“-crastination”, Creativity & the Importance of Downtime

A colleague who was in my Civil Procedure class when I was a baby law professor tells me that what he remembers best from the class is my comment along the lines of:  “When you are stuck  — can’t make sense of what you are reading, struggling with a project — take a break, do something else, work in the garden.  When you come back to your task after clearing your mind, you’ll make better progress.”  (An illustration of Judith Wegner’s recent reflections on teaching, emphasizing sharing what we know??)  I have no memory of making such a comment (and no, it’s not old age kicking in; I couldn’t remember when he told me about it 15 years ago). But I like to think it’s something I would have said.

I was reminded of this story when I read the recent NY Times column “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate” by Adam Grant.   A professor of management & psychology, Grant is a self-proclaimed pre-crastinator who habitually used to meet deadlines in advance —  even months in advance for big projects!  Now, however, he’s trying to train himself to, as he terms it, procrastinate. Citing experiments by one of his graduate students showing that people were rated as more creative in coming up with new business ideas when they engaged in an unrelated activity for five minutes before answering the question, Grant  argues that procrastination can be a good thing.

This blog post is testament to the potential value of procrastinating.  When I read the column I was, in fact, procrastinating on my blogging efforts.  Reading a bit aimlessly, casting around for a topic. And voila, thanks to Grant, I found one.

Nonetheless, I happen to think that Grant fails to distinguish between people who are truly procrastinating  and those who simply  operate at a pace that provides downtime for recharging and percolating.  In my book, procrastinators stick their heads in the proverbial sand, put off the task, often feeling guilty or stressed about it, but aren’t necessarily mentally percolating it. For instance, until I became an attorney and my point of view was dictated, I habitually put off writing projects until the deadline loomed.  Unable to “find truth in fifteen pages”  — or worse, engage in creative writing — and not understanding that the point was typically the less daunting one of saying something interesting, I froze until the pressure of the deadline overcame the urge to procrastinate. I suspect that the delay was rarely  generative, as I won’t think hard, unless I write.  And it certainly left no time for the multiple drafts required for quality work. Prescribing procrastination for students like my younger self? Not productive.

With many present day law students, the challenge seems less to be procrastination of the type I struggled with, and more actual lack of time.  So many of our students are simply waaay over-committed.  In the current environment, students seem to feel they must take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself. I suspect that for them, the remedy is learning to say to to over-busyness, incorporating the periodic downtime that a more human pace allows.  And we could do them a big favor by helping them with that process.  Whether we call that procrastination, or not.

 

 

 

 

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