Do you track your word counts, log your hours spent writing, or keep a long to-do list of writing-related tasks?
All of these things can be helpful … but as writers, we sometimes get a bit too caught up in measuring how “productive” we are, at the expense of nurturing our creativity.
Sometimes, doing nothing—or wasting time—can be more productive than you’d expect.
What Happens When Writers Do Nothing?
Here’s author Julie Stroebel Barichello’s explanation of how “doing nothing” helped her to find the right voice for her children’s novel:
“Saturday night, I was lying on the futon with my Writer’s Digest. At some point, without realizing, I put the magazine down and started staring off at the wall. But I wasn’t seeing the wall. I was seeing Dempsey’s neighborhood, and his family, and his school. I was seeing these through Dempsey’s eyes, and listening to explanations in his voice.
After I mentally worked my way through a plot tangle and came up with a couple of blog post ideas, it occurred to me I should jot them down in my journal. As I stood up, I realized I had spent the past 40 minutes doing nothing.
It’s the most productive 40 minutes I’ve had in weeks.”
And here’s another writer—author, freelancer, and blogger Frances M. Thompson—explaining how taking breaks from her writing helps her to overcome obstacles and find solutions to problems:
I’ll always go back to [my writing]. It just feels and is wrong not to. That’s when I start thinking about the journey back home to whatever it was I was working on and that’s when I start to see those familiar but slightly altered obstacles … I sigh a little because they’re still there, but I find my sighing isn’t as deep as it used to be because I’m a little fuller and less hollow because of the rest I’ve had and the break I’ve enjoyed …
What I don’t realise is that it is the changing of shape and size that I need to happen. I don’t need to avoid the challenges, but rather approach them from a different angle, to see them from a different perspective. And sometimes only taking a break will help me gain that new and enabling perspective.
These writers both solved problems by taking breaks from their work, such as finding a viewpoint character’s authentic voice as Barichello described. Sometimes, instead of staying at your desk and trying to power on through obstacles, it makes a lot of sense to take a break instead.
Why Doing Nothing—and Even Being Bored—Makes You More Creative
How often are you bored? Perhaps not all that often if you’re like most writers: You’re racing from one thing to the next and probably juggling a host of domestic tasks and perhaps a day job as well as your writing.
Doing nothing (or even being bored), though, can be an essential part of creativity. As Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries puts it:
“[D]oing nothing is a great way to induce states of mind that nurture our imagination. Slacking off may be the best thing we can do for our mental health. Seemingly inactive states of mind can be an incubation period for future bursts of creativity.”
But how can you let yourself “do nothing” and reap the benefits?
Two Great Ways to Do Nothing (While Letting Your Subconscious Work)
There are two key ways to “do nothing” and increase your ability to come up with new ideas.
1. Routine Activities That Occupy Your Body, Not Your Mind
The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes. —Agatha Christie
Want to give your mind a chance to work away at a problem (without literally sitting and doing nothing at all)?
Find an activity that uses your hands or body but doesn’t take up much brain power.
Good possibilities are:
- Doing the dishes, like Agatha Christie suggests—or any simple household chore, like folding laundry.
- Engaging in something creative but repetitive, like knitting or coloring.
- Going for a jog or a swim, or any form of moderately intense exercise.
It’s easy to think of these types of activity as wastes of time, interruptions to the work of writing … but instead, you could embrace them as an essential part of the writing process. They take the pressure off, allowing you to mull things over and make connections.
If you’ve ever had a great idea while in the shower or while out for a walk, you’ll know exactly how this works.
2. Taking in Other Types of Art
A distinctly different type of “doing nothing” is to soak in someone else’s creativity. Try to go outside your own area of creativity for this—if you’re a novelist, for instance, it’s crucial to read novels, but they won’t necessarily let your mind wander in the way that other forms of art will.
So what could you do instead? How about:
- Visiting an art gallery (whether big or small).
- Listening to a concert. If you can’t attend live, there are plenty to choose from on YouTube.
- Going to a live poetry reading.
- Watching a movie.
All of these offer a great opportunity to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s creativity … and you may find that a particular image, phrase, or even sound helps spark an idea for you.
Balancing Time Doing Nothing and Time Spent Writing
Of course, you’re not going to get much written if you literally do nothing for days on end or if you fill your days with lots of interesting concerts and art gallery trips (in between bouts of chores) but little else.
So how do you strike a balance between doing nothing and actually writing?
You might want to take a look at:
- The times of day when you’re most focused. If you can, use these to get ideas down on paper, create outlines, draft, edit, and so on. (Though if you have to write at the “wrong” time of day, that’s fine too.)
- The times of day or the days in the week when it makes the most sense to fit in some “doing nothing” activities. For instance, you might decide to take the whole of Sunday off from writing and enjoy a trip to a movie or an art gallery.
Planning ahead, for both writing time and down time, can really help here. That way, you don’t need to feel guilty about taking a break—it’s something you’ve planned for and something that you know will boost your creativity and give you the chance to regain your energy after your time spent writing.
One Particularly Important Time to Do Nothing
When you’ve finished a draft, particularly of something long—a novel, a nonfiction book, or even a long-form blog post—it’s especially important to “do nothing” for a bit rather than to leap straight into the rewrite.
This gives you a chance to come back to your work with fresh eyes (and probably fresh enthusiasm, too). That way, you can spot possibilities that you might otherwise have missed, and you’ll be more alert to mistakes or problems with your work.
While it can be frustrating to “do nothing” when you want to race ahead and get your piece finished, taking a break for a few days or a couple weeks really won’t make that much difference … and it could help you gain a crucial sense of perspective on your work before you begin the self-editing process.
Is It Time for You to Move Forward—By Doing Nothing?
If you’re struggling to make progress with your writing, maybe the answer isn’t to cram in more writing sessions or to read more productivity and focus tips. Instead, how about taking a proper break?
Doing nothing can give your mind a chance to come up with solutions to problems, as writers Barichello and Thompson found, or it can bring fresh ideas. It’s not “unproductive”: Those hours away from your desk could, in fact, end up being crucial to your finished project.
Try working routine activities into your day—whether that’s household chores, exercise, or simple arts and crafts, and look for ways to soak up other forms of art, too. And if you’re at the end of a draft, make a real point of having a break before coming back to edit with fresh eyes.
Taking things a little more slowly, and having a few breaks, might well get you to the finish line faster.