The Boss Show

Workplace wisdom with heart and humor

February 5, 2017

The Benefits of Procrastination

Most of us procrastinate. Many of us hate the fact that we do it. But wait – procrastination might not be such a terrible thing.  If you never procrastinate – you always get everything done ASAP – you’re a “pre-crastinator.”  And you might be missing important experiences and potential in life and at work.


View Transcript

Voiceover: It’s a Northwest Lifestyle weekend on KOMO News. Now, a show for anyone who is or has a boss. This is The Boss Show with Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko.
Steve Motenko: Hi, welcome to The Boss Show. Thanks for joining us! I’m Steve Motenko, I’m The Psychology Guy. I’m an executive coach right here in the Seattle area, and I do leadership development work in organizations from here to Guadalajara – that’s an inside joke, we’ll tell you about it sometime –  with my friend, Jim Hessler, across the table.
Jim Hessler: That’s me, I’m Jim Hessler, I’m The Business Guy. I’m the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development, a Seattle-based firm that helps people learn the art and science of leadership. I wrote a book, along with Steve, called Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face. I’m one of those lucky people that gets to do what I love.
Steve Motenko: Yeah, me too…. You know, we don’t promote the book enough.
Jim Hessler: It’s a good book.
Steve Motenko: We hear a lot of great things about it. It’s a primer for leadership development. A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform, is the subtitle of the book. Anyway, today on The Boss Show, we’re talking about the benefits of procrastination. Now, that might seem like an oxymoron to you if you’re a procrastinator, as so many people are.
Jim Hessler: I think we just got a lot of people’s attention. “Oh good! There’s a benefit! Yay!”
Steve Motenko: Seriously whoa! I get to do it more! If you’re a procrastinator, you probably feel bad about it. Most people do. The vast majority of people do feel bad about their procrastination. But you might be surprised to learn that there are some proven benefits. Apparently, about 1 in 4 people label themselves as chronic procrastinators. And that number crazily is up from like three, four decades ago, was only 1 in 20.
Jim Hessler: How interesting!
Steve Motenko: 95% of the people who would acknowledge being a chronic procrastinator say they wish they weren’t that way, which of course, makes sense. Any idea, Jim, why the number should’ve shot up that much in a few decades?
Jim Hessler: Yeah, that’s the first time I’ve seen that number. I think the demands of modern life …
Steve Motenko: Are getting more and more complex?
Jim Hessler: Oh God, yeah. It’s funny, I’m glad we’re talking about this today. This is probably a more central issue in my life than you might even realize, is the degree to which I punish myself for not being productive enough, for not accomplishing everything on my task list every day.
It’s funny, because my wife and I have these conversations and I’m like, “I don’t really feel like I’m really productive and I feel like I’m putting a lot of things off.” And she just kind of laughs because she says, “My God, you’ve run your own business for 15 years, you’re successful, you had an executive career. What you are you talking about? You play piano, you cook, you do all these things that other people don’t do.” But I still am pretty hard on myself.
Steve Motenko: But you tend not to beat yourself up all that much about most things.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, more than you might think. I don’t know that it’s about beating myself up. I hope I’m not taking this conversation where you don’t want it to go.
Steve Motenko: No, no, that’s fine.
Jim Hessler: But I think there’s this question of, “What should I be doing? What should I be doing right now?”  I often find myself in conflict with myself about whether what I’m doing right now is really the most important thing.
Steve Motenko: Ah. I think that’s intriguing. That, to me, begs the definition of procrastination. If you look at what Google says procrastination is, it’s the act of delaying or postponing something. I think that’s ridiculous because it leaves out a huge piece, because delaying or postponing something could just be prioritizing.
Jim Hessler: Could be.
Steve Motenko: Which kind of goes to your question, “What should I be doing?” To me, procrastination, in order for it to be a problem, and why talk about it unless it’s something that is a problem that needs to be solved? In other words it’s not a problem if it’s just prioritizing.
So there are two components to procrastination being a problem. One is that there’s some deadline involved or a significant consequence for not doing it sooner, rather than later. And the second component is although you could’ve had time to do it well without deadline stress, you didn’t.
Jim Hessler: You waited until the deadline made it happen.
Steve Motenko: Right, and made it stressful.
Jim Hessler: And I definitely do that.
Steve Motenko: Ah, you do do that?
Jim Hessler: Oh yeah. Yeah. There is a purpose behind that, I really believe sometimes.
Steve Motenko: So, I want to talk about the purposes of procrastination and which of them are rationalizations and which of them are real. And then later in the show, we’re going to talk about a real, true, hidden benefit of procrastination.  So you want to talk about the purposes of procrastination. What did you have in mind?
Jim Hessler: Maybe that’s the wrong terminology to put to it. I find that when there’s a creative process, it’s both important for me have a deadline, composing music is a good example. I think I have a pretty good ability to write music, and the only few times I’ve ever actually really done it successfully is when somebody said, “I’m getting married,” or “I have something that I need you to write music for.” Then I had a deadline. So, the creative process, I think it needs a deadline, but it also needs a gestation period. I am very uncomfortable rushing a creative process. A good example of that is I’m making a series of presentations to some executive peer groups in the area this week around strategic planning. I gave that presentation a long time to bounce around inside my head before I put it to paper. I think that was very useful for me.
In other words, if I had sat down and said, “Okay, I’m going to give myself six hours, I’m gonna write this presentation”, I could have produced something. But instead it was like, “Okay, I’m gonna get a couple index cards in front of me, I’m gonna scribble some ideas. Then I’m gonna turn the index cards over, I’m gonna scribble some more ideas.” I carry around index cards. It’s weird, people laugh at me. It’s very retro, but I do. I cannot read a book- like I’ll be reading a book, I’m reading Kegan right now, In Over Our Heads. I have to have index cards next to me while I’m reading Kegan. It’s not enough for me just to highlight what I’m reading. I have to make notes and I have to draw pictures and diagrams and things like that. So, the creative process cannot be rushed with me.
Steve Motenko: I think you can take the words “with me” out of that sentence. The creative process cannot be rushed. I want to quote from Adam Grant, who’s quite well-known. TED talk is probably where most people know of him, but Wharton school psychology professor, organizational psychology and best-selling author. He says, “While procrastination is a vice for productivity, I’ve learned against my natural inclinations that it’s a virtue for creativity.”
Jim Hessler: Oh boy, that is so good. That is a great quote. I’m getting so much energy about this because what I realize is, the degree to which so many business leaders struggle with these two very, very different impulses. The impulse to get something done now, and then the impulse to wait and let an idea percolate or gestate. The vast majority of business leaders are much, much better at the short-term “get stuff done” than they are at the creative process.
Steve Motenko: Right and I think business leaders applies all across the spectrum-
Jim Hessler: Political leaders, too.
Steve Motenko: Yeah, and entry-level people too. Too many of us, and I’m a terrible offender, so focused on getting the job done. So focused on getting from one task to the next, to clear the inbox, to clear the to-do list, that we lose the opportunity to allow things to bubble up, which is necessary for creativity.
Jim Hessler: It feels really uncomfortable for most of us.
Steve Motenko: Yeah, and I’m one of those. And it’s something that I think that I’ve learned from you and something I need to learn more. Adam Grant refers to this as “pre-crastination”, meaning the urge to start a task immediately and finish it as soon as possible. I mean, I’m not obsessive that way, but I lean too much in that direction.
Jim Hessler: One of the things that I’ve presented on, and just did it with a group this morning, is the old idea of strategic planning. Which, to me, in order to be successful has to be a very creative process.
Steve Motenko: So it’s not just about goals and objectives and deadlines and owners …
Jim Hessler: But people want it to be. So people take this very creative process and they say, “Oh, well, we want to grow our business 15% next year”, which is not a creative statement. It’s not even a strategic initiative. It’s just a number.
Steve Motenko: It’s a guess.
Jim Hessler: Well, it’s a guess and it’s just a number. What I find, and this happens in other areas as well, is so many business people come up and say, “Just tell me how to do that. Tell me how to put together a strategic plan.” I find that the really hard part of it is saying, “You know, you’ve gotta spend some time in the coffee shop, and you’ve gotta walk the dog.”
Steve Motenko: You gotta take long showers.
Jim Hessler: You gotta have Post-it notes around you all the time and stick them up on the mirror, on your computer screen. It’s hard for me to codify, as a creative person. It’s really hard for me to codify that creative process and teach somebody else how to be creative.
Steve Motenko: I don’t think you can.
Jim Hessler: Don’t you think so?
Steve Motenko: No, I think you can only teach someone what not to do, i.e. not to go from this task, to that task, to that task all day long and never take the time to breathe. I think you can teach people how to create a context in their lives for creativity to happen, but you can’t make creativity happen. Creativity is not a to-do. The to-do might be somehow creating space. As you said, walking the dog, taking a shower, using Post-it notes, whatever, creating space in which you are not focused on a specific task. Because otherwise, creative thoughts don’t bubble up.
Jim Hessler: Right, so what’s interesting about this is because of that, the creative process actually feels like procrastination to people.
Steve Motenko: Absolutely, I agree with that.
Jim Hessler: They label it. “Oh, I’m just putting that off.” Well no, you’re just thinking about it some more. You have more thinking about this to do, you’re not ready yet.
Steve Motenko: Okay, so the question is, the typical form that procrastination takes is I’m surfing the Internet instead of getting my work done.
Jim Hessler: Well, you’re right. We’re talking about two pretty different things here.
Steve Motenko: Well, maybe, but I don’t know. As you’re surfing the Internet, are you-
Jim Hessler: There’s a subconscious process going on there.
Steve Motenko: Exactly, and I don’t know that that’s true-
Jim Hessler: No, there’s a lot of brain science behind that. I think the great experiment that I remember was two groups of people, both given the same problem to solve. One group was given the problem and asked to sit down in a room immediately after the problem was presented to them, and solve the problem. The second group was given a whole bunch of other tasks to do that afternoon, and asked to come back the next morning and solve the problem. The group that came back the second day to solve the problem, always solved the problem in a much more effective and creative way than the group that sat down and worked on it immediately after it was presented.
Steve Motenko: Yeah, and I have read studies similar to that, where people were asked to do something different before-
Jim Hessler: Crossword puzzles. I’ll be completely stumped by a crossword puzzle, I’ll pick the crossword puzzle up the next morning, and the answer is right there.
Steve Motenko: Yeah, it happens to me all the time. I’ll have ideas, I keep coming back to shower, but that’s where it tends to happens to me, or even the commute. I’ll come up with ideas about things that I wasn’t intentionally thinking about, that’ll just bubble up in the middle of another stream of thinking. Just a couple really intriguing things, a quote from Virginia Woolf from the book A Room of One’s Own, “It is in our idleness that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.”
Jim Hessler: Yeah, as a classical musician, I’m always thinking about these classical composers who wrote these master works when they were 18. Some really profoundly good music was written by teenagers. I’m realizing they had no television, and they had no automobiles. They literally spent a great deal of their time sitting in rooms with candlelight, with nothing else to do other than to think up music.
Steve Motenko: Yeah, something maybe more of us should take a lesson from. Increasingly, we live in a culture that values linearity. It values getting from the intention to the outcome in the most direct line possible.
Jim Hessler: Be an achiever!
Steve Motenko: Yeah, and we also live in a culture that doesn’t value the arts. It really doesn’t value creativity. Many cultures of the world have provided incomes for artists and we tend not to do that. Or if we do, we do it on a very small scale.
Jim Hessler: Well, again, I’m stealing a lot of your airtime today, but I was at a concert-
Steve Motenko: No, you’re not stealing airtime!
Jim Hessler: Okay, well I was at a concert before the holidays, and the concert was put together here in Seattle by something called The Early Music Guild, which specializes in Baroque-era music. It was a combination of Canadian and American musicians, and the Canadians were from Vancouver and Victoria and several other places in Canada. The leader of the Canadian organization came out in front of the crowd before the service and said, “As Americans, you have to give money to The Early Music Guild. We in Canada never have to stand up in front of crowds and do this kind of fundraising, because the Canadian government funds almost all of our activities.” And he said, “Because you’re in America, we have to come beg for money.”
Steve Motenko: Oh my God, and that’s an exception, the Canadian exception, that proves the rule that Western culture does not value the arts, and we don’t value creativity. No wonder we don’t take time to sit and do the nothing that allows creative thought, creative ideas to bubble up. So how do you do that? First of all, I read that Steve Jobs was a chronic procrastinator, that Bill Clinton is a chronic procrastinator.
Jim Hessler: Interesting. Who would think?
Steve Motenko: You think of people who have accomplished phenomenal things. Maybe they do it because, rather in spite of, their procrastination.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, and I want to be honest about myself here. There’s two forms of procrastination. There’s just stuff I don’t wanna do. I’ll play Solitaire, I’ll do a hundred other things, other than doing that thing. Sitting down and paying my quarterly taxes is a good example of that. I find that just horrible to do and I find a lot of ways to avoid doing it. So the creative stuff has a purpose. There are forms of procrastination that I engage in that are just simply avoiding something that I just don’t want to do.
Steve Motenko: Yeah, right, and I think if boredom is at the source, I mean there are a lot of reasons that we avoid things that we need to do. We avoid things we need to do because we’re bored. We avoid things that we need to do because we’re afraid of failure. These are critically important to pay attention to, rather than to simply rationalize, “Oh every time I procrastinate, it’s okay. I’m being creative.” We need to pay attention to our boredom. We need to pay attention to our fear of failure, our overwhelm. This book that you’re reading, In Over Our Heads, is all focused on the overwhelm of adults in our complex society. We need to pay attention if we’re avoiding things because we are in denial of the consequences for not getting it done. All of this just creates more stress as opposed to truly allowing creativity to bubble up.
Jim Hessler: It’s changing the way we look at it from saying, “This is something really awful that happens and I’m a bad person”, rather than just listening to it and saying, “Maybe there’s really something important here that I need to listen to as I’m procrastinating.”
Steve Motenko: Our culture values linearity. So there’s this subconscious cultural impact on us to always be trying to get the next thing done, and then to feel guilty about downtime which is, as we’ve said in this show, critical for allowing creativity to bubble up.
Jim Hessler: And we’re teaching our kids that linearity in a huge way, by having their calendars full all the time.
Steve Motenko: Right, and I mentioned earlier in the show that I tend to be what Adam Grant calls a pre-crastinator. I tend to be one of those people who’s very linear, very focused on the next task, the next deadline. I get a lot done, but at the expense of my own creative process. I’ve recognized that for a long time.
Just kind of as an interesting sideline, when I constructed the outline for this show, and Jim and I take turns in constructing outlines for each of our episodes. When I constructed the outline for this show, I had it going in a very different order than what it ended up going in. I realized as we’re talking, okay we’re taking this piece, which I wanted to do at the end. We’re doing it closer to the beginning because of the way Jim took the conversation, not knowing my outline. I’m having the experience of practice of letting go of my linearity and allowing the creative process to do its work. You can kind of be the judge.
Jim Hessler: You know where it also shows up is in meetings. I hear so many people that are so frustrated with meetings. I think some of that frustration is misplaced, because I think what people are frustrated about is when the meeting doesn’t follow the agenda. The fact is, I’ve found as a leader, that sometimes the very, very best, most important meetings we ever had- and I think you and I’ve had this happen in our relationship- were the ones that didn’t follow the agenda.
Steve Motenko: And yet, we do agenda workshops for organizations in which we talk about the importance of following the agenda.
Jim Hessler: We do, but we also-
Steve Motenko: Talk about being flexible.
Jim Hessler: And encourage flexibility. Because you have to hear what’s showing up. And something far more important than your agenda might be showing up in the hearts and minds of the people in that meeting. So people get very frustrated, “Well we didn’t talk at this meeting about what we said we were gonna talk about.” Well, as a leader, sometimes it’s because you talked about something a lot more important.
Steve Motenko: So before we leave this topic, I want to offer you a few tips. IF you are a pre-crastinator and you want the real benefits, the creative benefits of procrastination, what can you do?
Number one: Calendar time for play, or calendar time just to pursue an interest without an agenda.
Number two: Stop a job in the middle of the job, which is really hard for those of us who are task-oriented to do. If you finish a job, your mind tends to file it away. But if you leave it half-done, your mind tends to keep working on it.
Jim Hessler: Love that, love that.
Steve Motenko: Number three: Just give yourself more downtime. Don’t schedule every moment of your day working on things. Give yourself downtime between tasks and appointments. Take a nap. Studies actually show that naps restore short-term alertness and concentration and memory.
Jim Hessler: SO that’s part of your work. Taking naps is part of your work.
Steve Motenko: Yeah, and calendaring time for play really is part of your work. Meditate, of course, is a great way to allow ideas to come up.
Finally, when you’re facing an important project, calendar some time not to work on it, but just to think about it without a schedule. There’s another benefit we haven’t talked about, real briefly, and that is balance. If we don’t procrastinate, we fill up our day with tasks, with work, and we’re not paying attention to some of the other pieces of life that are truly important.
Jim Hessler: I love it. Create some spaciousness. The Boss Show is produced by Path Forward Leadership Development and our Sound Engineer is Kevin Dodrill.
Steve Motenko: If you missed any of the show, you can get it in its entirety online at thebossshow.com, and that’s also where you can go to subscribe to our podcast or to contact us for any reason. Tell us what you think about the show, maybe bring us into your workplace to work with your leaders.
Jim Hessler: We really appreciate you listening to the show.
Steve Motenko: And don’t forget rule number six!
Jim Hessler: Rule number six!
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