Artful Procrastination (Clint Watson)

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Artful Procrastination

Why mastering the art of procrastination is essential to creating great art

"An oil painting of an artist procrastinating with a lot of paperwork in the background" generated by OpenAI's DALL-E

I find the best way to be productive is to simply ignore all the stuff I "should" do and just do the thing I am want to do. [1]

Unfortunately, that often results in a file cabinet full of months' worth of accounting paperwork that has been ignored and is now backlogged. It results in QuickBooks entries that I have to catch up on. It results in emails that are ignored for too long. And, it results in bottlenecks in our company because everyone is waiting for me to finish something that I've committed to do.

Nevertheless, I wasn't put on this earth to do paperwork, accounting and emails. I was put here to create. To bring ideas from zero to one. To create art, which for me is writing (essays or code). So yes, I procrastinate so that I may create. And, in the end, it's not that hard to catch up on bank reconciliations - but it's almost impossible to rekindle an ignored creative spark at a later time.

Let's explore that idea further. I'm often accused of being a procrastinator. Yesterday, my wife accused me of being "artistic" in my ability to procrastinate. When she said that, I don't think she meant it as a compliment, but perhaps, if you think about it, it was one. I've decided to call it Artful Procrastination.

Consider what Paul Graham wrote about procrastination :

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I'd argue, is good procrastination....Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work.

- Paul Graham

To those whose work isn't creative, that last bit sounds like a hollow excuse, after all, errands and accounting are "real work" in a sense. But, I suspect that most people, even non-creatives, would agree that errands and accounting constitute "small stuff", which implies that some other types of work besides errands and accounting must be something closer to "big stuff". So let's distill what Paul said into a more general concept:

"Good procrastination is avoiding small stuff to do big stuff."

Of course, that's meaningless without some definitions. Fortunately, Paul provides us with a good definition of "small stuff" - "What's 'small stuff?'", he asks, "Roughly, small stuff is work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary. " This statement, necessarily, means "big stuff" must be work that has a good chance of being mentioned in your obituary.

The problem is that none of us really know, ahead of time, which works are going to be "obituary worthy" and which are going to be crap. We have to invest the time and energy to create them to find out.

Every artist produces some terrible artwork. I've sure produced a metric ton of badly written essays and code.

Unfortunately, you don't get to choose to create only the good ones. If you want to produce the diamonds, you have to produce all of the coal. Therefore, your only choice, if you want to do great work, is to produce all of them.

And if you have to produce all of them to get the "obituary worthy" diamonds, then the way to create the greatest art possible is to stop whatever you're doing and create every single time inspiration strikes.

Remember: It's not that hard to catch up on bank reconciliations - it's (nearly) impossible to get that creative spark back if you don't strike while the iron is hot.

So, when does inspiration strike and can we control it?

Gwen Stefani said it much more eloquently than I can:

Sometimes it's so hard to find what it is I'm trying to say. People might think you can turn creativity on and off, but it's not like that. It just kind of comes out. A mash up of all these things you collect in your mind. You never know when it's gonna happen, but when it's like magic. It's just that simple and it's just that hard.

- Gwen Stefani [source]

If what Gwen said above is true, and, in my experience, it is, then the answer is no - we can't totally control when inspiration strikes. And that means that when it does, we must be prepared to drop our plans and follow it.

So let's summarize my hypothesis:

If, to maximize your chances of creating great art, you have to pursue inspiration every time it strikes and, if you never know when it's going to strike, then, to produce great work, you will, necessarily have to "blow off" some tasks if you want to take advantage of that inspiration.

So you tell me - when inspiration does strike, should you head to the studio and start creating or should you run errands?

And the funny thing is, the more you create, the more it happens. It's a self-sustaining feedback loop. So, for those who do great work, inspiration strikes a lot. [2] Therefore, a lot of the stuff creative-types "should" be doing gets "procrastinated." And the more creative one becomes, the more likely the other things (the "small stuff") are to be put off.

And, consequently, the rest of the world thinks that artists are "flakey."

But now you know that's really a compliment.

Until next time, please remember that Fortune Favors the Bold Brush.


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Clint Watson

BoldBrush & FASO Founder / Art Fanatic


[1] By "want to do" I meant more broadly - the "great work I want to do." I'm not saying that you can simply drop everything and drink margaritas on the beach because that's what you "want to do."

[2] Even with the best of intentions, inspiration still sometimes strikes at the most inopportune moments. It's impossible to always drop everything and act on it. I picture a great warehouse out in the cosmos full of great work that was never realized because the spark was not acted upon. It makes me a little sad to think that those "lost" great works are denied from this world forever. When this happens, the best bet is to jot down the idea and hope you can get the spark back next time you're in the zone.

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