Normalizing Productive Procrastination

Check yourself

The idea of being productive is frequently conveyed as a social construct with implications that a person may be problematic if they don’t fall into one of a few prescribed processes. Personally, I have tried so many prescriptions for productivity. For tasks and work where I contribute my own intellectual investment, a wasteland of mostly unsuccessful techniques:

  • Countdown timers
  • Mind games (“If I accomplish this task, I’ll reward myself this awesome thing”)
  • Browser website blockers
  • Pomodoro technique (online focus timers, mobile apps, you name it)
  • Fake, meaningless deadlines
  • Accountability partners

Many years ago back in university, all nighters were more common than was healthy for any human being. Mine often started out blatantly unproductive - the birth of Facebook and endless Internet browsing was fresh on everyone’s procrastination rotation™. Out of sheer exhaustion from surfing the web, I would then nap for a third of a night’s sleep, then wake up three hours before the seminar and crank out a decently written essay. Highly not recommended! One memorable paper comes to mind that created a new personal low but yielded a surprisingly favorable result with a decent grade from the professor: complete with fantastic works cites, quotes, and supporting historical artifacts, an investigation on urban renewal and gentrification of SOMA in San Francisco for my Archeology of Modern Urbanism seminar. I no longer attempt these. It’s an unhealthy and unsustainable way to approach large pieces of work. Is it possible to remove the stigma that productivity needs to be solved by society and thinkers, as if it’s a human flaw?


Recently, there’s been a viewpoint emerging for procrastination in healthy doses - that it’s beneficial and even important for those who ponder a lot and those who leverage their creativity in their work.

If you look across fields, the greatest originals are the ones who fail the most, because they're the ones who try the most…They feel fear and doubt. They procrastinate. They have bad ideas. And sometimes, it's not in spite of those qualities but because of them that they succeed.

-- Adam Grant - TED Talk: The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers

I’d like to think it has contributed positively to my work as I’ve learned how to harness my guilt and fear. A recent reflection comes to mind on my process of developing user research findings or design concepts. Often I’ll allot myself an extra couple of days of “think-time” between completing research activities and my colleague’s expectations of me delivering a report or design concept. And when I begin my presentation decks, I’ll often throw a crazy mishmash of key pieces or artifacts (chicken scratch notes, quotes, fragments, images, idea blurbs) into a Keynote deck. It basically functions as a brain dump, and it looks messy, nonsensical, and insane! This process also eases my perpetual fear of forgetting something.

As time passes and the ideas begin to percolate, the structure becomes clearer. The slides become a large storyboard. I use this journey to construct the beginnings of a storyline arc, an argument, or a design concept that is digestible for my stakeholders and peers. In a couple of more extreme cases, I might negotiate with my partners to buy myself more time depending on how large the project is or resources available, but never too long.

Blocks spring from the imbalanced relationship of How and Why; either we have an idea, but lack the skills to execute; or we have skills, but lack a message, idea, or purpose for the work…We must remember Why we are working, because craft needs objectives, effort needs purpose, and we need an outlet for our song. If we stay on the surface and do not dig deep by asking Why, we’re not true designing. We’re just imitating car alarms from sweetgum trees.

-- Frank Chimero, The Shape of Design (27)

I feel compelled to balance the reversal of stereotypes of slow, time-consuming design ideations and insights, while also delivering value in a brisk manner. This extended time boundary has yielded me more strategic, purposeful, and highly creative results. It also means seeking out a rhythm in my process that allows for “me time” to connect divergent paths between disparate ideas in a safe and protected way.

That’ll do

Some things that have helped me along the way in learning about how I work:

  • The Now Habit and Neil Fiore’s example of the Un-schedule - I now have a separate Google calendar, which is similar to this Un-schedule. It’s the “fun” calendar, mostly separate from my work calendar. Appointments I set as reminders jog me to glance at my smartphone
  • Turning off Wifi/Internet
  • Trello - the satisfaction of dragging cards over one more column
  • Time to breathe and collect myself - outdoor walks, mindless Netflix watching, vacation
  • Inspiration - people around me, circumstance, timing, lettering, reading about others' lives, other creative outlets, the web (must be controlled in some way, otherwise, endless Internet surfing…)
  • Self-care - massage, pedicure, meditation, reading
  • Regular change of scenery - I’ve tried all the hipster coffee shops to calm my internal turmoil, but because of its predictability as a chain business (oh my!), I’ve found a quiet, dark Starbucks in Seattle that provides me with what I need. The sound level is a quiet lull, there’s an enclosed outdoor patio, the temperature is cool but not too cold. A cozy dark cave.
  • Analog basics - checkboxes and strikethroughs on physical paper demonstrate to myself accomplishment and completion, no matter how small
  • Urgency by others who depend on me and the hope to avoid letting them down

These days, I get things done in relative priority. It seems to be the primary way for me to survive in work while I’ve chosen this career path of balancing many hats with multiple foci. What can I start working on first, next, and at least for the time being? As long as I’m making progress in some way, it can provide comfort in the loneliness of creative blocks, even if the journey ahead seems insurmountable. And I can assure you that when I wrote this piece, I was procrastinating like nobody’s business.