A few weeks ago, I posted something on social media that got lots of attention from my readers. It was blogger Tim Urban’s excellent piece on the mind of the procrastinator. I’m sure one reason the post was so popular was Urban’s drawings illustrating what happens in the mind of a procrastinator, but I think mostly it struck a nerve with all the procrastinators out there. See Tim’s TED Talk about procrastination here.)
Before I go any further with this post, I should offer full disclosure: by nature I am a PREcrastinator. That’s what psychologist Adam Grant calls people like himself (and me) who can’t stand to have any deadline hanging over our heads. In his TED talk on original thinkers, Grant put it this way: “You know that panic you feel a few hours before a big deadline when you haven't done anything yet. I just feel that a few months ahead of time.”
That’s me. For my whole life, I’ve focused on finishing tasks LONG before they were due. I panicked on the first day of every semester as I faced those syllabi full of big projects, and I immediately began to tackle the research papers and projects ahead of me. I finished a dissertation in two years, something almost unheard of among history Ph.D.s. When I started teaching, I finished most of my lecture notes and power points before the semester started. I graded papers a day or two after students handed them in.
In many ways, this approach served me well. I churned out a lot of books and articles. Students loved that I returned papers. And I have never once pulled an all-nighter to finish a project by deadline. Not one single time. (I know: you procrastinators are calling me nasty names under your breath right now.)
And I’m not really an advocate for procrastination. As a former professor, I know that for every student who did her best work by waiting till the last minute, there were two or three students who turned in absolute garbage because they waited until the night before the deadline to throw something together.
But late in my teaching career, I began to see that there were real liabilities to being a prescrastinator. Too often, I cranked out the work, but I didn’t give it enough time to incubate in my brain, so it didn’t reflect my best thinking. I’d finish it, check it off my to-do list, and never think about it again—at least not until weeks or months later when I would read it and kick myself for the things that could have been improved.
Looking back on it, I can see that my best work was the product of slowing down. For example, I still believe that my first book, All We Knew Was To Farm, was my best book because I spent eight years working on it. In that eight years, I had a lot of time to think about what my research really meant. I had a lot of time to find just the right way to explain why my findings mattered.
Adam Grant did a lot of research on original thinkers for his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, and he found that there is a sweet spot when it comes to procrastination. Extreme procrastinators tended to produce shoddy work—when they finished the work at all. On the other hand, prescrastinators like me often produced work that was not very original. But people who took time to incubate their ideas tended to be more creative. Grant said, “One of the things that really happens when you slow down is you keep [the project] active in your working memory. And it can be really good for the task that you haven't quite solved yet.”
These days, I’m trying to find that sweet spot Grant talked about. I still find I can’t wait until the very last minute to complete important tasks. That simply generates anxiety that keeps me awake nights. But I’m also striving not to fall back into old habits of sprinting through a project and checking it off my list, never to think about it again. Instead, I’m trying to work slowly—to focus on new challenges in smaller chunks of time. That allows the ideas to percolate slowly.
Let the ideas percolate slowly.
This blog post is a great example. I’ve been thinking a lot about time management for the past few months because I’ve been working with several clients on the challenge of managing their time effectively. Then several weeks ago, I listened to a great TED Radio Hour show on “Slowing Down” (see this week’s featured podcast). I jotted down some ideas from that and set the note in the corner of my desk. Each time I sat down at my desk, I saw the note. I re-read it, and sometimes, another point I wanted to make in the blog post occurred to me, so I’d jot it down. Then I saw the Tim Urban piece which seemed to resonate so much with my social media followers. I did some composing in my head, too, so by the time, I sat down to write, I had a good idea how to organize this piece and what points to include. Once I drafted it, I set it aside for a few days so that I could come back to it with fresh eyes. The final product is this blog post. What I’ve written is certainly not a literary or self-help masterpiece but my ideas are more well-developed than if I had simply churned out a post in a single sitting.
How about you? What strategies allow your ideas to mature so that you can do creative work?