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Let your ideas percolate: six steps to producing better work

Instead of sprinting through the tasks on your to-do list, sometimes it pays to allow yourself time to develop your ideas.

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Some time back, I posted blogger Tim Urban’s excellent piece on the mind of the procrastinator on my social media. Readers loved it. Urban’s keen insights and his funny drawings illustrating the mind of a procrastinator captivated my readers.

Full disclosure: I am not a procrastinator. By nature I am a PREcrastinator. That’s psychologist Adam Grant’s term for people like himself (and me) who can’t stand to have any deadline hanging over our heads. In his TED talk on original thinkers,  Grant put it this way: “You know that panic you feel a few hours before a big deadline when you haven’t done anything yet? I just feel that a few months ahead of time.”

That’s me. All my life, I’ve focused on finishing tasks LONG before they were due. In college, I panicked on the first day of every semester as I faced those syllabi full of deadlines. I immediately tackled the research papers and projects. I finished a dissertation in two years, something almost unheard of among history Ph.D.s. When I started teaching, I finished most of my lecture notes and power points before the semester started. I graded papers the day after students handed them in.

In many ways, this approach served me well.  I churned out books and articles. Students loved that I returned papers quickly. And I have never once pulled an all-nighter to finish a project by deadline. Not one single time. (I know: you procrastinators are calling me nasty names under your breath right now.)

But late in my teaching career, I began to see that there were real liabilities to being a prescrastinator. Too often, I cranked out the work, but I didn’t give it enough time to incubate in my brain, so it didn’t reflect my best thinking. I’d finish it, check it off my to-do list, and never think about it again—at least not until months later when I would re-read it and lament all the things I could have improved.

Looking back, I can see that I did my best work when I slowed down. For example, I still believe that my first book, All We Knew Was To Farm, was my best because I spent eight years working on it. In that time, I had a lot of time to think about what my research meant and to find the right ways to say what I wanted to say.

In his book OriginalsHow Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant found that there is a sweet spot when it comes to procrastination. Extreme procrastinators tended to produce shoddy work—when they finished at all. On the other hand, prescrastinators like me often produced work that was not very original. But people who took time to incubate their ideas tended to be more creative. Grant said, “One of the things that really happens when you slow down is you keep [the project] active in your working memory. And it can be really good for the task that you haven’t quite solved yet.”

These days, I’m trying to find that sweet spot Grant talked about. I’m trying to let my ideas percolate slowly.

I’ve developed a six-step process to do that.

  1. I start with the brainstorming. For example, to write a blog post, I may jot down a quotation or a comment about an article I’ve read or a podcast I heard. I put that sticky note on my computer cover so that I see it every time I open it.
  2. The daily reminder gets my unconscious mind thinking about the theme. I generate other ideas and run across related information. I add notes to my sticky note. Soon I have sticky notes attached to the sticky notes.
  3. I’ll review my sticky note(s) before I get in the shower or take a walk. My thoughts begin to come together in my head. I slowly figure out what I want to say. I begin composing in my head. I may add some more notes to the sticky note.
  4. I block off an hour on my schedule to draft the post.  At the appointed time, I sit down and start drafting. I don’t worry too much about making it pretty or smooth. I just get the ideas on paper.
  5. I set it aside a few days, and my mind continues to work on it while I do other things. I may scribble some thoughts about revision on the draft.
  6. At last—sometimes a month after the idea was generated—I sit down and polish the draft.  It’s a much better piece—a deeper and more nuanced piece–than if I had dashed it off on the day the idea occurred to me.

I’ll never be able to wait until the last minute to complete important tasks. That generates anxiety that keeps me awake nights. But I’m striving not to fall back into old habits of sprinting through a project. Putting the coffeepot on the back burner on low is proving to be a good strategy.

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