Sunday Snippet: Adam Grant on Originality and Procrastination

“Procrastinating is a vice when it comes to productivity, but it can be a virtue for creativity. What you see with a lot of great originals is that they are quick to start but they’re slow to finish.”

It’s far too easy to get distracted on the Internet. You’re interested in what your friends are doing on Facebook. You are drawn in by funny cat videos on YouTube. You troll your way around stories on Reddit. All the while, the work that you should actually be doing continues to pile up on your virtual desk, waiting for your attention. Procrastination is evil, right? Maybe not.

In his TED talk on the surprising habits of original thinkers, Wharton psychology professor Adam Grant explains that while procrastination may be preventing you from being productive, it could be helping you be more creative. And sometimes that’s more important.

Let’s say that you have a project that you’d like to complete or a problem that you would like to solve. If you simply sit at your desk and try to grind it out for hours on end, it’s true that you might be more productive. At the same time, the resulting solution may not be all that original. You’re just using the first answer that comes to mind, which is likely the same answer that anyone else might offer.

Now, let’s say instead that you start working on that project, but then you get distracted by all the other things on your to do list. You embrace the concept of “precrastination” and start to tackle tomorrow’s problems rather than focusing your energy on what needs to be done today. Meanwhile, that original project continues to stew in the back of your mind.

Even if you are not paying attention to it consciously, it continues to sit on the back burner. It simmers. And when you least expect it, you might come up with a truly original way of tackling that project or solving that problem. And you may not have come up with this original idea if you had focused on that project the whole time. The human mind is a curious thing.

In his newest book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant explores how you can battle conformity and originate new ideas. It’s a New York Times best seller, even winning the praise of famed author and original thinker Malcolm Gladwell. By going against the grain and seeing the world through a new perspective, you can improve the status quo for yourself and for the world at large.

“If you look across fields, the greatest originals are the ones who fail the most, because they’re the ones who try the most. Take classical composers, the best of the best. Why do some of them get more pages in encyclopedias than others and also have their compositions rerecorded more times? One of the best predictors is the sheer volume of compositions that they generate. The more output you churn out, the more variety you get and the better your chances of stumbling on something truly original.”

This isn’t necessarily about putting hundreds of monkeys in a room with hundreds of typewriters, hoping that they’ll produce the next Hamlet. That said, original thinking oftentimes takes this sort of shotgun approach. You throw everything at the wall and see what sticks. Original thinkers have a habit of wanting to start all sorts of projects, even if they never quite complete them all.

During my most prolific time at one online tech magazine, I was consistently churning out some 20 news articles a day. I was a machine. Even though they weren’t necessarily my best work, this experience taught me the value of being prolific. The more you do, the more likely something might stick. And if you procrastinate with some other side projects along the way, that’s okay too.

You just might break new ground and come up with something truly original.