The other day I was reading the book, Original: How Non-Conformists Move the World, by Adam Grant. It’s a pretty good time if you have 300 pages to kill. In it, he has a great chapter on procrastination.
The short story is that some of the most original ideas and inventions emerged out of procrastination. He talks about Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a Dream” speech being partially improvised, and Abe Lincoln penning the “Gettysburg Address” on the train ride down, among others. He intersperses these anecdotes with scientific and psychological studies that reaffirm this counter-intuitive reality in a kind of Malcolm Gladwell way.
Anyway, this idea fits nicely into other ideas I’ve been reading and thinking about lately.
For example, in The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction, Rebecca D. Costa talks about a different form of human thinking that stands in contrast to rational and logical deductions. She calls this evolutionary advanced thought process “insight.” Insight is the practice of suppressing your thought process after absorbing information and allowing ideas to arise organically from your subconscious. The “it came to me in the shower phenomenon.” She seems to believe insight will be humanity’s salvation.
Similarly, the man himself, Malcolm Gladwell, in Blink talks about how sometimes these fraction-of-a-second blips of insight are worth more to us than simply trying to attack a problem.
All this got me thinking. Maybe there’s something into all this doing nothing.
Marinating vs Procrastinating
Unfortunately, there’s a trick in Grant’s promotion of procrastination. It only works if you’re already hell-bent on a goal. Sorry, you can’t just sit around eating hot pockets and expect the next billion-dollar idea to pop into your head.
There’ MLK with his dream of civil rights. Abe with his war. I mean, both of these guys were thinking about these things way before they got up on a stage.
And don’t forget pop culture. Don Draper gives Peggy the golden advice, “think about it deeply than take a nap.” (yeah, I know he isn’t real). I remember an interview with the writer Cormac McCarthy, talking about writing the book The Road. He said he let the story build in the back of his brain, and once his subconscious is finished writing the book, he sits down and types it out.
It appears the trick isn’t necessarily to do nothing. It’s to have an end goal in mind and relegate the hard work to your subconscious. You can’t just put off your work. You have to commit to thinking and practice something deeply, and then be smart enough to take a long break.
Maybe I’m just hungry, but this sounds to me a lot less like procrastinating, and a whole lot more like marinating.
The Real World
But marination isn’t easy!
There’s this insidious thing about our world. You have to look busy. People hate it when you look idle. At school, they think you’re slacking. At work, they don’t think they’re getting value out of you. This is a lie, and you must free yourself of it.
Now, maybe this is fine for unintellectual labors. In the factory, if you stop pulling the lever or let the assembly line slack, sure, you’re probably costing the company money.
This doesn’t work for intellectual labor. Whenever you’re pushing the boundaries of your intellect in some sort of problem solving or creative capacity, you can’t expect your brain to keep up with a machine. That’s not how it works.
Think about what your brain is good at. We don’t have computers on our necks. We’re not processing equations and managing spreadsheet. Our brain isn’t a calculator, it’s a cartographer. We are good at seeing patterns.
Computers freak out when there’s missing data. Us, we thrive on figuring out creative solutions for absent variables. This is why humans have eureka moments and computers add and divide.
The problem, and where computers kind of win, is that this takes us TIME. We have to absorb large quantities of data for our brains to sift through. We can’t just upload databases. Then, we have to give it time to process. We have to wait, think, and look bored.
We must marinate.
Work towards a vision, not a product
Here’s the trick to break free from the tyranny of looking busy. Don’t think of work as a product. Think of work as a process. If you’ve committed to the process, not the product, you’re not limiting yourself. You can acknowledge that work can take many shapes. It’s sometimes, but not always, as concrete as reading and writing. Likewise, it’s not always staring out the window thinking deep thoughts. It’s the pairing of work and marination that leads to deep, original ideas.
In the book Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about how he composed countless academic papers while running and bike riding between work and home. Now, of course, this was buttressed by intense research in his office. The point is that it’s the isolation, the separation from that concrete work that adds the special value to the process and leads to great, original ideas.
Let’s take this blog post, for example. I didn’t just sit down and write it. I made a brief outline with a suggested amount of words per subheading and then walked away from it for days. Now I’m back just pumping words on the page, and now again, putting the finishing touches. And you know what. With each touch, it stems out into new and interesting angles I wouldn’t have thought about during my first go around.
Good work takes many shapes. But those bold awesome ideas, they pop up only after deep thought and then distraction: while I’m folding laundry, while I’m in the shower, or maybe while I’m at work doing something totally different.
If you don’t rush towards the end, and you believe in the benefit of allowing your brain to marinate, you can slow down. You can recognize that the writing isn’t something that only happens in front of the computer. It’s something that is ALWAYS happening.
The only secret is to prime the pump.
If you read my blog, you know my agile method, which I think allows for this type of work quite well, but really, you don’t need to go through all that to get started.
Here are some tips to start:
- Spend some time defining the problem or outcome. Do you want to write a song? Maybe think of a business idea? Figure out what will happen in Act 2 of your play? Define what it is you want to figure out!
- Short term goals should only be process related. What you do today shouldn’t be about creating a final draft. Instead, short-term goals should be time-based. For example, “I will spend 1 hour working and thinking about this problem,” not “I will develop a blog post in 1 hour.”
- Stop midway through. Hemingway used to stop writing in the middle of sentences. The idea was to stop before you were done, so when you came back you wouldn’t be looking at any closed doors.
- Constantly absorb new information – read books, web pages, listen to all kinds of music, scan blogs. Don’t stop. Ever. This is the stuff that new ideas are made of.
- DO set hard, long-term goals. The one drawback of this process is that you’ll never end. It is important to cut the cord at some point and call something done. Especially if completion is built around your long-term goals. Know when to stop. Define it. Deadlines can be important on occasion.
Let me know next time you marinate!