Some people call it Monkey Brain, but I like to think that those whose minds have a tendency toward “Wait! But first I have to [fill in the blank],” those who never seem to sit down long enough to remember the many items they’ve added to their lists, actually have an advantage when it comes to creativity. Adam Grant, psychology professor and author of The Originals: How Nonconformists Move the World, puts it this way: “Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity, but it can be a resource for creativity.”
Case in point: when I was in college, I had a really hard time starting my papers unless my room was clean and all the small items on my to-do list were taken care of (which in college usually meant emptying my trash can and balancing my checkbook; that was still a thing in those days). I had a really hard time focusing in on that big idea when there was so many little clouds covering my sun. But, once those clouds were blown away, I had no excuse and I found the peace to focus.
What it took me a long time to realize is that while I was doing all of those small tasks, my brain was already working on what compelling argument I’d make in my next thesis, or how I’d tackle the next original logo mark or clever tagline. My brain was picking through what worked and what did not, what felt novel and inspired, as I dutifully checked off the items on my list.
In the same book, Grant puts it this way: “If originals aren’t reliable judges of the quality of their ideas, how do they maximize their odds of creating a masterpiece? They come up with a large number of ideas.” Not all of those ideas are winners. We need to learn to give ourselves the time and space to try them on for size and poke them a bit. See if they can stand up to being looked at and interrogated. I, as do many creatives, tend to do this in the background without even realizing it sometimes. (Ever wake up with a great idea but no paper to write it on?)
Procrastination has a bad rap. It is normally characterized as an avoidance of work towards a purposeful end. But I’ve learned to give in to my need to tidy my space, because in essence, it allows me to tidy my mind as I’m keeping my body busy.
Some people do this better by exercising before a big project, walking the dog, cleaning out their refrigerator, or even, yes, still balancing their checkbook. As our society’s advancements in technology have made outcomes so immediate, communication so instantaneous, we’ve lost the time we used to allow ourselves to draw out those ideas.
Think about it. I’ve typed this entire post in a matter of minutes, when 100-plus years ago, a person had to take a pen to a paper, scratch out words that didn’t work or add sentences in the margins to reiterate a point. Ink leaked, pages were stained by teacups and that was all part of the process. That extra time it takes to draw out each word, in cursive, feel the nib of the pen imprint the paper as it skates out the ink of one’s ideas, that is the space where true creativity finds a home. Inside those measured, careful hand motions is a crucial pause in our minds that we’ve lost now that we can so easily hit “delete.”
Successful creatives today have found ways to add that time, that connection, back into their consciousness. Whether it be procrastinating in whatever way suits you, or finding a slow hobby (mine is knitting), creativity is best inspire when body and mind are in tune with one another in a very tactile and intimate way. How can that happen when your bed’s not made?! That time spent busying myself with wrote tasks I could do in my sleep freed up my brain and allowed for that next big, new Aha! find its new home.
So, next time this happens to you, don’t be frustrated with yourself. Give into the taskmaster knowing that perhaps your brain is just dangling a carrot at the end of that to-do list.