One of the greatest inventors/entrepreneurs of all time, Thomas Edison (you can call him the man that illuminated the world), had the habit of taking a nap whenever he was stymied by a problem. Cornell University Social Psychologist James Maas brilliantly named it “the power nap.”
For context, there are four stages of sleep. In about 20 minutes, you enter Stage Two. Stage Two is the state of memory consolidation, in which information you’ve learned is processed. Waking out of stage two has shown increased productivity, higher cognitive functioning, enhanced memory, boosted creativity, and feeling less tired.
Thomas Edison made the most of this body chemistry as a productivity technique to create some of the best inventions known to man. On a wider level of abstraction, this technique is founded on taking some time off a task (technically, procrastination) and letting your brain wander subconsciously, looking for answers.
This technique, at the crux of it, is basically what creative procrastination is all about, the point being to take time off a task after working on it for some time. While the conscious part of the mind is resting or focused on something else, the subconscious part of the mind is working overtime to consolidate information and solve problems.
This phenomenon works because the creative process can take time and is quite flexible. So, given you are working on a creative project and maybe you don’t have a fixed deadline, it’s healthy to take some time off and let your mind wander, looking for divergent, uncanny ideas to solve your special problem.
We’ve likely all been through the process—those “eureka” moments, those epiphany moments, hell! Those times when you lose an argument only to remember hours later what you could have said right to prove your point. All those sudden-insight moments are a result of your creative mechanism that has gone to work.
You just might not have given it enough thought to harness its amazing benefits (especially when faced with strange problems or when looking for better ways to get a project done).
To better understand this dynamic, let’s first have a look at how the human creative mechanism works, how to make the most of this special kind of procrastination, and five optimal rules to help you along the way.
The Human Creative Mechanism
One of the biggest challenges in our present world is stress. It is credited as the reason for procrastination—as cited in Dr. Timothy Pychyl’s dissertation based on a 19-year study on the science of procrastination. One of the reasons stress has such a stronghold on our life (more specifically, our work and productivity) is because we try to do everything and solve all our problems by conscious thought or “forebrain thinking.”
How Your Success Mechanism Works
Your brain and nervous system constitute a servo-mechanism that operates automatically to achieve a certain goal, very much as a self-aiming torpedo or missile seeks out its target and steers its way to it.
This built-in servo-mechanism functions both as a “guidance system” to automatically steer you in the right direction to achieve certain goals or make correct responses to the environment, and also as an “electronic brain” which can function automatically to solve problems, give you needed answers, and provide new ideas or inspirations.
When you work on a project for a while and abandon it for some time, your servo-mechanism goes to work unprompted, looking for ideas and solutions to the project. That’s the reason you get those sudden “eurekas” even after you’ve stopped paying attention.
There is a catch to this plan, however. If you are going to procrastinate to find answers, you must first prepare your brain with all the information it needs to solve the puzzle. In other words, you must first be interested in solving the problem, research the subject and problem, and consider multiple possible courses of action. The desire to find a solution and research done in that regard are the most vital parts of the subconscious mind working overtime.
But after that, additional struggling, fretting, or worrying over it may not help but make you unnecessarily anxious.
This is the technique Bertrand Russell applies to his writing. He said, “I have found, for example, that, if I have to write upon some rather difficult topic, the best plan is to think about it with very great intensity, the greatest intensity of which I am capable for a few hours or days, and at the end of that time give orders, so to speak, that the work is to proceed underground. After some months, I return consciously to the topic and find that the work has been done. Before I had discovered this technique, I used to spend the intervening months worrying because I was making no progress; I arrived at the solution none the sooner for this worry, and the intervening months were wasted, whereas now I can devote them to other pursuits.”
This may seem like a long time, but you will find out it’s worth it when you make the best use of this technique for yourself (considering you have the time). Case in point: Mel Robbins took seven months longer to finish her book The 5-second Rule and claims it’s 100 times better for it.
Five Optimal Rules
Depending on how much time you are permitted or how you intend to go about it, here are five rules to help shape your creative mechanism and help you along the way.
Try to Do Only One Thing at a Time
According to the American Psychological Association, multitasking (although it may seem efficient) can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time.
The student studies and watches TV simultaneously. The entrepreneur, instead of concentrating upon and only trying to “do” the one letter that they are presently dictating, simultaneously thinks of all the things they should accomplish today, or perhaps this week, and unconsciously tries mentally to accomplish them all at once.
The habit is particularly insidious because it is seldom recognized for what it is. When we feel jittery, worried, or anxious in thinking of the great amount of work that lies before us, the jittery feelings are not caused by the work, but by our mental attitude—which is “I ought to be able to do this all at once.”
We become nervous because we are trying to do the impossible and thereby making futility and frustration inevitable. The truth is: We can only do one thing at a time. When we work with this attitude, we are relaxed, we are free from feelings of hurry and anxiety, and we can concentrate and think at our best.
Form the Habit of Consciously Responding to the Present Moment
While this bears close to the first rule, there is a fine distinction. The first one talks about physical distractions, while this one talks about mental aspirations.
Understand this: Your creative mechanism cannot function or work tomorrow. It can only function in the present—today. Plan all you want for the future. Prepare for it. But don’t try to live in tomorrow or the past. Don’t worry about how you will react tomorrow or even ten minutes from now. This is the premise of Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, which offers deeper insights into concentrating on the present.
Keep constantly in mind that the job of your creative mechanism is to respond appropriately to the present environment: here and now. If we don’t take some time to evaluate our position when we get carried away, we might continue to waste time reacting to future events or fighting ‘ghosts’ from the past.
Worry Before You Place Your Bet, not After the Wheel Starts Turning
A business executive once commented about people that gamble at roulette: “I noticed any number of people who appeared not to worry at all before placing their bets. Apparently, the odds meant nothing to them. But once the wheel started turning, they froze up and began to worry whether their number would come up or not. How silly, I thought. If they want to worry, or be concerned, or figure odds, the time to do that is before the decision is made to place a bet. There is something you can do about it then; by thinking about it or doing some quick maths, you can figure out the best odds possible or decide not to take the risk at all. But after the bets are placed and the wheel starts turning – you might as well relax and enjoy it – thinking about it is not going to do one bit of good and is wasted energy.”
This principle holds just as much in career and work. Do all you can about the task while you’ve still got the chance, and once you are done, relax and enjoy.
One of the best things you can do for your creative mechanism is to relax consciously. Just taking some time off might not exactly equate to relaxing. It’s up to you to induce physical and mental relaxation while resting.
Learning to relax can be challenging and takes practice and patience. Sometimes just standing in the sun with your eyes closed for 30 seconds can be rejuvenating. Don’t summon any memories, don’t worry about anything, just be calm. And even when you go about doing other things, induce something of that “relaxed feeling” and the relaxed attitude.
Practice this faithfully several times each day, and you will be surprised at how much it reduces fatigue and those excessive states of concern, anxiety, and tension that interfere with the efficient operation of your subtle creative mechanism.
Thomas Edison’s catnaps, J.B. Priestley’s dreamt essays, Kekule’s dream-discovery of the benzene molecule, and Otto’s Loewi’s Nobel Prize-winning discovery are only some of the many examples of breakthroughs and ideas that were made in sleep.
To buttress this idea, memory master Jim Kwik teaches the importance of keeping a notebook by the bedside to jot down any ideas one gets once getting out of the bed. It is a strategy that has worked wonders for some of the greatest minds in history and could get you the answers to some of your questions too.
Creative Procrastination Can Be Really Helpful
Considering that this may be new to you, it can take some time to get used to the process (and can be even more discomforting if you are a workaholic that enjoys staying busy).
However, this dynamic offers tremendous help that gets work done more efficiently, with less stress, and sometimes faster. It offers an insight into how to merge both hard work and relaxation to unleash creativity and maximum productivity.
Procrastination as we know it has a bad rap, and understandably so. However, this much-neglected part of the procrastination dynamic is a game-changer.