Return of procrastination
I have successfully dealt with procrastination (i.e. delaying and leaving tasks for later) in my life a long time ago. I admit I haven’t always started the day getting down to the most important things on my to-do list, but I have never put off the key tasks and most urgent matters for more than a day or two. I have been highly motivated to work towards achieving my goals, and a well-thought-out plan allowed me to systematically pull things forward.
An opportunity to re-encounter the procrastination monster showed up when I started writing my book. That was over three years ago, during my one month stay in the south of Italy. I could have seen that coming. After all, it was the first time in my life that I took up such a big challenge - producing a weighty volume of comprehensive content that required many weeks and months of extensive work, which ultimately took me three years.
As long as everything went according to my plan, I had no problem getting down to writing. However, as I came across a topic that was a tough nut to crack (for instance, the philosophical reflections on whether there is a coherent, persistent and true "self" inside of every one of us), that’s where the things would get tricky.
At the beginning, I found it difficult to accept the fact that instead of actually writing all the time, I had to put a lot of time and energy into long hours of reading, analyzing research material, weighing the ideas and concepting all of them in my head. I could see at that time how my initial schedule concerning the premiere of the book unrelentingly crumbled beneath my fingertips.
That was the moment when I welcomed procrastination with open arms again. Whenever I felt overwhelmed by the amount of things to read and review, I would leave off writing for later.
Can procrastination be a good thing?
Every cloud has a silver lining, though. During this temporary crisis, I had a eureka moment that led me to developing a new approach to the creative process. It turned out to be a very fruitful discovery which changed the process of writing my book by 180 degrees.
How did it come to that?
While working on my book, I would try many different writing strategies. I quickly noticed that when, in spite of some initial reluctance, I forced myself into writing a large chunk of text at once, its quality was not satisfactory so I had to get back to it many times in order to modify the content I had already scribbled.
On the other hand, when I went for the strategy of writing in stages and gave myself more time and space to complete a particular chapter, I was much more pleased with the effects of my work. I was surprised to see how important it was to take breaks between each stage of working on the text. Although I didn’t do anything specific during these breaks (I took some rest or handled other issues), all the pieces of the the project puzzle completed so far would slowly fall into place in my head.
Every time, I would come back to the task with a fresh mind, new ideas gathered and a broader view of the whole. Quite often, it resulted in decisions on adding something interesting to the book or approaching a particular subject in a completely different way.
This is how the so-called incubation process works. I described it extensively in my book Insight. Road to Maturity in regard to self-development work, so I will quote a short passage here explaining what this phenomenon is all about:
"Imagine that you are trying very hard to solve a problem. You think intensely, consider various options, endlessly trying to find answers to your questions. Despite all the effort, you are going nowhere. In the end you’ve got enough of it, so decide to you leave it altogether, go have some rest and focus on completing a completely different task. On a conscious level, you stop thinking about it. But your unconscious mind does not put it aside at all. It actually continues to process information related to this problem.
It's as if you ran some complicated calculations on your computer, and in the meantime went to make yourself some tea. This unconscious "grinding" of information connected to the problem is called an incubation period. By definition, it is a process of unconscious reorganization of thoughts that have been stimulated by conscious thinking."
Your unconscious mind does not sit idly when you stop working on a project that’s important to you. There's always something going on in your head. That's why, sometimes we get the best ideas in the shower.
You probably know the phenomenon of "deja vu". This is the moment when we experience a situation for the first time and we have an impression that we have already experienced it in the past. The opposite happens (and it’s called "vuja de") when you look at something you've seen dozens of times in a whole new way.
So, it turns out that moderate procrastination, i.e. conscious and planned deferment of certain stages of work, is a great way to fortify your work with a new perspective and creative ideas. Our subconscious does the job for us when we give ourselves a break from action.
However, it works only when you actually implement "moderate" procrastination, and not go all the way with it. Moderate means encouraging you to get yourself started on it without forcing you to do everything right away, at one go. Within such framework, delaying the next stages of work is very much allowed.
In addition, it is a great way to break free from the destructive habit of postponing. When you think "I will sit down to work on this task for half an hour. Afterwards, I will do something else", it will be much easier for you to get started on it as you are not overwhelmed by the huge amount of work. Instead, you focus on a small step you are making now and you are not bothered by anything else at this time.
I have discovered only recently that psychologist Adam Grant, the author of the great book "Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World" (unfortunately, the book has not yet been published in Polish) had quite similar thoughts to mine.
Grant explains that we usually divide people into two groups: procrastinators (people who wait until the last moment to complete a task) and the opposite - "precrastinators" (people who try to get everything done as soon as they can, often in advance). Neither of these groups do I consider creative. People from the first one are too stressed by their deadlines to come up with good ideas, while people from the other group don’t allow themselves enough space for the creative process to take place.
Studies on procrastination show that people who are somewhere in between (neither wait until the last moment, nor do everything right away) prove to be by 16 per cent more creative than people from the two groups mentioned above.
What they go for is moderate procrastination. Sometimes they do it consciously, sometimes not. What’s important, however, is that their ideas and discoveries are so great that, as history teaches us, they often leave their mark on the world (it took Leonardo da Vinci 16 years to paint the Mona Lisa).
Procrastination gives us the opportunity to reflect on alternative solutions, take an offbeat road and look at our work from different angles.
How to use the phenomenon described in this article to deal with the extremely destructive habit of delaying important tasks?
- Go for a different approach to solving this problem. Instead of combating procrastination, just realize that you do not have to root it out completely. Check how keeping it on a moderate level can affect your work and, for the time being, plan only a partial (as opposed to a major revolution) shift in your strategy.
- Plan chunks of time for stages of your work so that you don’t need to force yourself to do large tasks at one blow. Make long enough breaks from working on particular projects knowing that they will contribute to the better quality of your work.
This way you will not only reduce the level of your procrastination, but most of all you will do a much better job.
Taking this path was probably one of the reasons why it took me three years and not one (as originally planned) to finish my book Insight. Road to Maturity. However, at no point of this adventure did I regret it. This long, intermittent and extremely enriching creative process allowed me to create something that I am truly satisfied with. Had I tried to do it in a shorter time, I would not feel the same joy and satisfaction with the job well done.
I wish you a wise and conscious approach to your procrastination tendencies, so that a slightly longer time in which you achieve your goals will bring you benefits of much better decisions and satisfactory work results.
Let me know in the comments section how you deal with procrastination in your life.