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.

18 comments on “Procrastination

  1. Richard on

    Great blog. You’re so right about the fear and dread of picking up a project after some length of time. It’s so much effort having to catch up again and get your head back in the right place. There should be a switch you can flip.

    Glad I could help, by the way. You really have to learn to focus and not let yourself be dis……LOOK! SOMETHING SHINY!


  2. Margaret Reyes on

    Thanks for the birthday wishes. I never procrastinate because, when I was younger and put something off, I felt like I had lost something I could never get back – no matter how trivial it would seem to someone else – because I wanted to enjoy (maybe that’s not always the case – sometimes it would be more like “suffer through”) every experience available. So, I’ve kept myself on my treadmill so that I don’t miss anything and it works for me. Love you, Mom

  3. jrfoxwell on

    Hey Margaret, love this blog entry.

    How funny that after being off of Inked in for ages I should find your blog so quickly. I have been having exactly this problem. Moving house and having issues with income, have all taken their toll on, and been somewhat worthy distractions. But when I look back at what I have been writing, most notably my first novel which includes about 2 years of work, and I am not filled with the momentum, I just can’t get my head back into it. I have also found that I am so much more judgemental of my own work approaching second draft stage, and I can’t bare the times of despair. I remind myself of the pleasure I have had in the writing and a sense of peace returns.

    A little therapy I have tried doing recently is throwing off the confines of context and giving my imagination a little present to get the engine burning. I have been writing really short 100 word stories. This way I get a quick hit of the love of writing which helps me see and feel my way back into my work. I have set myself a challenge of writing one every day. It only takes a few minutes to do but it makes sure I am enjoying at least a little writing everyday. I have put up a blog for it so that it will keep me submitting daily.

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      Jonny! Great to see you again. It’s funny that you’ve been writing really short stories. I’ve been thinking of that myself for the same reason. Short stories make me a bit fearful though. So much to cover in so few words. I might just give it a try.

      I’m heading over to your blog now. Thanks for commenting. And don’t be a stranger.

  4. deborahatherton on

    Loved your kind words and your thoughts on procrastination, and I think you are right, a routine can help, and is probably essential for most people, although whether it is daily, bi-weekly, three times a month, or whatever, probably depends on individual personalities and schedules. It’s particularly interesting to me that you brought up the magpie thing – I have a written a whole piece on it – I call it being a creative butterfly, though, and it is a creative personality type I will defend it to the death – since I am one, too! The trick is to use this gift only for the good – something I,too, am still a long way from mastering.

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      Thanks for commenting, Deborah, and so much more!

      It’s true what you say about using the gift only for the good. I was talking to Lamb the other day about the traits of a Gemini, which I am, and he asked when I was going to get to the bad ones. I laughed because the good ones are also the bad ones. It just depends how far you go.

      I was telling Sarah I think we’re due for a night out in NYC. Hope to see you soon.

  5. workingtechmom on

    I have a theory, the hardest part of anything is getting started…so when the mood strikes just get yourself started. So in response to this part of your post…

    “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.”

    …what if you didn’t first do all those things when you felt like writing, but instead just started writing? Maybe it wouldn’t flow from where you left off, but you can fix that later. Seize the moment when you are ready to write, and just write…worth a try?

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      It’s worth more than a try! You are so right. Sometimes the “shoulds” sit on your shoulder and scream in your ear and you forget that a visit from the muse is a precious thing indeed. Thank you for the suggestion. I needed to hear it. 😀

  6. Rick Pulito on

    Hi Margaret (I’d pronounce you “Maggie” but odds are that would not be judged favorably…Although in all honesty, Maggie is one of my favorite names, so it wouldn’t be by my own choice, rather merely so as not to be judged too harshly…)…
    So what is this about procrastination. I’m sure nobody would interpret a lapse of monthsss to be the result of something so basically human as procrastination….
    But since you get a whole lot more commentary on your blog than I do (…INCIDENTALLY, TO ANYONE WHO MIGHT SEE THIS, YOU REALLY SHOULD VISIT http://IDEATIONZ.WORDPRESS.COM <–YOU CAN LOSE THE CAPS…. THEY ARE ONLY HERE FOR EFFECT…) I guess I have very little that I can say… After all, you write maybe 7 times a year, and I write pretty much 3 times a week..but not that you are procrastinatious (you might want to think about someday looking that up to see if it is a real word…)… Besides, the word I got was that procrastination is a genetic defect, so you can blame it on your parents for making you wait so long to blame them for your willingness to suspend time and space for unmeasured months on end….
    OK, so come visit me again sometimes. Clearly, I don't get nearly enough visitors…

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      There seems to be a trend lately of people wanting to call me Maggie. I let only one friend get away with it and that’s because he’s English, and let’s face it, anything that comes out of his mouth in that accent sounds good to this Brooklynese-speaking New Yorker. 🙂

      I thought I had discussed all my genetic defects with my parents, but clearly I missed one. Do you think Thanksgiving Dinner might be a good time to broach the topic? 😉

      Thanks for stopping by, Rick. Have a great Thanksgiving.

  7. Val Erde on

    I’m like you in being easily distracted. Another term for it is a ‘butterfly mind’ – flitting from one thing to another. Right now I’m battling leaving off a project that I’d started last week and that I must force myself back to. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it – I do, but that there are any number of other things that seem just as important to me. I don’t have the energy for all of them (and things were made worse when over a year ago I was put on pills to lower my blood pressure, which just make me tired and often pretty brain-dead) so I do a bit of one then forget it and do a bit of another, and so on – all the time getting distracted by new things!

    • Margaret Reyes Dempsey on

      Usually I embrace my scattered ways, but some things just require momentum or it’s like starting all over again every time you return to them. My novel, as an example. I’ve got to rein in my butterflies and magpies and just “do the work.”

  8. Jessica Sieghart on

    I have procrastination issues, as well. Sometimes life gets in the way and other times, my mood does. If I’m feeling down, stressed, worried, whatever, my writing ability is the first thing that goes. I agree that you just have to keep writing every day. It may not be something you’d want everybody to read, but it keeps the momentum going. I’ve been doing that for about a year now and it makes a difference.


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