About productive procrastination and the need for novelty.
Let's talk about how not doing things can help you do things.
First of all, I'd like to make it clear: I do not believe that procrastination is a bad thing. This article is not a method for getting rid of it, but rather an analysis of what procrastination brought me professionally.
Procrastination, per se, is avoiding a task by doing something else - anything. You'll find a ton of books and online articles treating procrastination as avoidance and lack of will and a tendency to be distracted. This may be true - I cannot speak for other professions and other industries where tasks may be repetitive and lacking in creativity. But I'm a freelance writer and designer: someone working in industries of creation, innovation, sprawling diversity. In this world, it is not avoidance that makes me drop a project. It's the constant hunger for novelty.
Focusing and getting bored
I have trouble focusing on subjects for long periods of time. I can binge write for one week straight or more, staying on the same text ten hours per day, weekend included. (Yes, binge writing is a term now.) Then I'll just... get bored. Whatever the project is, no matter how involved or passionate I am about it. Not a single exception. Ever.
I avoid the task and do something else.
I force myself to follow standard office hours because no matter how productive the ten hours/seven days a week may sound, it's not sane. However, even when writing or designing at a leisure pace, it gets dull. It's not about brain exhaustion. The issue comes from lack of new things. If the problem doesn't come from the obsession I can put in my work, that behavior is still a vital clue to understand my relationship with productivity. Here, I could insert a pseudo-psychological analysis of my conduct as a kid, how I loved to dress dolls with legos and plastic caps and how there was never a single toy that I favored, because I kept jumping from one to another. I did the same at school and was unable to focus on one topic at a time - there were Biology notes in my English notes, Geography doodles in my Math book and vice-versa. If I had been born ten years later, people who knew what they were doing would probably have diagnosed me with some kind of attention disorder. But what I have, if I do have something, is not impeding my work: it makes me more productive.
The critical back and forth
I have a firm belief that creative jobs are challenging mostly because of self-editing (the act of reviewing and correcting your work yourself). The critical analysis of your own creation can be a tedious task when you have no universal bullet list of do's and don't's to refer to, even more so when you just stopped working on it. If you're reviewing, it means you're done with it, right? Then why change it? The main difficulty is lack of detachment. And that's where productive procrastination comes in very, very handy. Reviewing work you were just involved in takes a substantial amount of objectivity. But what happens when you keep changing tasks, when it's a habit? My sudden lacks of focus, which push me to other projects to escape the boredom, have taught me a valuable skill: switching gears. When you often shift between tasks, you gain the ability to forget what you were working on before (made easier if you reach the bored state), and can rapidly focus on the new challenge at hand. You switch gears. So, when the time comes for self-reviewing, for perspective and detachment, well, it's easy. You switch gears.
It's not magic, tho. It took me years to refine this skill and to make it viable when I have deadlines to follow and a tendency to accept more work than my body can handle. But the back and forth I do between tasks trained my brain to disconnect at will from its previous assignments. It's a noteworthy power which made me damn good at self-editing.
Feed the cycle
My definition of procrastination is 'if working on this is boring, work on something else until you want to work on this again.'
If you look for the keywords 'productive procrastination' online, you'll find essays about how to catalyze your need to flee from work by doing the laundry, going grocery shopping, writing a diary, etc. Essentially, the message is 'if you can't work, do something else that will benefit you.' Well, good news, everyone! Video games are especially permissive regarding 'other things you could work on.' Once you've dropped the destructive habit of taking more than two paying projects at once (cough), you can make a selection of other productive tasks to switch gears to. These personal projects will go to two magical places called Your Portfolio and Your Next Job Interview. Adding little bonuses to turn these projects into challenges, if you're the competitive kind, will accelerate your gear training - and make you even better at your craft.
Here are some personal examples:
- Writing a book
° Bonus: one text per day, without pause, stop at 365
- Writing a lore bible for a fantasy world
° Bonus: do not use any Tolkien-derived archetypes
- Design and write and interactive fiction
° Bonus: in an engine that requires some programming, like Inky
- Writing dialogues and cinematics
° Bonus: in a genre you don't handle well, like psychological horror
° Double combo: in a licensed universe, like The Walking Dead
Ok, of course, don't cumulate all of these at the same time, or you will explode. I usually keep a steady flow of three to five projects, professional missions and volunteering included, and switch from one to another when the boredom kicks in. If a diet of work-related tasks only sounds mad, and it does, you can switch to surrounding activities: write a blog in your line of work, engage yourself in associations, try other fields related to your industry, etc. Keep it diversified and make sure your entire time is never allocated to a single task. Otherwise they'd be no cycle.
Be careful tho, because behind this cycling cycle hides a terrible monster: not finishing stuff.
Toxic perfectionism. A desire to do better. Knowing that you can do better. Concern over mistakes, wanting to mimic a previous success, bearing the weight of expectations, stretching a story without ever ending it - the reasons to not finish something are endless. When you base your work method on jumping from one task to another, it becomes even more difficult to finish anything.
You can't keep a healthy gear cycle if you can't finish stuff. How you do it depends on how you work, the project, your habits, if you're a freelancer or not. A ton of other criteria apply, and it's a whole different subject than what this article is about, and others have covered it way better than I can. There's a transcript of a 2008 interview on the theme of productive procrastination that I urge you to read if the subject interests you. Gamified tools like Habitica also exist. You are not the only procrastinator in this world, and we have a whole bunch of ideas on how to use our respective superpowers.
My method is not allowing any new project in the cycle until I've finished one project.
You need at least this much when you allow yourself to glide from task to task within short timeframes - and in my case, the pressure from not being able to start new things makes me finish current things. I can keep one task in the cycle for a looong time, but it's alright, as long as the others live and die properly.
Need for novelty: the need to do new things, to stimulate your brain in different ways.
I'm disheartened when I see a general dismissal of the task-switching method and the judgmental attitude that usually follows when I describe how I work. This is not laziness, this is an actual tool based on abilities and preferences, and I'm convinced that it's a model that does fit a lot of people better than the usual "do a task till it's done" format. I've thrived working this way, and the accomplishments it led me to have been solid arguments when looking for new clients and missions. It raised my productivity and my self-esteem. It's a subtle combination of clock-racing, novelty seeking, and self-satisfaction, but it's still too taboo to be displayed in the open. So, there you go.
I'm a procrastinator, and I'm good at it.
Thank you for reading and have a great day.