Conventional wisdom says that procrastination is a bad idea. Remember how in school instructors always emphasized starting a paper or science project right now, don't put it off until the last minute. And for most of us our anxiety increased the longer we put off the assignment and the closer we got to the deadline.
But here's a radical idea. What if a little procrastination is a good thing that generates creativity and produces better outcomes? And with less anxiety. What a radical idea. So here's how it works.
Let's say we're preparing a presentation or writing a term paper. Some of us feel anxiety already building when the assignment is given and start work immediately, maybe even completing the project quickly and thus relieving the anxiety but not allowing time for original thought to develop. Adam Grant, PhD, who has studied the dynamics of success and productivity in the workplace, calls these people "precrastinators." At the opposite end of the timeline are true procrastinators who wait until the very last minute to start and are experiencing anxiety bordering on panic. Not surprisingly, the quality of the finished project isn't that great, having been dashed together without much thought or preparation.
Now here's where it gets interesting and "moderate" procrastination works. Think of the timeline as a bell curve, flat at the ends and sloping to a hump in the middle. The horizontal axis is time, the vertical is productivity or creativity. That time in the middle is spent thinking about our project, jotting down ideas that popped up (Post Its are one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century) as we go about our daily lives. It's where creativity happens. Studies have shown that there's another part of our brain that works on problem solving and generating ideas outside of our consciousness. It's how solutions to problems or new ideas come to us unexpectedly while hiking or in the middle of the night.
The result is better, more original thought and far less anxiety. "Moderate" procrastinators have reasonable anxiety but it's not crippling. I learned this working as an ad agency art director. An idea would always come, sometimes a little too close to the deadline but it came. It's the same way I write these blog posts. In fact, in my last post on dealing with ambiguity I said I didn't know what the next post would be but I wasn't worried. And sure enough, it just came to me one day.
So starting too soon doesn't allow time for ideas to germinate and develop. And putting the task off to the last minute only produces panic. When we stop overthinking a task and allow our unconscious mind to take over, great, original ideas burst forth, sometimes when least expected. Martin Luther King, waiting to give his speech on The March on Washington, was still jotting down notes and revisions to his speech sitting on the platform prior to speaking. Eleven minutes into the speech he added four words that changed the course of history. "I have a dream."
Adam Grant, PhD, describes how creative and innovative people, who he calls "originals," use procrastination and the willingness to take risks and fail to come up with new and successful ideas. He makes a very important point: "Originals fear not trying more than they fear failure." To learn more about mastering the art of procrastination, check him out on TED.com (On THEFEARMONSTER's Banned Websites list) "The surprising habits of original thinkers" for a fascinating, interesting and encouraging look at how creative people get their ideas. And don't put it off, DO IT NOW!
Next Time: Well, I don't know right now but I'll think of something. See you then.