I was heartened (relieved, really) to find this wonderful essay describing Leonardo da Vinci as “a hopeless procrastinator.”

Leonardo rarely completed any of the great projects that he sketched in his notebooks. His groundbreaking research in human anatomy resulted in no publications — at least not in his lifetime. Not only did Leonardo fail to realize his potential as an engineer and a scientist, but he also spent his career hounded by creditors to whom he owed paintings and sculptures for which he had accepted payment but — for some reason — could not deliver, even when his deadline was extended by years. His surviving paintings amount to no more than 20, and five or six, including the “Mona Lisa,” were still in his possession when he died. Apparently, he was still tinkering with them.

Nowadays, Leonardo might have been hired by a top research university, but it seems likely that he would have been denied tenure. He had lots of notes but relatively little to put in his portfolio.

What makes the essay so interesting is the suggestion that Leonardo’s epic procrastination, far from being a character flaw or an impediment, was the very key to his creativity. So many of the things for which we celebrate Leonardo are the product of his procrastination, especially the notebooks which overflow with ideas and visions, daydreams about helicopters and double-hulled ships and so on. Leonardo’s notebooks are the primary reason we think of him as a genius, the archetypal polymath Renaissance man, rather than “just” a brilliant artist. And he was paid for none of that creative work. It is what he did when he ought to have been doing something else.

Would he have achieved more if his focus had been narrower and more rigorously professional? Perhaps he might have completed more statues and altarpieces. He might have made more money. His contemporaries, such as Michelangelo, would have had fewer grounds for mocking him as an impractical eccentric. But we might not remember him now any more than we normally recall the more punctual work of dozens of other Florentine artists of his generation.

I don’t want to get carried away. The lesson of Leonardo’s life is not to abandon yourself to procrastination. Procrastination has to be controlled. There is work to do, bills to pay. I get that.

At the same time, it is useful — for artists, especially — to think of procrastination not as a vice or a personal weakness, but as a signal, an alarm bell. It is the clearest possible indication that your current project is not inspiring to you. After all, you don’t put off something you enjoy doing. Your mind does not wander if it is engaged in something interesting.

The usual advice to procrastinators who yearn to be “cured” is to exert ever more discipline and hard work. Manage the problem. Put systems in place to help you complete a project that bores you to tears. Those are useful strategies, sometimes. Boring work simply has to get done, sometimes. But maybe, sometimes at least, we are looking in the wrong place. Maybe the problem is not the worker, but the work. Remember, it is the writer’s job never to be boring, and if a project is boring to the writer himself…

Every writer knows the self-lacerating guilt that accompanies unproductive days. Lately, I have been grinding away on a stalled, lifeless book. I have spent weeks on technical problems: trying to piece together the story or engineer characters to fill various plot functions. Or simply struggling to find new ideas worth writing about. It is an inefficient, unproductive, maddening part of the process. And of course I have bashed myself endlessly for procrastinating, for all the lost hours.

But maybe I ought to be asking not what’s wrong with me, but what’s wrong with this novel? Why doesn’t it inspire me? Or, more usefully, how can I turn it into the sort of novel that will inspire me? Every writer, every artist, of even moderate ambition wants to work with passion, on projects that fill him with a sense of mission. If the project before you does not do that, then change it till it does.

For a lot of writers, I admit, that is terrible advice. Certainly it contradicts the received wisdom. When wise old writers pontificate about How To Write, one chestnut they always toss off is “Don’t wait for inspiration.” And it is true that there are plenty of writers out there who work whether they are inspired or not. They churn out a book a year, steady, workmanlike, professional, unsurprising, consistent, well-crafted books. I admire them. I envy them, honestly. You should emulate them if you can.

But I don’t want to work that way and I don’t want to write books like that. I want every book to be the best fucking thing I’ve ever done. I want every book to be electric — a mission, not just a paycheck. I want to work at the absolute outer limit of my talent, always. That sounds naive and grandiose, I know, but there it is.

We writers always complain about modern readers. “They have lost their ability to focus deeply. The web has ruined them. They read like rabbits, skittish, hopping here and there. They don’t have the necessary attention span for novels. Novels are dying because of them.” We ought to remember that when we procrastinate, when we feel uninspired, our own mood — distracted, disengaged, dull, sniffing about for something interesting — is very much like the resting state of our audience. It is our job to make novels so intensely interesting that rabbity modern readers will feel they have to read them. They will close their laptops, turn off their ginormous high-def TVs, and pick up a book instead. The surest way to do that is to choose projects that are so intensely interesting to ourselves that we feel the same sort of compulsion to close our web browsers and get to work.

Procrastination is not always bad. It may be a signal. If you consistently feel you’d rather be doing something else, then your project is obviously lacking something. Don’t ignore that signal. Use it.

(Now go read that essay on Leonardo.)

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Think Quantity

As I read about how creativity works, an idea keeps recurring:

Groundbreaking innovators generate and execute far more ideas. Research has shown that the single strongest correlation to innovative success — any category, anywhere, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, musicians — is the number of ideas they came up with and tried to make happen.… The reason why we see this relationship is because of a fundamental flaw in humans when it comes to creative and innovative ideas, which is: we are not particularly good at predicting what’s going to work or not work.

I stumbled across that quote in a talk by Frans Johansson (at around 5:45 of the video). It echoed a similar striking quote from Robert Sutton, which I mentioned a few weeks ago.

Renowned geniuses like Picasso, da Vinci, and physicist Richard Feynman didn’t succeed at a higher rate than their peers. They simply produced more, which meant that they had far more successes and failures than their unheralded colleagues. In every occupation … from composers, artists, and poets to inventors and scientists, the story is the same: Creativity is a function of the quantity of work produced.

I was so struck by this idea, I decided to quickly check out the evidence.

  • Artworks Picasso produced in his lifetime: 20,542*
  • Inventions patented by Thomas Alva Edison: 1,093
  • Major works written by Charles Dickens: 50**
  • Compositions by J.S. Bach: over 1,000
  • Scientific papers published by Einstein: over 300***

Those are outlandish numbers, obviously, from a cherry-picked list of the famously prolific. What happens when we ignore the obvious, certified geniuses? What if we look at a few of the modern novelists I admire most? Well, they are all prolific, too.

  • Philip Roth: 27 novels, plus a half dozen other books of memoir and criticism
  • Updike: 21 novels, 18 short story collections, 12 collections of poetry, 4 children’s books, 12 collections of non-fiction, plus an ocean of criticism that has never been collected in book form
  • Bellow: 14 novels plus a half dozen or so short story collections and nonfiction
  • Ian McEwan: 11 novels, 11 screenplays, 3 short story collections
  • Graham Greene: 28 novels, 8 plays, 10 screenplays, 4 short story collections, plus memoirs, travel books, film criticism, etc.

No, it’s not the most scientific study. And there is some selection bias there: one of the reasons I admire these writers in the first place is that they have been so productive for so long. But it is hard to dispute Sutton’s conclusion: Creativity is a function of the quantity of work produced.

Lesson #1: Churn it out. Writers like Harper Lee — the one- or two-book writers who achieve great things — are a tiny minority. The surest way to create great work is to create a lot of work. Do not wait for the Big Idea; even if you had it, you would not recognize it. Execute a lot of ideas, even the imperfect ones. Trust that somewhere in that body of work will be the one or two transcendent achievements you are hoping for.

Lesson #2: Embrace failure. It is part of the creative process. You cannot succeed without failing — and failing a lot. No matter. As Beckett said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

For a procrastinator and perfectionist like me, those are two vital points to remember.

* 20,542 is just the number of Picasso’s works that have been confirmed and cataloged thus far. Estimates of all work produced range as high as 50,000.

** Famously prolific, Dickens’ total output is hard to quantify. Some line-drawing is necessary. I’ve counted as “major works” the 20 novels, 4 short story collections, 17 Christmas numbers of the magazines Dickens edited and contributed to, and 9 collections of nonfiction, poetry, and plays. (The list I used is here.) It is a rough but conservative estimate since it omits the deluge of shorter pieces he wrote for periodicals, not to mention his myriad other activities.

*** Einstein also published about 150 non-scientific papers, mostly on humanitarian or political subjects.

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What information consumes

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.

Economist Herbert Simon, 1971

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What good shall I do this day?

Franklin's schedule

Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule — “What good shall I do this day?” (Source: Nick Bilton. Via swissmiss.)

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Daniel Pink: What Motivates Us

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Quote of the Day

The chief beauty about time is that you cannot waste it in advance. The next year, the next day, the next hour are lying ready for you, as perfect, as unspoiled, as if you had never wasted or misapplied a single moment in all your life. You can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose.

Arnold Bennett (via)

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The Bermuda Triangle of Productivity

The Bermuda Triangle of Productivity


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The Cure for Procrastination

Before you sweat the logistics of focus: first, care. Care intensely.… Obsessing over the slipperiness of focus, bemoaning the volume of those devil “distractions,” and constantly reassessing which shiny new “system” might make your life suddenly seem more sensible — these are all terrifically useful warning flares that you may be suffering from a deeper, more fundamental problem…. Know in your heart that what you’re making or doing matters… First, care. Then, as you’ll happily and unavoidably discover, all that “focus” business has a peculiar way of taking care of itself.

Merlin Mann

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James Surowiecki: Later

A theory of procrastination:

“… the person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person: they’re different parts of what the game theorist Thomas Schelling called ‘the divided self.’ Schelling proposes that we think of ourselves not as unified selves but as different beings, jostling, contending, and bargaining for control.… The idea of the divided self, though discomfiting to some, can be liberating in practical terms, because it encourages you to stop thinking about procrastination as something you can beat by just trying harder. Instead, we should rely on what Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson, in their essay in The Thief of Time, call ‘the extended will’ — external tools and techniques to help the parts of our selves that want to work. A classic illustration of the extended will at work is Ulysses’ decision to have his men bind him to the mast of his ship. Ulysses knows that when he hears the Sirens he will be too weak to resist steering the ship onto the rocks in pursuit of them, so he has his men bind him, thereby forcing him to adhere to his long-term aims.”

Anybody got a mast I can borrow for the next couple of weeks?

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