Productivity by Procrastination - Tapping into the Unconscious Mind

Reading time: 3-4 min

Finally following up on this.

I was stewing (procrastinating) on a mega-essay due this Saturday. This reminded me of something I noted down before, on how procrastination can indirectly help with solving problems and completing large projects.

There are times when I'm working on a tough assignment, I either draw blank or struggle to come up with a solution. I would put it off and leave it for a couple of days or weeks. When I return to it a couple of days prior a deadline, I will be able to regurgitate the entire paper, transcribing all of the ideas and points into a coherent written form within a sitting or two.

This phenomena, I found, was documented in the book Science and Method (a translated text)* originally by the mathematician Jules Henri Poincaré.

Poincaré observes that when first working on a tough task or question, you will more or less accomplish nothing on the first sitting of work. Following a period of rest, after a brief period of work on a second sitting, a breakthrough will hit you.

He argues that while resting, your unconscious mind becomes occupied with unconscious thinking and processing to allow these breakthroughs to occur. The initial period of work only acts as an 'unlocking' process for your unconscious mind to start spinning.

Poincaré further describes the phenomenon with an analogy to atoms. During the period of conscious work preceding unconscious 'work', atoms (various bits of information) are attached to a wall and are 'immovable' and hence cannot collide with each other to form a meaningful combination (a new idea). The initial period of conscious work sets free the atoms to allow random collision and formation of various new combinations of the information to surface. Only combinations containing information we desire will be formed as a result of our will.

What does this mean for me? How can this be implemented in a workflow to maximize productivity?

  1. Briefly work on a tough task, to get an idea of what you have to do, even if you don't make good progress.
  2. Then, set it aside. Take a break or work on something else. Let your unconscious mind work and process information. (I.e. procrastinate.)
  3. Return to work on it later and a breakthrough will come through.

Is this an excuse to procrastinate?
Well, in a way, yes. You are setting aside work to productively procrastinate. (Quite the oxymoron.) However, your unconscious mind is working on the task while your conscious mind can work on or enjoy something else. Do keep in mind that you need a period of conscious work before and after your period of 'procrastination'.

I use this approach to complete projects that do not have an immediate deadline. When assignments and projects are introduced, I would consciously and voluntarily work on the item for a brief amount of time, early on, soon after it's introduced. I would work on it as long as I still felt that I was making comfortable progress. When progress seriously slows down or I no longer know how to continue, I would then set it aside for an extended period of time, likely until a few days prior the hard deadline. Thanks to my unconscious mind, I will be able to rapidly finish the entire thing when I come to work on it again.

This tactic also leverages Parkinson's Law to my advantage. Parkinson's Law states that the time it takes for us to complete a task will fill the time we give it. By giving myself significantly less time than say the 2 weeks given for a paper, this forces me to complete the paper within a few days.

What do I do in between the initial and final period of work? Anything. Not saying that this gives me plenty of time, but I use the time to complete other assignments and projects in a cyclic fashion, and fill extra spare time with studying (preferrably with long-term methods such as active recall and spaced repetition (more on that in the future) so that I don't have to cram the mountain of content on week of the exam.


*The original text may be found as Science et méthode.

10/3/2021 - I finally got enough ideas cooking in my head that I could regurgitate hundreds of words within half an hour. Thousands in a few hours.


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