Start early, procrastinate steadily

Leandro Cota Hevia
5 min readDec 6, 2021

Procrastination. The action of voluntarily delaying something despite knowing that there will be negative consequences for doing so. Such a great concept, it is like one of those compound words in the German language that describe a situation so perfectly that you just want to have an opportunity to use them.

But this article is not about defining procrastination, nor about mentioning the very numerous situations in which it is a pernicious habit. It is rather an attempt to find the reasons why I find that on many, many occasions, procrastination serves as a tool to get better results on certain types of tasks.

It works as follows. When I need to complete a task that I know I won’t be able to complete in a sitting, I try anyway to start working on that task as soon as I can dedicate a good-focused effort to it. This implies getting to a tremendously horrendous first draft, or at least just sitting down and googling for a while, randomly reading related articles, documents, and slowly beginning to understand the situation at hand. Performing, in summary, a first superficial dive.

After that, I let procrastination kick in. And even though I won’t be making any tangible progress, the fact of being already submerged in the problem will lead me to continue to think about it, looking for answers wherever and whenever they become available.

As a programmer until a few years ago, and now as an engineering manager, I am quite used to problems lurking in the back of my head and solutions appearing right in the middle of doing something completely unrelated. It happens when I am walking, taking a shower, or at that precise moment when I am just about to fall asleep and I need to push myself very, very hard just to have a thought written down so I don’t forget about it in the morning.

For this problem-solving creativity to get going, however, I do need to be already immersed in the problem I am addressing, the article I am writing, or in the plan that I am trying to consolidate. And the mere fact of starting to work on it as soon as the situation is in my scope, even if I can only dedicate the minimum amount of time required to have the less elegant coding solution or the most awful writing draft, is very often good enough.

I think that this has to do with the fact that from the moment that you start to really think about a problem and until it reaches its deadline, you will be searching for ideas, looking for clues in every unrelated thing that you do. Your mind will be on a quest. Alert. Hunting for elements of a movie, a song, or passages of a book that could somehow help you. As Aaron Sorkin puts it: You call it procrastination, I call it thinking.

This is also probably related to the fact that there are certain types of tasks that can only be done in long uninterrupted stretches, when inspiration hits, rather than dutifully in scheduled little slices.

The French mathematician Poincare described how his breakthroughs occurred while traveling on the bus or walking by the seaside. Agatha Christie reported that ideas for her crime stories often came while washing up or having a bath. “I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness.”

There are many reasons why a period of incubation could lead to new inventive insights. When we leave a certain task, the brain continues to look for solutions below awareness, until a solution pops out. Just as importantly, a period of incubation allows us to gain some psychological distance from it. When you spend a long time focusing on one problem, you can become fixated on certain obvious solutions, and a period of incubation should help to widen your mental focus so that you can make connections and come back to the problem with a new perspective

Here is an interesting story on creativity that came to my mind just because the writing of this article coincides with one of the greatest displays of inspiration that I have ever witnessed: The Beatles composing Get Back.

Paul McCartney famously says that he dreamed of the song Yesterday. When he woke up, the first thing that he did was to write it down, and the second one was to go on a London record store tour to verify if he was indeed creating a song, or just remembering one. This serves as another good example of the creative process: It does not work on demand, it can be triggered in a dream, during a walk, or at any random situation, but it does require immersion and knowledge. On top of this, we have an advantage over Paul: in most cases, we won’t need to verify if someone else already implemented the same solution for a problem. Reusability is rewarded in our industry. And of course, creativity is not only about invention, it is also about finding relations between existing problems and solutions.

In summary, taking time for thinking about a task, either consciously or unconsciously, could enrich the way you address it if there is an amount of creativity that is needed. But that creativity can only be triggered when in your mind you have something that is more processed than a to-do list you have not yet given any thoughts to.

I do need to mention a few warnings though. If a task does not benefit from the creative boost that results from having it lurking in the back of your head, then it is probably better to complete it as soon as you can, so that it doesn’t occupy in your head a mental space that it is not worthy of. I deal with these tasks in the company of a good playlist, headphones, and caffeine in the form of Mate. Also, there is an interesting remark made by Tim Urban in his famous Ted Talk on procrastination. When a task does not have a deadline, procrastinating on it could be an extremely dangerous thing to do, because it is quite possible that, with no hard incentive to finalize it, we could end up just postponing it without ever thinking about it, delaying it in aeternum

But if you start a creative task — and a creative task is not only writing a book or composing a symphony, there are presentations, plans, and even emails in the daily business activities that require a certain amount of creativity — and you complete that task without giving it a minimum amount of time to mature in your head, the end result will not be as good as the one that you would get otherwise, if you allow the processes that run in the back of your head to do their magic. And procrastination, used in its right measure, could be a very powerful tool for doing just that.