How to Procrastinate and Still Be a Creative Genius
A short guide to the counterintuitive advice for producing your best work.
It’s the year 1496.
You, a random observer, perhaps a time traveler, happen to stumble upon the great Leonardo da Vinci painting one of the most recognizable paintings in the world— The Last Supper.
Leonardo stares at the painting for an hour. Scrutinizing every detail, going through every single possibility within his mind. He spends an agonizing amount of time doing nothing but staring at his painting.
Then, he makes one single brushstroke and leaves.
He’s done for the day.
You say to yourself, “wow, this guy is the least productive person I’ve ever seen”, as you climb back into your DeLorean.
It took Leonardo da Vinci 3 years to paint The Last Supper, and maybe a substantial portion of it wasn’t spent on painting. But was that time actually wasted?
Let’s reframe “procrastination” as a subset of active work.
Everyone procrastinates on a daily basis, regardless of whether we’re aware of it. It’s normal to procrastinate. If you don’t, you’re either a robot or lying.
But in order for procrastination to produce amazing results, it requires actual work to procrastinate.
Suppose we have two modes of thinking: Amusement mode and Ejection mode.
Ejection mode is what most people think of when they think of creativity or productivity in general. This is what comes to mind when someone mentions “active work”. It’s the “speedy” mode, where you know that there’s a lot of work to do and not much time to do it.
In Ejection mode, you’re spewing stuff out of your mind, in the form of something that is useful for yourself or others. You’re taking all of that pent up creative energy and ejecting it from the depths of your mind in a frenzied burst of passion, like ejecting from a fighter jet. This is a common theme in artistic depictions of the “mad genius” archetype.
I don’t know about you, but I like to think that I spend a lot of time in Ejection mode (or at least pretending I do).
Ejection mode is pretty important. Probably 99% of the productivity articles on Medium are designed to help you achieve maximum efficiency in Ejection mode. But does “creative genius” come from individuals who primarily work in the Ejection mode?
Introducing, Amusement Mode
The counterpart to Ejection mode.
I’d like to loosely define Amusement mode as something which most people don’t consciously do but still engage in — whether they want to or not. It may seem like procrastination, but it’s incredibly important for any type of creative work.
Here’s a story about the legendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock and his writing process.
Imagine you’re in the writing room with Hitchcock, working on a screenplay, when you hit a roadblock in your creative progress. So what does Hitchcock do?
He gets up and starts telling a random story, completely unrelated to the task at hand.
Maybe you think he’s wasting your time. It certainly looks like it. But he’s actually doing something really important for the creative process — getting in a relaxed, playful, state of mind.
You see, when Hitchcock was working on a film and things became a little too intense, he would stop and say “we’re rushing!”
He would never let himself get stressed out.
In absorption mode, we’re basically in a state of play. Like a child playing with toys. We have no real expectation of return, no sense of urgency. Just a feeling of curiosity for the sake of curiosity.
We can take all of those things we’ve accumulated from our experiences and our environment and let it simmer, like a big, ugly pot that we call The Problem.
When we’re relaxed enough, we’re able to take a step back and play around with those ideas and form new connections between them, perhaps reduce some of those elements to their most basic foundations and incorporate them with other elements.
We’re not trying to directly attack the problem, per se. Think of it as exploring every single possibility, and playing around with those ideas in a relaxed manner, only gently whiffing the vapors of The Problem from time to time.
Some actionable (maybe) tips on making the most use of Amusement mode
Give yourself more time for a project.
Da Vinci would carry around brilliant masterpieces around because he felt that they were never “done”. Obviously, it’s still important to ship stuff, but make sure to allow yourself the maximum thinking time.
Yes, really. This flies in the face of conventional productivity advice, but you’re anything but conventional. If something catches your fancy, play around with it. Really get to know it. Go down a rabbit hole. You’ll most likely find feces, but there’s a chance you’ll end up in Wonderland.
Counterintuitively, don’t let yourself get distracted by the outside world. You need to be in a particular state of mind where you’re not thinking about your emails or unimportant stuff like that.
Don’t stay in Amusement mode for an extended period of time
Otherwise, you end up having those super creative ideas and never actually executing them. Execution happens in Ejection mode, and you can read all about it in the millions of other Medium productivity articles. The most creative people know exactly when and how to switch between the two modes.
So yeah, that’s pretty much all I got.