Through the core of every procrastinator runs the vein of childish rebellion. You’d rather do anything besides what you’re supposed to be doing. And you’d much rather be doing the shiny, fun thing. This happens despite your best intentions and your mostly adult brain knowing that the shiny, fun thing isn’t the smartest way to spend your time.
We all succumb to present bias, which skews our priorities so that the value of the short-term irrationally outweighs the long-term. The very origin of the word “procrastination”, from the Latin pro-, for “forward”, and crastinus, “of tomorrow”, captures that outlook. Just one more hamburger today, I’ll start my diet tomorrow!
Most suggested solutions fail to deal with the modus operandi of procrastinators, and attempt to change their ways more quickly than their deep-rooted character traits allow.
Structured procrastination, however, works with the procrastinator. It’s a paradoxical term, meaning the kind of procrastination that makes you more productive by turning your weakness into a strength and can be a “nuclear option” of sorts when all other productivity advice fails.
Here’s how it works:
There’s that one “Very Important Task” that you really should be getting done. The one that gives you that familiar feeling of resistance: No, no, please – anything but Very Important Task! Here’s the move that goes against the grain: put that task on hold. Give into your inclination to procrastinate.
Meanwhile, consider your to-do list. There are always a number of tasks of varying importance that you should get to at some point.
Now that you’ve yielded to the urge to procrastinate, instead of turning to shiny time-wasting activities, however, start a different task from your list that needs attention.
The beauty of the structured procrastination method is that it recognizes the extreme challenge in changing that pro-tomorrow vein, and runs with it instead of against it. You can take that feeling of “I’d rather do anything than this particular thing” — which normally sends you to sort the sock drawer or go on a Netflix spree — and use it as a force for productivity. As Stanford philosophy professor, John Perry, who wrote a great essay about structured procrastination, notes, “With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen” and “an effective human being.”
But wait. What about that Very Important Task? When will it ever get done? It’s still Very Important!
For some, working on the Very Important Task first can help. But remember, you are still playing the procrastinator’s game, in which the act of prioritizing something at the top saps the impetus to start working on it. So, the mental trick is to regard other tasks as more important in order to make Very Important Task an easier choice.
Rank projects that seem quite significant yet have more flexible deadlines at the top instead like reorganizing your workspace or learning a new technique. You’ll probably also find that there are newer Very Important Tasks that have joined your list, making that original one look all the more alluring.
The bonus to all this is that the usually crippling guilt that undermines your motivation is transformed into fuel for momentum. As more things start getting done, you’ll realize that the procrastinator at heart has become one those highly productive people!
How about you?
What do you do to combat procrastination?
The holidays are over, the weather is lousy, and we’re sober again. We made all kinds of New Year’s promises, but the big one that will change our careers, if not our lives, is the promise to ourselves to become more creative. In my new book, Creative Intelligence, I show that creativity is learned behavior that gets better with training–like sports. You can make creativity routine and a regular part of your life. That’s true for big companies as well as small startups, corporate managers as well as entrepreneurs. Creativity is scalable.
The huge national policy storm brewing over “dwindling innovation” and an “innovation shortfall” also gives creativity an even greater agency. Creativity is the key to generating economic value and getting the U.S. economy to grow fast again.
So here are four specific ways to lead a more creative life and boost your creative capacities. Creativity is not about blue rooms and brain waves but about social engagement and mining the existential. Here’s what you can do.
Managers need to identify the creative circles within their organizations.
Nearly every creative entrepreneur, artist, musician, engineer, sports players, designer, and scientist works with one, two, or a handful of trusted people, often in a small space. Sometimes they work on just one project but often a series of projects over time. They energize, complement, and spark each other and together and create something of value that didn’t exist before. From the Rolling Stones to Thomas Edison, this is how creativity works. This is how Apple works.
So you need to engage with creative people. Ask yourself, among your friends and colleagues, who is the most creative? Who brings out the most creativity in you? How does it happen? Reflect on that. Take time to think about it. And add to your creativity circle if you need to.
Managers need to identify and promote the creative circles within their organizations. The pyramid is the accepted geometric organizational structure of most businesses and organizations. We’ve spent decades “flattening” the hierarchy of the pyramid to boost efficiency. But to raise an organization’s creative capacity, we need to replace pyramids with circles. Identifying, promoting, and managing those creative circles is a key skill they should teach in B-Schools.
Successful creativity requires scaling your new concept into an actual product. You have to pivot from creativity to creation. To do that, you need to find the resources to transform your concept into reality. We call them general managers, patrons of the arts, professors, lab chiefs, sports coaches, and, these days, crowdfunders. I like to call them “wanderers,” people (or smart crowds) experienced enough to screen new ideas, pick those likely to succeed, and provide the resources to try them out. People need to belong to pivot circles at work and in their regular lives to make their creations real. What pivot circles do you belong to? Who are the wanderers in your life? Family, friends, Kickstarter–who can identify your best creative ideas and help scale them into reality?
Managers need to identify and empower the wanderers inside their organizations. Who is designated to search out the creative possibilities being offered up in your businesses? How do they make their decisions? What resources are they providing? Who do they report to? The Six Sigma black belt is the hero of efficiency in most corporations. To increase creativity, a new corporate hero must be born.
Creativity is relational. Its practice is mostly about casting widely and connecting disparate dots of existing knowledge in new, meaningful ways. To be creative, you’ve got to mine your knowledge. You have to know your dots.
We are used to thinking about the dots of knowledge that come from spending 10,000 hours on practice or study. Learned knowledge from immersion is extremely important to knowing. But look around at the world of startups and you see that the knowledge we embody as members of groups–demographic, cultural, national, linguistic–is often more important than what we’ve studied and learned. Embodied knowledge, especially for young people, can provide critical dots that we can connect to new technologies and new situations to provide meaningful solutions to the problems in our lives.
So take a moment to take a creativity audit. What do you really know that might be of value? What does your generation, your group, your family, your hobbies, your obsessions give you that might connect to new technologies or other bits of knowledge that might lead to something new? Ask your trusted friends to hold up a mirror to your possible creativity.
Managers should do creativity audits within their own organizations. What is inside that might lead to something new and valuable. What are your generational and global assets–what do they know that might be of value if mixed, shaken, and stirred, especially with social media technology? The easy part is auditing the formal spaces for innovation–labs, new product groups, R&D. Harder but possibly more productive are the informal groups working under the radar on weekends and at night. Or just the rare birds with unique backgrounds and knowledge, learned and embodied. Do you know them?
Being creative means leading a creative life. We need to reflect on what we do, with whom we engage, how we act in order to increase our creative capacities. One easy way is to keep a creativity journal and map our creativity. Take a few days, a week, or a month and write down what you do, where you go, and with whom you spend your time. Map out where and with whom you get your “best” ideas? Which coffeehouse do you go to in order to be alone to think? Where do you get coffee to meet people? Where do you go for inspiration and provocation? A creativity map can reveal your process of creativity. Or it can show the banality of your life and why you should change it.
Creativity mapping gives purpose to people’s linkages.Managers can do creativity maps of their organizations, both formal and informal. Network mapping, increasingly popular in big corporations, is a first step. Creativity mapping takes the effort further by giving purpose to people’s linkages. Most networking is about making mobility alliances–job-hopping to other places or promotions. Creativity mapping is about finding people to join your circles of creativity and pivoting. It’s about creating new economic value.
Creativity is deeply undervalued in America today outside a tiny few university and business enclaves. Only 9% of all public and private do any sort of innovation. Our best schools teach the tools of efficiency and analysis. Yet we know that creativity increasingly is the greatest value-generator. It separates those who can deal with change and chaos and those who can’t. So we all need to build up our creative capacity. Building these four competencies can help get you there.
Amid growing interest in creativity in the lab and on the pages of popular books and magazines, these recent studies stand out.
In 1950, the American psychologist Joy P. Guilford delivered a lecture to the American Psychological Association (APA) calling for a scientific focus on creativity. Psychology knew little about creativity at the time. Years earlier, during WWII, the Air Force commissioned Guilford, then a psychologist at USC, to identify pilots who would respond to emergencies with original insights to save themselves and the plane. IQ was a popular measurement but it did not capture the type of thinking that generated novel solutions to urgent predicaments. Studying pilots led Guilford to a few insights he shared with his colleagues at the APA in 1950. First, creativity is not equivalent to intelligence. Second, divergent thinking is central to the concept of creativity. Third, we can develop tests to measure divergent thinking skills. Guilford’s remarks encouraged questions the academy is still having today: What is the relationship between creativity and intelligence? How do we measure creativity? And what, exactly, is creativity?
Unfortunately, Guilford’s ideas did not give rise to widespread research in creativity. Psychologists neglected the domain throughout the second half of the 20th century with notable exceptions including Dean Keith Simonton, Howard Gardner, Teresa Amabile and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It was a fringe subject because no one saw any practical applications; acquiring grant money was therefore difficult.
The 21st century is witnessing a renaissance in creativity in both the lab and the pages of popular books and magazines. “Creativity is a topic at many conferences and many grad students are getting excited about the subject,” says Scott Barry Kaufman, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology at New York University. “2012 was a good year for creativity research, journals devoted to creativity published a lot of great work and other fields weighed in.”
The most newsworthy research came from cognitive psychologists researching creativity “boosters”. Jennifer Wiley’s lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that a certain dose of alcohol helped participants solve tricky word problems. Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks demonstrated that undergrads were better at solving insight-based problems when they tested during their least optimal time. This means that night owls did better in the morning while morning larks did better in the afternoon. Counter-intuitive findings like these scattered psychology journals and made for catchy headlines in the press.
The neuroscience of creativity is flourishing. In 2008 the journal PNAS published a paper by researchers from the University of Michigan demonstrating that participants who played a difficult working memory game known as the n-BACK task scored higher on tests of a fundamental cognitive ability known as fluid intelligence: the capacity to solve new problems, to make insights and see connections independent of previous knowledge. In other words, the task made people smarter. Oshin Vartanian, Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto-Scarborough, explained that a lot of researchers are excited about this finding. “The 2008 paper has had a profound effect on how creativity researchers think about creativity. Now scientists are working on replicating the results and figuring out if intelligence gained from the n-BACK task transfers to other domains.” The hope is that “cognitive training” will help children and adults boost creative output. “The application of this research is probably the most exciting idea in the cognitive science and neuroscience of creativity,” says Vartanian.
Cognitive flexibility, the ability to switch between thinking about two concepts or consider multiple perspectives simultaneously, is also a popular topic in the neuroscience world. Darya Zabelina, a graduate student at Northwestern University who studies creativity informed me that, “a lot of people are studying cognitive flexibility from a lot of different perspectives. It will be one of the topics researchers will continue to focus on in 2013.”
Paul Silvia is a Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina who researches creativity and aesthetics, among other topics. According to Silvia, “film and creativity is going to become popular; maybe music and creativity as well.” He is currently working on a paper co-authored with Emily Nusbaum that looks at unusual aesthetic states such as awe, the chills, and crying.
Countless popular psychology books that either focused on or mentioned creativity were published in 2012. Susan Cain lambasted brainstorming and “GroupThink” in her bestseller and introvert manifesto Quiet. Drawing on a wide body of robust research she reminded our hyper social world that working alone is usually better than working in groups in terms of productivity and creativity. Dan Ariely’s book The Honest Truth About Dishonesty contains a chapter on the relationship between dishonesty and creativity – honesty might not be good for creativity. The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg made some important suggestions for creativity: if you’re in a rut, try changing your routine. The elephant in the room is Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: The Science of Creativity, which the public gobbled up. Scientists in the field rightly expressed concerns about how Lehrer portrayed and interpreted some of the science but they are also happy that good science writers are attracted to the field. Unfortunately, Lehrer got pegged for plagiarizing and inventing Bob Dylan quotes. Kaufman said it best: “When people started doubting the veracity of that book, they started doubting the veracity of the science.”
Given that the relationship between the science of creativity and the media will continue to evolve, it will be interesting to see how the media’s portrayal of creativity affects the research. Starting with Gladwell’s Blink or Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics, the public began to expect counter-intuitive results from cognitive science. Now we live in an era where readers of science books on human nature expect clever psychological studies to explain every nook and cranny of our complex nature. This trend is good because it gets otherwise uninterested lay readers excited about cognitive science; Thinking Fast and Slow, Incognito, and others were bestsellers. However, the popularity of these books may create a bad system of incentives for researchers, in which researchers are motivated to publish results just to create a stir at the expense of sound research techniques and less provocative but more important research. (There’s nothing wrong with provocative results of course. Done properly, counter-intuitive findings are vital to any field because they force us to think differently.)*
I’d like to see more researchers active online in the future. My educated guess is that only about one percent of cognitive scientists (professors, grad students, etc.) are blogging or tweeting. This is a problem for three reasons. First, the Internet is an excellent medium for spreading information, including research papers. Consider a project by Melissa Terras, the Co-Director of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. She put 26 of her articles originally published in refereed journals online for free via UCL’s Open Access Repository. She wrote blog posts and used Twitter to promote them. It helped. “Most of my papers, before I blogged and tweeted them, had one to two downloads, even if they had been in the repository for months (or years, in some cases). Upon blogging and tweeting, within 24 hours, there were on average seventy downloads of my papers.”
Second, pseudoscience, “neurobabble,” and folk psychology flourish on the Internet. We need more experts to set the record straight. “The hard part,” Silvia told me, “is many professors aren’t good at doing that. It’s just not natural for us to ‘grab’ the public.” Not everyone is Carl Sagan or Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but it’s counterproductive for scientists to trench themselves in the academy. I hope creativity researchers will continue to make a larger online presence in 2013. We need them to keep writers like me honest.
Third, we need researchers to help promote the science of creativity to a wider audience. “I know a lot of really careful, good researchers in the field of the neuroscience of creativity, but no one is talking about them,” Kaufman tells me. “These thoughtful researchers should think about writing for the popular sphere and writers should pay attention to them more. There is so much exciting stuff going on in the field of creativity that most popular books don’t address.”
I’m optimistic about next year. Creativity researchers will continue to produce great research and improve our understanding of creativity as well as methods to measure it. In the spirit of Ken Robinson’s celebrated TED talk (now with over 13 million hits) we should broaden our conception of creativity; it is diverse and anyone can tap into it, even adults. Science writers will continue to write about creativity and the general public will continue to enjoy reading about it. Let’s strengthen the relationship between the academy and the journalism world, keeping in mind how we can use social media to promote the science of creativity and correct misconceptions about it (i.e., that people either are or not ‘creative’). This is important for education, where creativity research is especially useful, although it has implications for every industry.
It’s unclear where, exactly, the science of creativity will go next year, but the most interesting discoveries surely await us.
Full disclosure, Scott is also my colleague at The Creativity Post.
* This paragraph reiterates a point I made in collaboration with Dave Nussbaum, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago, on a previous post.
This post originally appeared at Big Think.