The First Law of Design Dynamics
A Hundred to One

The Proper Place for Procrastination


I've been putting off writing about procrastination for some time now. I thought I knew what I wanted to say, but now that the subject has rattled around my brain for so many days, I'm not quite so sure.

This is the curse of being an iterative design thinker—the longer you mull over solutions for a big problem, the more options you end up considering for the result. Possibilities shift and morph in your mind like taffy. Arguments and counter-arguments scrape and spark, misaligned gears in a house-sized machine that keeps chugging along no matter how hard you try to feed it another subject... unless you're dealing with a well-defined problem. Solutions can appear fully formed, like magic. These "rabbit out of the hat" moments seem like the norm in our community, but we are rarely clocked upside the head with a stellar idea, ten feet tall and luminous, just like the sign letting travelers know that you have arrived in Las Vegas.

Gigantic problems must be chipped away, slowly but surely, until the solution emerges from paring away excess. Opportunities come out of nowhere, but the ideas in our mind must be given form before they can be regarded as proper. Otherwise, we're just thinking some more.

So I think I've hit upon the right rhythm for how to incorporate procrastination into my daily routine. It required me to draw a very hard line between rumination—which is critical for doing creative work—and procrastination. If the chart above shows what my daily work process had been like in the past, the following one shows what it looks like now:


Rumination is taking a walk around the block after doing a round of sketches or designing some wireframes. It's eating, sleeping, exercising, and otherwise being fully in my body and focused on one continuous experience. Doing integrative practices such as yoga has almost become a struggle for me, because when I lie down to meditate puzzle pieces are falling into place.

Procrastination is none of those things above that I'd mentioned. Every time I try to distract myself with catching up on my Google Reader or checking Facebook, I am avoiding active engagement with the task at hand. A designer never wants to be driven by the fear that this is the one time they won't produce the right solution, or complete the task they have at hand. (As an aside—just while I was writing this paragraph, I ended up reading reviews for a book on Amazon I was thinking about buying. That sure didn't help me complete this paragraph... in a manner of speaking.)

Being curious is a curse for many designers. When I have a few days until a big deadline, I enjoy reading books, talking with friends about what interests they are pursuing, and otherwise letting the current problems du jour simmer in the back of my mind until I have a coherent point of view. When faced with the choice between checking email and putting more time against the (still insoluble) problem, I check my email. I've got time, right? I can just bang something out that will be good.

Not anymore. These past few years, I've been dealing with bigger and bigger problems in work and in my writing, and that has required focused, dedicated, scheduled, and mindful attention. So any time I don't schedule procrastination into my daily routine, meaning a smattering of time each morning and night to check the social medias and some blogs, I risk losing focus in the midst of an activity that demands every ounce of my energy to make serious headway.

At first, this change in my behavior has been a great struggle, as I meander endlessly through the margins when given enough leash. Being connected is also a challenge. My iPhone sure doesn't help this problem, which has led me to leaving it on Airplane Mode for whole chunks of the day. This means I'm out of touch with people for much larger periods of time—but when I do have a chance to connect with them for a substantial amount of time, I can provide them with my immediate attention.

That, to me, is the definition of procrastination in the domain of design: to distract yourself from providing attention to what must be done, rather than distract yourself with the purpose of improving what must be done (better). The latter is rumination, and should be fostered in its appropriate place and time.

I continue to dream of the day that I will be lying on a beach, not a care in the world, napping lazily and considering what big problem I will have to solve next. But to get there, I think I have a little more work to do. Starting now.


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