The Good News About Procrastination

Author: Convene Editors       

If you keep beating yourself up about putting off an important project, Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of “Give and Take, Originals,” and with Sheryl Sandberg, “Option B,” suggests you ease up. Here’s what he has to say:

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“Tell me if anything was ever done.” Many years ago, an artist scribbled those words in his journal over and over. He kept putting off paintings that needed to be done — it took him more than a decade to finish two of them. He felt like a failure. His name was Leonardo da Vinci.

Procrastination feels terrible. As blogger Tim Urban describes it, if you choose what’s easy and fun today, there’s a good chance that tomorrow you’ll be stuck in a dark playground where the air is poisoned by anxiety, guilt, and despair. And that’s exactly why you shouldn’t feel bad about it.

Procrastination is a normal part of the creative process. It happens when you haven’t figured out the right solution to a problem — or the right problem to solve. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs procrastinated regularly. Wendy Kopp was the last senior in her major to declare a topic for her thesis; it was a proposal for Teach for America, which she went on to launch. Ernest Hemingway regularly left sentences unfinished; J.R.R. Tolkien painstakingly answered reader questions by mail instead of working on a book. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t start writing his “I have a dream” speech until the night before — and he was still jotting notes and crossing out lines right before he walked onstage. “You call it procrastination,” screenwriter Alan Sorkin says. “I call it thinking.”

Sure, procrastinating can be the enemy of success. But beating yourself up about it only makes it worse. If you’re stressed that you’re stressed, you suffer more. Researcher Jihae Shin and I ran some experiments showing that when we remind people that procrastination is common, they end up generating more ideas — and experts rate those ideas as more creative. So next time you find yourself procrastinating, remember it might be a sign that you’re not there yet.

When da Vinci was working on the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper,” he got distracted by his curiosity about optics. But the time he spent dabbling in optics changed the way he modeled light. If procrastination didn’t ruin the Renaissance man’s masterpieces, it might not ruin your work either.

Watch Adam Grant talk about how to procrastinate wisely at convn.org/Adam-Grant-Procrastinate.

(Reprinted from the March 2018 issue of The Costco Connection, costcoconnection.com.)