This post is the final post in a series investigating the ways that procrastination
influences and is influenced by the way the brain works. Here is part 1
and here is part 2.
By now, most of the working world has come around to the idea that breaks
improve productivity because tired workers don't do good work, and they don't
do it very quickly. But there's another reason you should make sure that you
take breaks in your work: it makes you more creative. Have you ever gotten a
great idea for something when you were taking a shower? There's a reason that
tends to happen.
The brain thinks in two modes, called the focused mode and the diffuse mode.
The focused mode is exactly what it sounds like. You're concentrating
intensely on something and putting all of your energy into solving the problem
at hand. The diffuse mode is when you're not doing that, and your mind can
wander freely from idea to idea. The focused mode is great for analyzing new
facts and patterns, as well as applying the ones you already know. It helps you
figure out the fine details of a problem and how to make things work together
seamlessly. The diffuse mode, on the other hand, is good for making new
connections and approaching problems in new ways. Essentially, your brain is
rubbing together the ideas it already has and seeing what makes sparks start
These two modes work best if you can alternate between them. Focused thinking
lets you pick up new ideas, diffuse thinking lets you bounce the new ideas off
of each other to create more new ideas from them, and then another session of
focused thinking lets you explore those newer ideas in detail and flesh them out.
Lather, rinse, repeat. It's simple! Unfortunately, that doesn't necessarily mean
that it's easy.
A huge amount of literature on how to be productive relies on scheduling, and
while schedules can indeed be very helpful, diffuse thinking takes more effort
to integrate with a schedule than focused thinking does. Scheduling is easiest
when one knows exactly how long a task will take to finish, and while making
time estimates is always hard,
making time estimates for a diffuse thinking breakthrough is especially hard,
since returns can be unpredictable. On top of that, it can feel lazy or
self-indulgent to set aside time for diffuse thinking. It doesn't feel like what
we've come to expect work to be. This makes some people try to count the time they
spend working on one task as diffuse thinking time on another task, and while
this sometimes works if the task you're working on is somewhat brainless (e.g.
taking a shower, washing dishes, folding clothes), you have to be careful
when you're trying this kind of substitution that you're actually clearing
your mind and not making it stay in the focused mode for your new task.
Since it's so hard to schedule creativity, it's a good idea to give yourself
generous amounts of time in which to create, and that's where procrastination
enters the picture. When you procrastinate, you force yourself to do your
creative work in one long sitting, which
stifles your diffuse thinking and hence your creativity. So when you know you'll
have to get creative for something you're working on, fight the urge, and start
early! The sooner you focus, the more time you give yourself to have that
breakthrough while you're shampooing.
A Brief Summary
So what have we learned in our past three weeks together? (After all, repetition
is a virtue!) In order to create, you have to think diffusely, and that takes
time. In order to learn and remember, you have to repeat over several days and
take the time to do, rather than simply read. That takes time, too. Since
procrastination deprives you of time, it's not compatible with maximal learning
or creativity. What's worse, there are biological factors making
all of us want to do it. The good news is that the urge to procrastinate falls
off quickly, so a little bit of grit might be all you need to get past it.
I hope this brief look into the biology of procrastination was interesting and
useful to you. I personally find it a lot easier to follow advice when I know
why it's supposed to work, so even if you didn't hear any recommendations from
this you hadn't heard before, I hope you've gained some background that makes
the strategies you already know a bit more convincing. Keep fighting the good
About This Series
I wrote this series to relate some of the things I learned in Learning How to Learn,
a course on Coursera taught by Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski. Any
assertions I've made about how the brain works (as well as the term "metabolic
vampires") is taken from there. I am usually very skeptical of anything that
essentially claims to make you smarter, but I hoped a course with the backing
of a UCSD neuroscientist would stay clear of anything pseudoscientific. The
material might not be quite what I'd call university-caliber, nor the production
values Hollywood-caliber, but it was very approachable and
gave me some interesting new approaches for self-improvement. If you're
interested in taking it yourself, another session of the class is starting in
January. If you just plan on following along and don't think
you'll do the assignments (which, admittedly, is what I did), you can join up
and read through the material at your own pace. If you'd like a more interactive
experience, however, make sure you join an active session. The session I
participated in had over 170,000 students, so I suspect they'll be offering this
course for the foreseeable future.