The Unexpected Secret To Great Creative Work
Do you ever feel guilty about putting off work projects in favour of pursuing your hobbies or taking a break? Well, don’t. It turns out that procrastinating can result in better work if you give yourself time to let things percolate. Pursuing your hobbies also makes you better at everything else you do.
Procrastinate or Perish
Recently, I realised that procrastinating has a bad rap, but sometimes it’s exactly what you need to do when you feel low on energy or inspiration.
I’d been focusing solely on trying to get my website up and running. I poured myself into it; writing and rewriting copy, creating and deleting widgets, designing images that I ended up not using, but I couldn’t figure out what I needed to do to make it work. I agonised over the details and what-ifs, second-guessing myself at every decision. Feverishly, I bookmarked all the advice and examples of what others had done that I could find. I worked on it all day, every day. But I just couldn’t come up with anything that felt right for me.
I needed fresh ideas and insight, but I kept drawing a blank. Truthfully, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, and so I couldn’t know what to do with my website. And, I was tired of thinking about it. I had zero inspiration; nothing left to give; the well was dry. So, I set the work aside.
Instead, I went for walks and listened to interesting podcasts. I caught up on my TV shows and discovered some new ones. And, as the weather turned colder, I got back into knitting.
Initially, I felt self-indulgent about putting off work to do hobbies. But a few weeks in, something wonderful began happening. While my mind was completely absorbed in knitting, I started to get ideas about how I could fix the problems I’d been facing with my website and blog. Suddenly, I had inspiration and energy.
‘Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity, but it can be a resource for creativity. Long before the modern obsession with efficiency precipitated by the Industrial Revolution and the Protestant work ethic, civilizations recognized the benefits of procrastination. In ancient Egypt, there were two different verbs for procrastination: one denoted laziness; the other meant waiting for the right time.’ — Adam Grant, Originals
I realised that my mind had needed time to work on the problem in the background, to sift subconsciously through all the bits and pieces, away from the analytical and judgmental gaze of my full attention.
What was required was procrastination — a means to take my conscious thoughts and attention on a different adventure while my mind worked its magic. It had needed me to wait for the right time.
Timing is everything. You can’t rush greatness; sometimes you’ve got to let things percolate in your mind until the time is right. And Leonardo Da Vinci agreed.
The Da Vinci Strategy
Procrastination + Timing
Da Vinci was interested in the world around him and lived by his credo ‘that everything connects to everything else’. At any one time, he was writing, drawing, painting, designing, studying, sculpting, teaching, and certainly procrastinating.
During his time in Milan, he worked on some of his most celebrated projects. He wrote his Treatise On Painting, painted The Last Supper and The Virgin of the Rocks, and continued work on an equestrian sculpture set to be the largest ever commissioned.
Many of these projects lasted years and overlapped. He was renowned for taking breaks from projects to study seemingly unconnected subjects but which ultimately informed and elevated his work on them. Da Vinci started projects, moved on to others, came back to finish some, while others were abandoned. He was a master procrastinator who knew the power of timing and letting things percolate.
The Last Supper took him two (possibly three) years to paint. As the story goes, the Prior of the Convent, Padre Bandelli, complained that Da Vinci was taking too long to get it done. And in his own defence, Da Vinci says:
‘Therefore I wait. Within my earnest thought
For years upon this picture I have wrought,
Yet still it is not ripe; I dare not paint
Till all is ordered and matured within.’
— William W Story, Poems of Places: Italy
In the face of external pressure to get his picture done, he waited. Da Vinci saw the importance of waiting ‘till all is ordered and matured within’ before continuing work on The Last Supper, and the proof is in the pudding.
Da Vinci allowed his ideas and plans time to develop unconsciously, while he focused on other things. He procrastinated by working on other commissioned work and doing detailed research on diverse subjects. He followed his interests, consequently growing his skill set and finding inspiration.
This creative strategy doesn’t fit easily into our modern work ethos. There seems to be an idea out there that if you want to be successful at something, you have to narrow your focus on to it and hustle to death. You need to eat, sleep, and breathe whatever it is you want to become a success. Any other use of your time would be frivolous and unproductive (and Padre Bandelli agreed).
The Productivity Problem
There’s currently a ton of pressure to be productive. But, what constitutes a productive use of your time? If you’ve got a goal or a project, being productive by today’s standards seems to be about churning out tangible proof of the time you’ve spent working on that one pursuit or project. The problem is that time spent on a project and ticks on a to-do list don’t translate into quality work.
You might have spent all week working on your project, but if you’re burned out or uninspired, you’ll have nothing of value to show for it. This is when Da Vinci’s wisdom comes into play. Sometimes, you need to take a step back from the work and take time to do other things — to procrastinate — while the work percolates in your mind. It’s important to do a variety of hobbies that activate different aspects of yourself.
In fact, focusing on one project, skill, or hobby has its disadvantages. In this article, research showed the awesome crossover benefits of doing hobbies that are completely different from each other. In the end, to be truly productive, to produce quality work you’re proud of, you might actually need to procrastinate.
In Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant discusses the importance of procrastination for divergent thinking and greater originality.
‘Recently, an unusually creative doctoral student named Jihae Shin approached me with a counterintuitive idea: procrastination might be conducive to originality. When you procrastinate, you’re intentionally delaying work that needs to be done. You might be thinking about the task, but you postpone making real progress on it or finishing it to do something less productive. Shin proposed that when you put off a task, you buy yourself time to engage in divergent thinking rather than foreclosing on one particular idea. As a result, you consider a wider range of original concepts and ultimately choose a more novel direction.’ — Adam Grant, Originals
The genius of Da Vinci may well have had a lot to do with procrastination and his willingness to follow other interests. He knew the importance of waiting for the right time to work on his projects, and he wasn’t afraid to fill that time with other activities and hobbies.
Society places a lot of pressure on people to work creatively and originally as quickly and one-track-mindedly as possible, but Da Vinci’s work is example enough that being productive and producing quality work, doesn’t always look the way society tells us it should. Sometimes, it looks like procrastination.
If you find yourself working on one project with ideas flowing and magic materialising, that doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. No, that means you’re in the zone. That’s great!
But if you find yourself stuck and lacking inspiration or excitement for your project, you might need to take a time-out and procrastinate a while. Try giving your ideas time to develop in the background while you spend time on your hobbies or learning something new — you’ll be rewarded in more ways than one.