The Fringe Benefits of Procrastination

Leonardo Da Vinci is one of the most accomplished people the world has ever known. He was not just brilliant, but prolific as well.

His most famous accomplishments came in painting and sculpting. Yet, he was also a great inventor who ventured into math, engineering and geology. Anyone who looked at him would probably assume that he was an unusually focused and disciplined man.

Except that wasn’t the case.

He spent around fifteen years developing the ideas for The Last Supper while he worked on a variety of other projects. He was criticised for being a dabbler; it’s said that he frequently wasted his time on unimportant experiments. He occupied his free time with distractions.

By his own account, he knew he had a procrastination problem as well. The impetus for completing The Last Supper came only when he had to finish a work commissioned by his patron, The Duke of Milan.

It seems he was terrible at managing his focus and time.

But how did he get so much work done?

Positive Procrastination

You don’t have to look far to see the answer: whenever he procrastinated he did something else.

Procrastinators seldom spend their time doing nothing. But that’s what we tell others when we get nothing done. Nothing is how we would describe what we spent our time on because we don’t want to go into detail on the activities we spend our time on. It’s less embarrassing that way.

And that’s the key. When the going gets tough, we procrastinate by doing something that requires less effort. Often, it involves something mindless such as watching TV or engaging in mindless chatter.

So how did Da Vinci get so much done? John Perry has a good idea. In The Art Of Procrastination, he argues that procrastination helps in productivity when you methodically make more commitments:

At the top of your to-do list, put a couple of daunting, if not impossible, tasks that are vaguely important-sounding. Then, farther down the list, include some doable tasks that really matter. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list.

As ridiculous as it may sound, this counter-intuitive idea has firm roots in behavioural psychology. Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation has a line that resonates with the procrastinator in me:

“We are willing to pursue any vile task as long as it allows us to avoid something worse.”

It turns out that Da Vinci is more accomplished than others only because he had a longer to-do list.

Strategic Flexibility

Productivity isn’t the only area where procrastination may paradoxically be of benefit. In Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World, Adam Grant tells the story of how many top achievers succeed as procrastinators.

To these people who had succeeded, procrastination was a form of idea incubation. They allowed disparate thoughts to collide together to form new patterns, which gave them new insight when solving problems.

The added benefit was that they were open to improvisation because procrastination prevented them from committing to any single path. This enabled them to use the best ideas available, which becomes extremely important when handling the most important work.

We see examples of strategic procrastination in two of America’s most famous speeches. Abraham Lincoln didn’t finish the closing paragraph of the Gettysburg Address until the morning of the speech, while Martin Luther King was still refining his address up till the time he walked up to the podium. The level of King’s improvisation seems unreal: the famous words “I have a dream” never appeared in his draft at all.

Could these be just moments of brilliance? Possibly.

But it turns out that the phenomenon of strategic procrastination has a scientific basis. Just ask Bluma Zeigarnik.

The Zeigarnik Effect

In 1927, the psychologist Kurt Lewin noticed that a waiter had better recollections of still unpaid orders. However, when upon receiving payment for the orders — thereby completing his task — he was unable to remember any more details of the orders.

Lewin’s student, Bluma Zeigarnik, would go on to demonstrate in 1927 that people remember incomplete and interrupted tasks better than completed ones. She noted that once a task is finished, we stop thinking about it. But when a task is left undone, it stays in our mind.

The caveat is that the task must be of some importance to us. If it’s just an errand you have to run, you’ll forget it. But if you apply this to your most important work, creativity flows.

Accomplished writers know this. They have ideas on the article or a book they want to write, but never finish it all at once. They research, write, and then research some more before finishing. Jeff Goins, author of Real Artists Don’t Starve, explains that the system he uses to write: his work is categorised into ideas, drafts and edits. It’s a combination of things that are incomplete to different degrees. At any point in time, he’s working on things from all three categories.

Hemingway himself famously stopped writing whenever he knew what was going to happen next. He was in effect, giving himself time for divergent thinking and better ideas to incubate. The power of letting your mind wander was also not lost on Napoleon Hill, when he wrote that you should “never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious”.

Do The Work

So where do we draw the line? At what point does procrastination stop being beneficial and become solely a liability?

It’s certainly tempting to believe that we can leave our tasks to be done another time. But just as important is how we spend the time away from our work.

Da Vinci spent time away from his biggest masterpieces by working on side projects. Lincoln was handling state affairs and finding the themes that mattered to the people. King was constantly consulting his group of advisers to find an idea that would best resonate with the crowd. Each of them was doing work that mattered. The delay was in the implementation.

Deadlines were also in place as their last line of defence. It prevented procrastination from taking over their lives. Each address or piece of work could not be delayed past a certain point of time because the deadlines weren’t arbitrary. In every case, they were held accountable by a third party.

Therein lies the big difference between professionals and amateurs — professionals use procrastination as a tactic while amateurs use it as an excuse.

What Can’t Wait

Procrastination isn’t necessarily a bad thing so long as you take the first step. Starting is undoubtedly the toughest part, but it’s necessary. It’s the origin of all achievement.

You will be derailed from doing your best work. Procrastination is inevitable. It happens to the best of us. Just ask Da Vinci or any other accomplished creative, thinker or inventor.

All that matters is you remember to come back and finish what you started.