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Be the Kind of Procrastinator Your Mom Can Be Proud Of

Written By Stacy Nguyen | Feb 15, 2018

I procrastinated on this. Instead of sitting down and writing it before deadline like a normal human being who values professional relationships, I prioritized stuff like seeing if you can really revert to old and superior Snapchat by changing your password, logging out, and signing in with new password — and yes, yes you can. I also spent hours rearranging the order of songs on Spotify, Googling pictures of the Northern Lights, and watching videos of bipedal robots who eat ground.

Why do this stuff instead of doing actual work? Well, at the time, I thought that playlist was really important.

Inevitably though, I lose sleep because I am shoving out pictures or words in a hurry, which sets off a butterfly effect where everything else is delayed just a little bit. I am sure everyone hates me just like I hate myself.

So, why fall into this trap? Why would a rational person that wants to produce good work let herself fall into this pattern over and over again?

Cuz work-delay makes you creative, duh!

Adam Grant is a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, a book that explores what makes creative and innovative people tick. Grant is a reformed pre-crastinator (someone who finishes things way ahead of schedule), and found a correlation between the practice of work-delay and increased creativity.

Where having all the time in the world felt like taking a stroll through a meadow and picking off random flowers for a real basic bouquet, having no time in the world felt like wrestling an angry, dirty bear to the ground and beating it into submission until we are both sobbing.

In a TED talk, Grant said, “Procrastination gives you time to consider divergent ideas, to think in nonlinear ways, to make unexpected leaps.” That is, often the first ideas we have aren’t the best ideas — they are generally the most conventional ideas. If we finish our work too early, we stick with the most conventional ideas, missing out on the opportunity to push ourselves further.

The idea of comfort resulting in dull work was born when I was a really young, really green journalist. I wrote really shitty, boring news stories. When I interviewed people, I was only good at collecting quotes that sounded like they were fed to me by public relations reps. I would manage my fear of being found out as an idiot by spending hours prepping for interviews, learning everything about a person and then writing down dozens of questions for interview subjects.

I also participated in these bewildering editorial meetings where my boss would demandingly shout, “Let’s brainstorm! List out all of your best story ideas to me right now!” and I’d be like, “OMG what?”

I was bad at brainstorming on command, bad at coming up with interesting ideas really fast. I was good at feeling bad about myself as I watched my boss metaphorically throw all of my bland and safe ideas into the garbage.

But I started to notice that really good work was coming out of these terrifying, last minute stories — controversial ones that come in on press day, where I only had a few stressful hours to get over my paralyzing shy meekness in order to chase people down for quotes and bang out six hundred words.

Where having all the time in the world felt like taking a stroll through a meadow and picking off random flowers for a real basic bouquet, having no time in the world felt like wrestling an angry, dirty bear to the ground and beating it into submission until we are both sobbing.

And it felt great! The work was really good! I marveled at how solid the work was and how little prep I did to garner good work. So I took the productive stress of news and brought it to my design work process. I create stress for myself by purposefully leaning into work delays.

Eight ways to become the kind of procrastinator your mom can be proud of

1. Say yes to a lot of stuff

Procrastinators look real bad when they only have one thing to do, and they do that one thing six days too late.

However, procrastinators can look like superstars when they have twenty things to do and they manage to do those twenty things only a day late! If you can set up it well and are diligent, you can create a cool procrastination daisy chain, where you are always working on one thing in order to avoid doing another thing. Like, I have a design concept due today. I’m not working on it right now because I’m writing this article!

2. Over-deliver

I get away with my procrastination by blowing people’s minds when I finally do deliver the work. In over-delivering, what goes through my client’s mind is probably some variation of, “Man, I get why she needed to push the deadline. It’s because this kind of quality takes time. I will put up with this!”

3. Don’t seek out perfection

It’s easy to get stuck in an insecure loop of inaction when pursuing perfection — it is easy to continue procrastinating when you have already procrastinated. This is a dark hole, and this is why I do not pursue perfection. I commit to doing things that stop a little short of ideal. I walk away from things when ROI is dwindling. I submit first drafts with minor weaknesses that I know can be fixed in subsequent drafts.

4. Work piecemeal

I break projects into a number of phases so that when I procrastinate, it’s on a fairly minor level, like the delivery of a project quote. The final project delivery must be on time — and I can do that, because I usually will have had my fill of dicking around before each project milestone.

5. Be super cool when someone else procrastinates

We rarely work in a vacuum. Luckily, we often work in teams or in partnerships. Sometimes my teammates or my client take a little while sending me logo files or hi-res photos, and I’m like, “Oh, it’s cool! I have other stuff I can do!” And I look super gracious and easy to work with — as I simultaneously stockpile goodwill for that time later when I’m saying to them something like, “Hey, can I have another day on this?”

6. Outsource that stuff you hate

I really hate project management. I used to drag my feet on things whenever I had to coordinate details and that kind of procrastination served no purpose — it did not make me more creative. So I eliminated these tasks altogether.

These days, I lean hard on a project manager if I have the luxury of working with one — or I trade menial tasks with coworkers. I don’t mind emailing, so I will take on someone else’s emailing responsibilities if it means he’ll update spreadsheets for me.

7. Get your ducks in a row before you start procrastinating

I look real dumb when I go to start work at the eleventh hour and discover that there’s so much crap I don’t know, so many questions that I have, and so many files missing. That’s why I generally read and answer client emails right away, so that I will never again be caught in a situation at 2 AM all like, “Hey, can I get that one font?”    

8. Put a deadline on everything

Sometimes I have really chill clients that say stuff like, “I know you’re busy. So whenever you can get this done would be great.”

The problem is, when I have all the time in the world to finish something, it never gets done and a month later, the client is no longer that chill and is like, “WTF, it’s been a month!” And I’m like, “Oh, so you actually meant a month or less, when you said, ‘Whenever.’”

Put a deadline on it, no matter now tiny a project.

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