The Procrastinators Advantage
By 1935, architect Frank Lloyd Wright appeared to be finished. It’s not that Wright hadn’t enjoyed an accomplished career. He’d designed and built some 500 offices, churches, schools, skyscrapers, hotels, museums and homes; pioneered what came to be called the Prairie School movement of architecture and originated the Usonian city planning concept; wrote dozens of books (including his own autobiography) and delivered lectures in Europe and the United States. But now in his late 60’s, many critics considered him a relic.
“Modern Architecture” was all the rage – embracing new construction technologies of glass, steel, and reinforced concrete. Wright wanted nothing of it and within the industry, his younger peers considered him anachronistic. By all accounts, Wright’s time had come and gone.
The Great Depression all but halted new construction as hundreds of banks collapsed. Funds simply weren’t available and few private homes were being built. Wright hadn’t finished a building since 1929 (which was a commission from his cousin) and was struggling to stay solvent.
In response, Wright began an apprenticeship program and one of his first candidates was Edgar Kaufmann Jr. (who had become a fan after reading Wright’s autobiography). Edgar Jr. was the son of Edgar Sr. – famed Pittsburg department store magnate (whose stores were later incorporated into Macy’s). Although the details have been lost to history, Sr. eventually approached Wright about designing a summer house/employee camp in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania.
Wright visited the proposed building site, a forested area offering an idyllic view of a 30-foot waterfall, and quickly rejected it. Instead of building near the falls, Wright envisioned building directly over them.
He accepted the job in December of 1934 and then… well, nothing. No drawings. No concepts. Nothing.
Nine months of nothing.
By today’s standards, it’s rather easy to envision the concerns of Kaufmann – who, during a visit to nearby Milwaukee, called up Wright and told him he was stopping in to check in on the plans. The gig was up… nine months of blank paper and Kaufmann was to arrive in two hours.
Apprentice Edgar Taffel recalled that after talking with Kaufmann on the phone, Wright “briskly emerged from his office…sat down at the table set with the plot plan and started to draw…The design just poured out of him. Pencils being used up as fast as we could sharpen them….Erasures, overdrawing, modifying. Flipping sheets back and forth.”
The final drawing (and by final, we mean 2 hours later) was done right on the site survey including a bold title across the bottom: “Fallingwater.” A house of this magnitude had to have a name.
Kaufmann signed off on the radical proposal (although he did have his engineers review the feasibility first) and construction began in 1936. Before its construction was complete, the house and the architect captured the world’s imagination. Wright and a sketch of Fallingwater appeared on the cover of Time Magazine. In New York City, The Museum of Modern Art dedicated a two-year traveling exhibition, A New House by Frank Lloyd Wright (1938), to its unique design. And after its completion, Fallingwater graced the pages of Life Magazine andArchitectural Forum, making it one of the most recognizable houses in the world.
Not bad for some last minute work. Which leads me to wonder…
Are There Advantages to Procrastination?
Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School, seems to think so. In a New York Times op-ed column, Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate, Grant cites an experiment by one of his former students, Jihae Shin (now a professor at the University of Wisconsin – Frank Lloyd Wright’s alma mater). Participants were asked to generate new business ideas with some randomly assigned to start immediately while others were first preoccupied by playing Minesweeper and Solitaire. Once submitted, the procrastinators’ ideas were rated as 28 percent more creative
“When people played games before being told about the task, there was no increase in creativity,” Grant wrote in the column. “It was only when they first learned about the task and then put it off that they considered more novel ideas. It turned out that procrastination encouraged divergent thinking.” This appears consistent with Wright’s 2-hour performance.
But is this really the best method?
There’s no doubt that procrastination erodes most every measure of productivity (not to mention stress and the dreaded deadline induced panic). So while there may be some benefit to delayed completion, putting tasks off till the last minute is not consequence free. More importantly, Grant’s review shows that creativity was boosted after the project was considered early but acted upon late.
So if you’re the kind of person who immediately responds to assignments by jumping in and completing them early, you may want to consider a few strategic pauses in your progress. But if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t begin until the shadow of a deadline appears, you may want to consider starting early and letting things marinate a while before taking action.
And while all of us have been guilty of wasting time or putting off what needs to be done, here are 10 tips to help you overcome the negative aspects of procrastination:
1. Recognize Your Patterns
Each procrastinator has particular tendencies. Learning to recognize your patterns is the first step to making changes. Here are a few possibilities:
- You wait for the ideal moment to begin. For example, you put a task off until you feel motivated. The perfect moment, of course, never arrives.
- You get distracted by social media, email, text messages, or anything that takes you away from your goal.
- You put off taking action because don’t feel well. If you’re genuinely ill, that’s a legitimate excuse. However, if you find that you’re suddenly tired, stressed out, or anxious whenever you begin something, you’re probably using this as an excuse.
- You underestimate how much time you need. If you have a paper due Friday morning, you think you can get it done on Thursday night. When you have to rush at the last minute, it’s hard to do your best work.
Whatever your pattern of procrastinating, the key is to admit to yourself that you’re making excuses.
2. Beware of Overthinking
It’s easy to catch yourself wasting time if you’re watching daytime TV or cat videos on YouTube. However, there’s a sneakier way of procrastinating that masks itself as action. If you spend too much time thinking, planning or researching, you may be putting off getting started on your task.
You need a healthy balance between planning and action. The problem with overthinking is that you aren’t getting feedback from the real world. For example, suppose you’re planning to start a website but can’t decide on the name, design, or layout. It’s better to start building the site and, if necessary, make changes later on based on feedback and results you see.
The principle of inertia applies equally to physics and everyday life. A body at rest tends to remain stationary while a body in motion continues to move at a steady course. It’s easier to change direction than to get started. Research and planning can only take you so far.
3. Cut Tasks From Your To-do List
If your to-do list is continually overflowing, it’s difficult to give your full attention to any one task. Some people procrastinate not out of laziness but because they have too much on their plates. Learn to use discernment when choosing your goals and projects. Another issue is when you have trouble saying “no” to requests.
Take a close look at your schedule for the coming day, week, and month. Ask yourself which tasks are necessary, which you’re doing because you want to do them, and which, if any, are only your list only because you put them there without giving it much thought. In some cases, you can delegate or outsource some tasks. In other instances, you can remove them from your list without any severe consequences. In some cases, the easiest way to stop procrastinating is to decide not to do something at all.
4. Tune Out Distractions
No matter where you are, there are likely to be distractions. Identify the ones that get in your way the most and figure out how to tune them out. If your phone is a distraction, set it to Do Not Disturb or Airplane mode. If, like many people, you tend to check Facebook or email every five minutes, consider using a productivity app such as ClearLock or AppBlock that blocks specified apps or sites while you’re working. Some people find that listening to classical music or nature sounds helps them concentrate.
5. Let Go of Perfectionism
When you insist that everything is perfect, it’s hard to start new projects much less complete them. If you have no tolerance for minor mistakes or imperfections, you may find it easier to stop working on something or never start at all. For example, suppose you want to express your creativity by taking more photographs. You’re afraid, however, that your camera isn’t good enough to get great shots. You might procrastinate until you can afford a great camera. Or you could practice with the camera you have. You might even learn more this way, by having to make the most of your limited resources. The same principle holds for any goal or project.
6. Break Goals Into Manageable Tasks
Procrastination is often at its worst when you don’t have defined actions to take. If you have a presentation due in seven days, you may waste a little time and have to work extra hard the last day or two. That isn’t ideal, but at least it’s manageable. However, if you have a more open-ended goal such as losing weight, writing a book, starting a business, or traveling more, it’s easy to put off action indefinitely. The problem with such goals is that they are large, time-consuming, and often overwhelming.
If you have ambitious but not defined goals, it’s essential to break them down into smaller, manageable actions. If you want to write a 100,000-word book, create a schedule of writing 1,000 words per day at least five days per week. If you’re going to start exercising, decide which days you’re going to go to the gym or start jogging. If it’s something like starting a business or getting your master’s degree, create a timeline that consists of specific actions.
7. Find the Best Environment
Certain environments are so full of distractions that it’s hard to avoid procrastinating. Your own home may be such a place if your kids, spouse, pets, or the TV are always diverting your attention. Identify the right space for what you want to accomplish. A particular coffee shop might be a suitable place to work on your laptop for an hour. Other possibilities, depending on your goal, include the library, a co-working space, a fitness center, or a quiet park bench.
8. Focus on the Feeling of Accomplishment
When you avoid taking action, you’re most likely focusing on how difficult or unpleasant the task will be. If instead, you turn your attention to the benefits you’ll receive by completing the job, you’ll feel differently. A variation on this tactic is to give yourself a reward for completing an action. When you have something to look forward to, it’s easier to motivate yourself.
Suppose you set your alarm for 30 minutes earlier to go for a run. It seems like a great idea the night before, but when the alarm goes off, you’re tempted to hit snooze repeatedly. Think about the great feeling you get at the end of the run when the endorphins kick in. As a reward, you might have a great cup of coffee and breakfast to look forward to. Sometimes, merely focusing on the feeling of relief or accomplishment you’ll get from finishing a dreaded task is enough to motivate you. An extra reward, even if its something small, also helps.
9. Enlist Help
Sometimes you need someone to help motivate you and hold you accountable. Finding someone who shares your goals can help both of you make progress. If you want to start exercising, find a workout partner. However, you can also arrange with a friend to help you accomplish a goal that only you currently have.
You might, for example, ask your friend to call or email you at a specific time each week to make sure you’ve followed through. If you want to create a more formal arrangement, then get a coach or trainer. A fitness trainer can help you stay focused during a workout and help you stick to your diet. A personal or business coach can help you set and reach your professional goals.
10. Be Kind to Yourself
If you tend to procrastinate, admit it and don’t berate yourself for it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take steps to overcome it. However, when you do catch yourself falling into old patterns, forgive yourself and don’t let it stress you out. Keep in mind that observing yourself is the first step to making changes. When you judge yourself harshly, it only reinforces the unwanted behavior. It’s like telling young children, “You’re so stupid!” when they make mistakes. You’ll have better results gently pointing out the error and showing him how to do better in the future. Treat yourself in the same considerate manner.
Procrastination is a part of life – maybe even more so in today’s rapid-paced and distraction-filled fishbowl than ever before. And while there may be some merit to the divergent thinking of procrastinators, the benefits appear only after giving yourself some time to mull over the initial work. Wright, by all accounts a “has been,” spent nine months mulling before the creativity flowed (“I just shake the buildings out of my sleeves,” he was fond of saying).
Fallingwater was named a National Historic Landmark in 1966, and in 1991, an American Institute of Architects poll voted it as the “best all-time work of American architecture.” And if that weren’t impressive enough, the home was submitted in 2015 to be added to the United Nations’s (UNESCO) World Heritage List of significant cultural landmarks.
At almost 70 years old, Wright proved to the world he wasn’t quite done yet. He would go on to design The Guggenheim Museum in New York City, the SC Johnson Wax Administration Building in Racine, Wisconsin, and the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center in Madison, Wisconsin (finally approved in 1992 and completed in 1997 – 38 years after Wright’s death… talk about procrastination!)
Title Photo: Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater (Edgar J. Kaufmann House), 1935-38, Bear Run, Pennsylvania (photo: Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress #LC-DIG-highsm-04261)