From an early age, I was told I was a procrastinator. In school, I was famous for repeatedly reading the deadline date and the topic for the upcoming project but not taking immediate action to dive right in. Instead, I would go to my piano, clean my room, or do other ‘busy work.’ In all senses of the meaning, deadlines became something I craved, but if I was not provided the boundaries, I would linger and push. I was encouraged heavily to work on this and learn not to delay. But in doing so, I would sit and stare at the proverbial blank canvas. I would challenge and ask what negative impact this procrastination was causing. I continued to progress in school and my career. I excelled in the things I loved and found great comfort and satisfaction in the obsession with dissecting a subject, learning a new method, and finding a more profound understanding to come to a solution.

But why the deliberate action to prioritize and stack the busy work ahead of the deadline? Over time, I have learned the benefits of time management and preparation; showing up prepared and taking the time to do your homework are all critical components to success. Yet, I still find that I do my best work, my best thinking, my best performing when I am under pressure of a strict deadline. Until recently, I thought this was a negative, that procrastination was the habit that I must continue to work at breaking to continue to achieve, grow, and succeed.

Then I came across this Podcast and was struck by a giant a-ha moment. Dr. Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, was recently a guest on the Huberman Lab podcast, where he and host Andrew Huberman dive into the concept of procrastination. In this discussion, we learn that procrastinating is natural, and when harnessed correctly, it is proven to be linked with creativity. And that, for some, the subconscious delay we put in between the preparation and the deadline is, in fact, the space where we create. Huberman talks about autonomic arousal he seeks that is stimulated by the intensity of the pressure, which is a result of the deadline he sets for himself. Reading this was incredibly profound to me – I do the same. The stricter the deadline, the more internal pressure I create, which ramps up my creativity and productivity at an intense and highly focused level. To get there, I will spend time on other tasks that don’t require a tax on my brain, like clearing out my inbox, storyboarding, and playing music, all the while obsessing and deep in thought. It’s a strategy, and it’s not a negative.

Dr. Adam Grant enthusiastically declares: It’s not procrastination. It’s a delay.

To stimulate the time pressure, Huberman describes his strategy and approach to planning, preparing, and obsessing. But the action of execution doesn’t start until the deadline hits a certain point, depending on the subject.

They go on to discuss how people who procrastinate are rated as more creative; they are less likely to become tunnel-visioned because they are so focused on the concept. What’s the advice? Don’t commit too early to an idea until you’ve given it time to simmer.

I often talk about the differences between Busy Work and Meaningful Contribution. And how we do our best work as individuals and as teams to focus our energies more heavily on the tasks, concepts, and outcomes that impact the organization or audience more significantly. But in the context of procrastination, perhaps there is a world where the busy work actually contributes to the meaningful contribution.

What is the moral of the story? Next time you find yourself sweeping out your garage or cleaning your office, pay attention to what is holding your imagination captive. It might very well be working on the deadline you are running towards.

Podcast reference:

Peak of creativity is in the middle of procrastination