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04 January 2013

Procrastination – waste of time or creative tool?

ProcrastinationNever put off until tomorrow… you know the rest of the saying, but is it true? Does it sometimes make creative sense to put things off? AQ finally gets round to taking a look at the thorny subject of procrastination.

Some people like to do everything on time and can’t relax if they have unfinished projects. Others prefer to put it all off until the last minute, and somehow finish everything in a frenzy of activity.

Most of us are somewhere in between, but recently we’ve been wondering if waiting a while can actually help the creative process.

Can it really be productive to procrastinate? Is it a valuable tool that communicators use intuitively, or are we just putting off the jobs we have to do?

The word procrastination comes from the Latin word crastinus, which means ‘pertaining to tomorrow’, and we all know that mañana can be the busiest day of the week.

It’s not that we’re lazy, of course, it’s just that we have very good reasons not to make a start. Back in 1949 American humourist Robert Benchley got it about right: “The psychological principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”

Why do we procrastinate? 

Why do we do it? Sometimes it’s simply because we don’t fancy the task in hand, so we do something we prefer first.

Or it can be more complicated. Fear of failure? Or even fear of success and what it might mean?

But if you’re putting off something creative it may be that you’re just not quite ready. There are times when your brain needs to mull over a task. Thinking time is a bit of a luxury and can feel like wasted time, but often it’s not.

Giving your brain a different task to concentrate on can help you overcome writer’s block or give your creativity a boost.

Look at it this way: you’re watching a film on television and you recognise an actor’s face but can’t think where you saw her before. You ponder for a while but then forget it and get on with cooking the dinner. But your brain goes on ticking away subconsciously and the next day it suddenly comes to you: of course! You saw her in The X Files several years ago.

Your brain works in the same way for creative processes. While you’re getting on with something else, your subconscious is working on the task you’ve put off, coming up with clever ideas. Go back to the job you’ve postponed and suddenly you’ll have a flood of new ideas and inspiration.

So doing a different job – a bit of creative procrastination – really can be good. Tidy your desk, clear out your email inbox or make a cup of tea.

Of course you have to strike a balance. There’s a difference between procrastinating and bunking off altogether. Your boss won’t be happy to see you updating your Facebook profile at work, but there’s something to be said for tackling another ‘mundane’ desk job while the creative juices get going. 

Enough already!

There’s a limit to procrastination and you should know when you’ve reached it: nagging guilt, a feeling that you’ve forgotten something important and constant clock watching all tell you that the time for procrastination is over; you need to get down to it.

For most of us who communicate for a living there are deadlines – and we just can’t miss them.

The famous quote “I only write when I’m inspired, and I make sure I’m inspired every morning at 9am” is attributed to both editor and wit Peter DeVries and novelist William Faulkner, but whoever said it, it’s worth remembering.

Writer Jack London went one further and said: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

How true. For professional communicators the ‘club’ is necessity. You need to meet your deadline; you need to please your colleague / client, so you need to get it done – now!

The bottom line is that you do this for a living and if you don’t deliver the goods you won’t be popular. Often, time really is money.

So, yes, you can build in a little creative thinking time, but take the tip from Peter DeVries (or was it William Faulkner?) and make a start.

Procrastination quotes to make you think

“Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.”
Mark Twain

“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”
Pablo Picasso

“You can’t just turn on creativity like a tap. You have to be in the right mood. What mood is that? Last-minute panic.”
Bill Watterson, cartoonist and author

“I’ll think of it tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”

Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind