I wrote the talks for the last three conferences I’ve spoken at the night before the talk. Sometimes the day of. Even if I’m “done” the day before, I almost always make tweaks the day of. I am… a procrastinator.
Ugh. I hate saying it. I feel like such a failure when I can’t nail a talk in anything less than immediately before it happens. I have been taught, as many of us have, that procrastination is a bad, evil, uncaring way to work and only slackers work this way. This is, strictly speaking, entirely untrue. The majority of the folks who were also speaking at these conferences, I later learned, didn’t finish their talks until right under the wire, too. There was solidarity in this experience that bolstered me. At least I wasn’t alone in being a no-good procrastinator.
As a person with a strong curiosity about personal growth, I have read a large handful of books and articles in the last few years about how to overcome procrastination. One TEDx Talkwith I watched a few months ago asserted that procrastination gives us a built-in excuse for not achieving. It protects our self-worth. It also increases our chances of “needing” that excuse.
Again, ugh. I feel so bad about myself reading that! Here I am, a procrastinator, making excuses and being lazy. But was that really what was happening? Do any of these books, articles, and talks touch on why we should be trying to stop procrastinating? Are procrastinators the problem or is it the way we shun them? What would happen if we supported procrastinators in their process? Well, as you have guessed, I experimented with this. I decided that I would not give a single f*ck about getting a particular talk done until the day I had to give it. It was not a low-stakes talk. It mattered a great deal to me. Here is what I learned:
- Objectively, the talk went very well. It was clear, cohesive, and I nailed it on the time front- 20 minutes to the second.
- Some part of my mind was always on what I could have done better while I was giving the talk.
- I had no only an inkling of what slide was coming next when I gave the talk but because I’d created the deck that day I was able to create more interesting and enlivening transitions than I would have if I had practiced the “perfect” transition. That said- I am an excellent improviser and this is a strength I bring to public speaking.
- It had to get done so it got done. I worked fast and used the adrenaline to really focus on what was important in the talk because there was no time to explore less significant material.
- I was already familiar with the topic I was speaking on because I suggested the topic to begin with. This helped me to feel confident that I could write, prep, and deliver this talk all in one day.
In contrast, I have spent extended and protracted time working on talks, too. When I gave a TEDx talk of my own I spent months writing, re-writing, and running various drafts by my two coaches. More than a dozen times they told me that all of the drafts were good and I should just pick one. Did this calm me? Hell no. All that told me was that I hadn’t found the One, True, Perfect draft yet and I should keep writing. So I did. Draft after draft after draft. And now, looking back on that talk, I am both proud and see the faults. It is far from perfect. And I was incredibly stressed out trying to make it so. After all that stress, I still didn’t finish the talk until the day of. In fact, I walked on stage not knowing how it would end. I am a procrastinator, and wow did it work out that day.
I’m not suggesting that all procrastination is good and useful or that procrastination is a tool that everyone should master, but for those with an aptitude for it, why not? Why not know and love ourselves for the way we build our work? I’m not even suggesting that procrastination isn’t painful, but I’ve seen no difference in stress levels in myself (or others!) when it comes to getting a project done early or at the last minute. I was recently asked about how stressful it was to create one of the aforementioned talks I gave that I put together the night before the conference. I was agitated as I was putting it together. Cranky, even. This is a pattern for me. Procrastinate, get cranky, write the damn thing, keep re-writing it as I get crankier and more afraid that it won’t work, continue to be unsure if it will work, and then get up in front of the audience and give the talk. The last step, I love. Until then, I am accumulating energy (fed by crankiness, fear, and agitation) in my body like I’m building a bomb. I hold it all in until I step on stage and then it all released to the audience- all that nervous, etc energy becomes charm and love and delight in sharing with an audience. It’s a wild transmutation! I have no idea why or how but I know other performers who have named this, too. Even in the half-hour before going on stage we gather our energy and prepare to send it out to an audience. When we are done, we are drained. We gave all we could.
I’m still playing around with what the right timeline is for me as a performer, speaker, etc, but I am going to continue to be patient with myself about the possibility that procrastination is good for me, and maybe the direction my growth needs to go in is not trying to stop procrastinating but rather being the best procrastinator I can be, and learning to be less cranky and more gentle with myself in the process.