Why Do I Always Procrastinate on a Deadline?


ARTS SHRINK is a bi-weekly column designed to answer questions from artists and arts groups related to their arts business and practice. The Arts Shrink brings two decades of experience as an arts consultant, teacher, and mentor to the table as she responds your questions.

Dear Arts Shrink,

Why do I always clean the freezer when I have a creative deadline?

-GT, Dublin, Ireland


Dear GT,

What a great question! It sparked tons of conversations with friends and colleagues over the past couple of weeks. After polling just about everybody I know, it turns out that the majority of them have similar predilections. I personally favor the closet cleaning approach.

As a Creative you're probably ready and willing to accept this kind of behavior as just another artistic quirk. But wait. Not this time. This time there are tons of studies, articles and books that suggest that this type of active procrastination is actually healthy.

According to an interview with Frank Partnoy, author of the book "Wait: The Art and Science of Delay," he says that "historically, for human beings, procrastination has not been regarded as a bad thing. The Greeks and Romans generally regarded procrastination very highly. The wisest leaders embraced procrastination and would basically sit around and think and not do anything unless they absolutely had to."

Others have made a distinction between active procrastination, which usually involves a physical activity that has a beginning, middle and end, and passive procrastination which mostly involves sitting on the couch. Active procrastination, like cleaning the freezer, gets you out of your head and allows you to successfully complete a task, which in turn gives you the confidence to meet your creative deadline. Active procrastination is good. Passive procrastination is pretty much self-defeating. Don't worry, there are ways to overcome passive procrastination.

There is another line of thought that proposes that waiting until the very last minute to start a project creates optimal "arousal" which makes the project easier to approach. When the stakes are high enough (meaning that you are now operating within an extremely limited timeframe) a person can enter into a state of hyper-focus which eases and quickens the process. If you like adrenaline rushes, this might be your explanation of choice.

Story continues below

My opinion on the matter is that successfully completing a physical task helps the creative impulse rise to the surface which allows it to be more easily accessed and expressed. This theory is somewhat supported by the historical use of physical labyrinths for creativity, problem solving and meditation. A labyrinth is a complex and circuitous path that leads from a starting point to its center and back again. There are two kinds of labyrinths 1) a Maze, which is a puzzle with dead ends and paths that u-turn back onto themselves, and 2) a Meander, a single curving path that leads to a center point. Labyrinths have been around since ancient times and have been used in all parts of the world. Labyrinth patterns are found in Native American basket weaving designs and have appeared as archaic petroglyphs.

A Meandering Labyrinth has been used for centuries to foster creativity and problem solve. The idea is that a person quietly walks the labyrinth, reaches the center, rests a moment and then quietly follows the path out again. It is said that by the time you complete the process you will be ready to tackle that creative project or will have discovered the solution to your problem.

Public labyrinths exist everywhere -- some are ancient, some modern. We have a couple in Los Angeles. I'm intrigued by the Peace Labyrinth in the West Adams district of Los Angeles. If you too are interested in this concept but can't find a labyrinth near you, you can download a labyrinth design and trace it with your finger.

Or better yet, gather some artist friends together and build one for the community.


Do you have a question you'd like answered? Send an email here.


Dig this story? Sign up for our newsletter to get unique arts & culture stories and videos from across Southern California in your inbox. Also, follow Artbound on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.


Top Image: Peace Labyrinth in West Adams | Photo: Peace Awareness Labyrinth

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading

Full Episodes