Your boss hates this process. But loves the results.
Time was up — the launch was in eight days. If we didn’t decide by tomorrow it’d be too late.
We’d spent 6 months and 6 figures on the project.
At least 10 other people would be tied to the outcome. And hundreds of careers would be affected by the quality of the output.
All we needed to do was name one more feature. That’s it.
Some people on the team though it would be a flop if we got it wrong. Which made it feel like this one thing could wreck all the creativity and hard work.
How was it possible that a decision that seemed so important was being made so close to launch? Seriously. And, was not having the answer yet a bigger signal — that nothing else was right?
That’s exactly what the boss asked.
Turns out, the opposite was true. There’s a reason we already knew they’d like the outcome. We’ll finish with how it turned out — and see where the winning idea came from.
Here’s how I got there.
There was something about deciding on an idea at or near a deadline that always worked for me. I discovered why in my corporate career.
In Naval aviation, taking in tons of information and making a decision at the right time was a job requirement. In our businesses, though, sometimes it feels more like a hazard.
Because behind the adrenaline, there’s always that little bit of doubt until we finish. Why wouldn’t we just avoid the tension of that doubt?
Turns out, there’s a good reason.
Most people have heard some version of the Zeigarnik effect — the benefit of an opened but unfinished task in our minds. Starting fast and finishing slow. Strategically procrastinating (1).
A benefit to procrastinating — sounds awesome, right? Just put something off and hope a killer idea finds us.
That’s actually only half of the story. We’ve probably seen tons of average ideas come out right before a deadline. So we know that the waiting around isn’t generating killer ideas by itself.
Waiting the wrong way doesn’t work any better than deciding really fast — something else is missing.
Like anything else we do, using an advanced technique without learning the fundamentals is impossible.
There’s no magic in the waiting by itself. To just wait is skipping the work. The fundamentals — the actual steps create the killer idea.
To make strategic procrastination work, we actually have to overcome three things standing in our way. And almost nobody does all three — getting started quickly, creating enough ideas and picking good ones.
Each of those obstacles can be defeated.
What happens between waiting and finishing makes all the difference.
Strategic procrastination is more effective when we use it as a process; not just one action or cheat code.
And we have to tap into a natural accelerator to finish it off the right way.
After deciding to strategically procrastinate, we have to make a conscious choice — just wait around and hope that our killer idea just shows up, or do something different with that time.
Here’s what to do with it.
“People have a better memory for incomplete than complete tasks. Once a task is finished, we stop thinking about it. But when it is interrupted and left undone, it stays active in our minds.” (1)
The best way to kick off ideation is by defining the problem — the right problem.
And throw an initial ideas list down on paper. Open the task in our brain. (2)
Sticky notes are an excellent tool to start with for a few reasons (besides looking like a stock photo for design thinking). The limited space forces us to be concise and simplify, but are easy enough to move quickly enough to churn out a lot of volume. Which is the most important thing at this point, because we’re solving the first obstacle in our way — getting started quickly.
Creating an open but incomplete task allows our brain to work behind the scenes to find connections. This is the creating part. The sticky notes also help create the flexibility for our minds to picture moving things around.
But the way we capture the ideas is less important than just actually doing it. Just generate. And no editing at that point.
How long do we need to generate? 5–10 minutes is enough usually enough, but don’t fixate on the time. Just set criteria for done, and end — intentionally and on purpose. First commitment kept to ourselves.
Then, get moving.
There’s a really good reason why we always hear that it’s valuable to do something physical and while we zoom out; going for a walk, doing yardwork, exercising — because it works.
We can put ourselves in the best position to win by preparing the brain like any other muscle.
It’s more important than we think. Even after we get good at creating our first list of ideas, going back to it is they key to help us catch what our movement shook free.
When we get back to our initial list, we’re digging for the new connections and things that grew in the back of our minds after the initial list. Pushing harder.
Which will help us overcome the second thing standing in our way — not creating enough ideas.
Just by making a second run at the list alone, we’ll separate from the masses that typically just move on after giving it one shot. Because they don’t get the benefits of volume, or picking from the new ideas after pausing.
But taking advantage takes some preparation, which we’d expect because we’re succeeding on purpose.
Look at any pro. They all have a warm up: performers, athletes, surgeons.
They also learn to reframe situations. From avoiding failure to pursuing success. We can do the exact the same when we jump back in to refine our ideation, and loosen up.
What doesn’t work is forcing it, though. Telling ourselves that we ‘must’ come up with some insanely awesome idea immediately actually closes our brains off to the spaces we need access to.
Instead, we can shift focus to a routine and do this — put our mindset in an exploratory or curious state, and say something to ourselves so we believe it:
“Let’s see what we can do with this.” “Here we go!” “What can we get into today?!”
I’m with you. It doesn’t have to be super peppy or insincere — it just has to be enough to break free. To give ourselves permission to find something new (which is the point), and eliminate the fear of the imaginary nightmare if it doesn’t happen (which, it turns out, isn’t all that bad).
We can make multiple runs at the list with the same approach. At the time we of day we like best for being creative.
The most important thing is having a routine. And we get the added benefit of our routine becoming a positive trigger for our minds — which makes it easier to jump back in each time. More commitments are kept to ourselves with each iteration, building the faith we’ll need.
After getting a quick start and developing a routine to improve our collection of ideas there’s only one more thing standing in the way of our killer idea — picking it.
This is where the map of how to strategically procrastinate ends, leaving us on our own — the place where most people don’t think to look for improvement. And usually avoid.
Nobody tells us how to pick the killer ideas from the ones we produce; not when we’re working outside of a group of creatives in a design thinking exercise. Which is almost always — and we don’t have the luxury of running some sort of innovation forum for all the problems we take on.
Because it’s hard. Which should tell us that it’s worth facing.
To put us in the best position to pick our killer idea, work backwards from the deadline and schedule a dedicated time to pick — deciding time. As close to the deadline as possible. A short block of around 15 minutes.
It doesn’t have to be one minute before the deadline, but close enough to produce what we need to be an accelerator — adrenaline.
The obvious trap is that adrenaline could create some fear, which is our biggest enemy in ideation. That’s what everyone else avoids, and what we overcome with our process of committing to ourselves. And is exactly what will set us apart if we get better at tapping into adrenaline to drive our focus.
Put the problem in sight and lay out the list or sticky notes. Eliminate at least 50% from the list of ideas in the first 5 minutes. Another commitment kept to ourselves, and the best start to deciding time.
With the remaining 50%, pick the three best options.
Our killer idea is in there. None of them are bad. None of them will do what fear would try to show us, and lead to our downfall.
There’s no guarantee we’ll always pick the killer idea, but it’s the best chance we have.
And it’s almost certain that all of our top three are better than the first things we can think of by forcing it, or waiting without a purpose — which should give us the faith we need to keep the adrenaline working for us instead of against us.
Plus, we feed our faith throughout the process after keeping every commitment to ourselves through the whole process.
Deciding time is exactly what it says — deciding. Not hoping.
When the boss asked how was it possible we were deciding so close to launch, the real answer was — because it was on purpose.
We weren’t sitting and waiting. We were choosing. From a list that had diverged wide enough to catch a killer idea and iterated long enough for the right connections to form. All we had left to do was pick from a winning list.
The odds were, “ever in our favor.”
And the winning idea for this launch came from an elementary school class my daughters talked about. We used it to name and simplify our most complex feature. Which excited the early adopters and persuaded the laggards. Leading to our most successful launch of the year.
Sometimes we’re one killer idea away from most of our goals — starting our new business, getting a promotion, fixing a public policy, getting noticed.
Procrastinating strategically can help us create it, but only if we have a simple process in place, and solve the picking part using an intentional deciding time. Being fearless enough to tap into our adrenaline pushes the odds even more in our favor. Separating from the masses that don’t go there.
And we get faster each time start quickly, churn through the ideation process and keep calm while we procrastinate on purpose— and more confident in our ability to tap into our adrenaline — which gets us excited to get moving the next time. See how that works?
(1) Adam Grant, Originals, Penguin Books 2017
(2) Robert Cialdini, Pre-Suasion, Simon & Schuster Inc., 2016