Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On the Benefits of ProcrastiNation

 Now leaving Procrasti Nation. Next stop: Insomniaville!

Last December, I was introduced to the concept of ProcrastiNation, via a cartoon from a friend's Facebook page. Here's the graphic, by the artist John Atkinson:

According to the map, I have visited several of these fair provinces. I don't spend a lot of time in Solitaireitory and Snack Sector.  I keep meaning to revisit Doodle District, but get caught up in the Range of Excuses for why I need to spend time elsewhere. My time in the other districts is controlled by several factors, including the need to put food on the table. The picture is funny for two reasons. First of all, I don't know a single person who cannot relate to having done some of these behaviours and achieving some of its "exports". Second of all, its clever play on words. But at the same time it is funny, it makes me think.It's true that procrastination can be  a great drain when taken to extremes, but indulging in some of the behaviours illustrated in the graphic can also be a tremendous boon, particularly in jobs requiring creative, novel solutions.

First of all, creativity is an inborn skill that must be practiced. No one comes to the Earth uncreative. Just like no one maintains their creativity without devoting time to it. But being creative is not something you can do constantly  without replenishment. Think of creativity like a short-order cook in a diner. You come to the diner, you need something fast and original done fairly speedily. Maybe your boss is breathing down your neck about a report that they want done yesterday. Maybe you have to come up with an alternative method of instructing place value to a group of seven year-olds who aren't responding to the textbook methods of explaining this concept. Maybe you want to start up a fantasy weblog about space chimps from the planet Grobotznik who go around delivering pizzas for a living. Whatever the reason, if the diner hasn't gotten a lot of business lately, you might not get your food as speedily as you might like, because the manager may have cut back on staffing due to low demand (decreased practice).  Sometimes you have the reverse situation -- a flurry of customers who all are standing around indignantly waiting for their orders to come through. It doesn't matter that there is only one chef when they needed it yesterday. While the chef will do their best to keep up, the goods available to be transformed into creative meals  will be rapidly reduced. In order to maintain proper productivity levels in the diner of your mind, it is essential to get those goods restocked so the diner can continue on doing what it does best -- speedy productions of food. Or creative ideas, as the case may be. Which in our case cannot be recharged with by going to the grocery store, but by distraction, rest or exposure to new thoughts and ideas. 

Distraction, rest and exposure to new thoughts and ideas are three key ways to replenish the mental stores of creativity. They also number six out of the eight possible provinces of ProcrastiNation: Napland, Snack Sector, Game Zone, Doodle District, Surfside and Solitaireitory. In the category of rest, we have Napland and Snack Sector. By taking care of the body's physical needs helps ensure that it is not suffering needless physical strains that can be avoided. Plus, any dreams that may occur during visits to Napland can be plumbed for possible new ideas. In the realm of exposure to new ideas, Surfside, with its visits to social media, random Googling of information, and exploring sites and links recommended by others can provide raw materials to be synthesized into new, creative means of expression. Finally, Game Zone, Doodle District and Solitaireitory provide distraction to the brain that has already been given commands to perform a particular task; to cook some concepts into a new idea, if you will. But like our chef in the diner baking a cake, we do not need to be standing around waiting for the cooking time to elapse. Instead, we can let our subconscious work on it while we use our time doing other, more fun, things.

Replenishing stores of necessary items would seem to be a no-brainer; the chef can't cook without raw materials. However, there are two problems standing in way of the chef: the new leaner, meaner business culture and the traditional "Protestant work ethic". The current business model seems to be cutting staffing closer and closer to the bone in order to reduce costs, by making a single employee do the work of not just one person, but often two, three or even four former employees. While this may look good to shareholders in the short term-- the primary focus of many businesses-- in the long term it's incredibly short sighted. People under the pressure of  performing the roles of four people do not have the opportunity to let their minds lie fallow for short periods. There is a constant pressure to produce or be fired. But is that pressure making for better, safer products? Simple logic would tell you the answer is no. This is where the Protestant work ethic comes into play. Instead of acknowledging the importance of small breaks in productivity, in order to ensure that there is continued productivity, there is a suspicion of slacking off. A suspicion that, when combined with the new business culture, leads to pressure to never be seen letting their brains lie fallow, lest they be joining the ranks of the newly unemployed. 

Now, I'm not saying by any means that slothful people who are never productive should get carte blanche. And I am definitely not saying that continual procrastination is a positive trend to be encouraged. Far from it; when taken to extremes, frequent procrastination can lead to feelings of low self esteem, being distrusted by superiors and a general attitude by all and sundry that one is a lazy good-for-nothing. But it seems to me that of the eight zones listed in the ProcrastiNation image, only two of them are truly negative: Isle Get It Done and Range of Excuses. The rest of them, properly managed, can be a means of adding variety and maintaining top mental fitness for the jobs we have at hand. So, don't forget to stock your mental supplies so your chef can keep on working!

Now that I've finished this essay, it's time for me to get back to work!