Any writer will tell you that, when it comes to writing, only part of the process is actually spent writing.
First, you have to arrange your desk. The chair should be comfortable, the temperature just right. You should also put on a pot of coffee or tea, and—oh, have snacks at the ready in case hunger strikes. Come to think of it, when was the last time you checked the mail? Once you’ve done that, it only makes sense you spend just a few more minutes of scrolling on TikTok and Instagram to clear your head. Then you’ll be ready to write. Probably.
This is a joke—but only in part. Eventually, you really do have to get down to the work of writing and push all of those distractions aside. But sometimes those very distractions are what actually help create the conditions to do good work.
For many years, I was a full-time freelancer, and I loved the flexibility I had around how and when and where I worked. On some days, I might start writing before the sun comes up. On others, I wouldn’t find my groove until everyone had gone to sleep. I could go shopping in the morning—first one at the mall, right there with the seniors—or see a midday movie with a friend. The details don’t matter. What does matter is that the work always got done, even if it wasn’t always between the hours of 9 and 5.
That ethos extended to household chores. I could set a stew up for a mid-morning simmer, or throw in a load of late-afternoon socks. I had a monthly 1:1 with my cats, where the primary deliverable was a freshly cleaned litter box. Writer’s block was the perfect excuse to water the plants.
Aren’t productivity and procrastination merely two sides of the same coin?
It was tempting—and still is!—to think of tasks like cooking and laundry as impediments to good work. They can be time consuming and take you out of the flow. They require just enough concentration and coordination to make multitasking difficult, if not impossible. But hear me out: What if personal activities like these are actually part of the work? Aren’t productivity and procrastination merely two sides of the same coin?
Understandably, not everyone thinks about this the way I do. In a Dropbox-sponsored study, Economist Impact surveyed knowledge workers about sources of distraction and how they found focus. Of all the knowledge workers surveyed, just 16% said that personal tasks—such as cleaning or chores—helped them recharge or regain focus during the workday. In fact, household chores were the most frequently cited distraction among knowledge workers worldwide.
I won’t argue with the fact that chores may not be the most effective or enjoyable way to recharge. But if I wanted to do something pleasurable, I’d take a walk—or a nap! It’s precisely because they’re a distraction from the task at hand that I’ve come to appreciate sprinkling them throughout my day.
After a few hours spent sitting at my desk—staring at a screen, nudging my mouse around—there’s something refreshing about physical, manual, IRL work. Whether it’s lifting, chopping, hauling, or sweeping, chores are almost guaranteed to scrub any workday woes from my mind. It’s like changing a channel or flipping a switch; working with my hands gives my working brain a rest.
Other times, however, the mere thought of a looming chore can be more of an impediment to doing good work than if I were to just get it out of the way. My least productive days are often the ones where I work a traditional 9-to-5—the days when I can feel all the responsibilities looming, waiting for me, at the end of the day. The earlier I can cross those chores off my list, the easier I find it to focus, and the better I inevitably feel.
My brain is still thinking, problem solving, and working out ideas behind the scenes
When I feel good about myself and the space in which I work, it’s easier for the work itself to be good, too. For me, that often means a fridge full of food and a well-arranged desk, but it might look different for you.
I get it; it’s easy to feel guilty doing something that isn’t your job when you think you’re supposed to be working. But one of the best parts about working from home—and models like Virtual First—is that we can leave the of the rigidity of the office behind. Knowledge workers who work flexible hours at home are more likely to report improvements in focus time, quality of work, and well-being, Economist Impact found. Of course you’re going to think of chores as a distraction if your conception of work is limited to the hours between 9 and 5.
As a writer, I’ve learned that just because I’m not writing, it doesn’t mean I’m not working. Even when it feels like I’m procrastinating, unproductive, or hopelessly distracted, I try to remind myself that my brain is still thinking, problem solving, and working out ideas behind the scenes. Just as writing is more than what ends up on the page, a job is more than the hours you spend at your desk.
Sure, washing a wool sweater may not directly contribute to your quarterly. Chopping onions for a nice stew won’t get you anywhere closer to writing that email or finishing those slides. Cleaning the grout of your shower tiles is hardly a good justification for a raise. But that’s exactly the point. Sometimes, finding focus means looking where you’d least expect—like the bowl of a toilet, brush in hand, waiting for inspiration to strike.