Procrastinate Your Way to Productivity

Michael Soto
September 1, 2020

I’m late.
I’m late.
For a very important date.
No time to say “Hello, Goodbye”.
I’m late, I’m late, I’m late.

– White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland

With so many projects and deadlines, we are repeatedly told the importance of learning time management skills.  Make sure you’re progressing steadily, and don’t leave for tomorrow what you can do today.  In this context, the key to productivity is presented as squeezing as much work out of every last second as possible.  While many of us still implicitly operate with this outdated Tayloristic thinking, much of the cutting edge management thinking has moved on.  By contrast what we may really need is to learn how to strategically waste time.

We are not machines, nor are we working on problems that simply require hard work and sweat.  Much of our work is knowledge based and requires coming up with creative solutions to new problems.  To be at our best when confronting these challenges we need a new approach to time management, and ultimately a new understanding of how to be productive.

A central part of this change is seeing ‘down time’ as productive, and even further, seeing it as absolutely necessary.  It is wrong to think that if we ‘aren’t doing anything we are [necessarily] wasting time.’  Below are three potential benefits to what is too often denigrated as a waste of time: creativity, space to think big, and building relationships.

For instance, Wharton Professor Adam Grant has repeatedly made the argument for procrastination.  The term implicitly brings to mind the unproductive bum, and yet Grant’s research has repeatedly shown the link between procrastination and breakthrough innovation.  In The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers (TED Video), Grant highlights the example of one of his students and fellow co-founders whom he misjudged for not having their act together, not realizing that in the background they were mulling over the challenge and coming up with a new take on how to enter the market.  Had they rushed forward they would have inevitably gone to market with the same approach as everyone else – and failed.  Instead they started the hugely successful Warby Parker.

In a separate case, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner discusses The Importance of Scheduling Nothing.  Weiner emphasizes that a day packed full of meetings is draining and doesn’t leave space for moving beyond short-term tactical thinking to more long-term strategic thinking.  “if you don’t take the time to think proactively you will increasingly find yourself reacting to your environment rather than influencing it.”  Weiner admits it is easy to fall into an endless cycle hopelessly attempting to finish all the work piled on one’s desk, and it is precisely for this reason that one must actively block off time to do nothing.  This has similarly been emphasized by Martine HaasMark Mortensen as “structured unstructured time” in their Harvard Business Review article, The Secrets of Great Teamwork:

a practice called “structured unstructured time”—that is, time blocked off in the schedule to talk about matters not directly related to the task at hand. Often this is done by reserving the first 10 minutes of teamwide meetings for open discussion… This helps people develop a more complete picture of distant colleagues, their work, and their environment.

At Spark we have systematized this process and focused it towards meeting new colleagues across the company.  Many people have made the observation that having coffee with colleagues is such a wonderfully simple idea, and while in principle people can certainly meet without Spark the problem is that in practice they don’t.  Meeting with colleagues is not generally seen as something work related, unless it is directly related to a joint project.  Consequently, faced with the pressures of daily life the urgent pushes out the important.
Make sure that you block off time to do nothing, and grab coffee with a new colleague to get creative juices flowing as you naturally explore your company and your work from different perspectives  It is so easy that you could start doing it yourself today, but for even larger impact think about rolling out such an initiative across your company.  If you’d like some help, contact us, we’d be happy to!

Michael Soto is the co-founder of Spark Collaboration.  Spark helps organizations connect their stakeholders to share ideas face-to-face. Using Spark, organizations can match stakeholders one-on-one for real-time social interactions. By meeting over coffee, lunch or video, stakeholders can create real social connections that can help them be more connected, innovative and ultimately more productive.