I can honestly say that writing this blog is the best part of my job.
As an editor, I spend much of my time tinkering about with other people’s words to make sure that they’re true to the Mind Tools style. But the blog is my time to write, and a chance to bring a little bit of my own style to my work. So why is it then that, when I sat down to compose this week's post, I became restless, and suddenly discovered lots of other little jobs that I needed to do first?
It's a pattern that has followed me throughout my life. I rarely missed a deadline but, at school and university, I would often leave my homework assignments until the last minute.
Procrastinating in this way is widely considered to be a self-handicapping, dysfunctional behavior. But, while this may hold true for all those annoying, unpleasant, or boring tasks that I’d rather not do, I don’t believe that it applies to my blog.
When I'm grappling with a concept, or working on a project that needs careful thought, I find that my ideas need time to gestate. These matters just can’t be rushed. Once upon a time, it was perfectly acceptable to sit around thinking all day - the great Greek philosophers did little else! But few of us have the luxury of living without deadlines, so how can we make time to think, while sticking to a schedule?
I believe that the answer lies in effective, or active, procrastination. In their 2005 research paper, Angela Hsin Chun Chu and Jin Nam Choi distinguished between passive and active procrastinators.
Passive procrastinators feel paralyzed by pressure. They postpone tasks through inactivity or avoidance – essentially aggravating the situation, adding to their stress levels, and sabotaging their own performance.
Active procrastinators, on the other hand, deliberately suspend their actions while they focus on more urgent tasks. This creates the mental space they need to mull over the thing that they’re delaying. These people perform best under pressure, and leave their most important work to the last minute in order to motivate and challenge themselves. But, while they may appear not to be making progress during the delay, their subconscious is hard at work.
According to Professor Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, the most successful performers are those who leave their decision to the very last minute – in some cases, the very last millisecond.
Partnoy observed that these people follow a two-step process that: 1) asks, “How long do I have to do this?” and 2) delays their response until the very last possible moment. This, he says, allows your subconscious mind more time to consider whatever it is that you need to do.
So when we’re working on something big, Partnoy argues, we need to move away from the mindset of rapid response times and embrace the art of delay. We still need the focus and motivation of a deadline, but our performance will be better if we just wait a while.
Unfortunately, in real life, it’s rarely as simple as just waiting, because other things get in the way. This is where scheduling is important. For my blogs, for example, I need to weigh up when it’s due to be published, how long it’s going to take me to write, who else needs to see it and when they're available, and the various other deadlines for all the other, equally important tasks that I need to take care of – not forgetting to leave time for those little emergencies that always seem to crop up when you need them least.
Some people favor Action Plans, or To-Do Lists, but the strategy that works best for me is to give my thought processes a head start by gathering all the information I need, sorting through it, and then setting it aside for as long as I can spare, while I get on with the rest of my duties. That way, when I sit down to write the second time around, my thoughts are ready to flow.
Making time to think can be difficult with a full schedule. What do you do when you need to "think big"?
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