After weeks of procrastinating, Emma finally started her scholarship application Thursday afternoon. Filling in the blanks was easy. Then came the three-paragraph essay. The first two paragraphs poured out. The third trickled. With a little encouragement from her mother, the young writer finished her piece.
The only thing missing was a teacher’s signature, which Emma reasoned she could gather during class Friday morning, well before the 3:00 p.m. deadline.
But as the evening wore on, Emma didn’t feel so good. Just before 9:00 p.m., she lost her dinner and put herself to bed. She would not be going to school. She would not be submitting that application. She would not be winning that scholarship.
The apple falls close to the tree.
That’s the true and timely story of my seventh-grade daughter, who spent today in her bathrobe, bingeing on Netflix and keeping food down.
Meanwhile, I’ve spent the day in my home office, toiling over a blog post I could have written two weeks ago in a lull between meetings, or last week on an airplane, or yesterday after breakfast. My self-imposed rule is to publish a post every month. The calendar flips Tuesday, so I’m running out of time.
Best case, I’ll finish this thing today. Worst case, I’ll end the day with a solid draft, so I can relax all weekend, come back to it with fresh eyes Monday morning, and publish it before close of business on the 30th.
This down-to-the wire process works for me.
I write well under pressure. After days or weeks of incubation—thinking about a topic, gathering anecdotes, mulling phrases—I just need one focused sitting to sprint through a draft, take a pee break, hack out the useless bits, and reorganize what’s left. The rest is window dressing: finding errors, fixing format, choosing an image to accompany the piece.
I’m entirely comfortable with this process. I’ve practiced it enough, I know it will work.
As long as nothing goes wrong.
My eleventh-hour process requires that the planets align to protect my progress from technology failures, unexpected visitors, and untimely illness. Procrastination is a gamble. And I hate gambling.
I like to say I “enjoy” the thrill of last-minute writing. But I have to admit that the adrenaline rush of fast work comes at a price. On this sunny Friday, I could have ditched my desk to take a walk, go to yoga, or watch TV with Emma—all things I would truly enjoy (no sarcastic quote marks needed). But no, I’ve pushed myself to the point where I have no choice. I have to write.
Be comfortable with your process, but not complacent.
Today, Emma and I suffered the consequences of our comfort zones. We both know we can do good work under pressure. We’re so comfortable with that notion that we get complacent about factors beyond our control. We ignore the possibility that something—a sick day, an internet outage, or some other doomsday scenario—might interfere with our progress.
And frankly, I don’t want to think about the worst that could happen. I want to envision the best that could happen. (There’s a reason I’m not in risk management.) I want to dream and wonder and imagine “what if.” I want to play.
If Emma and I are going to find a new comfort zone—where we finish projects early and luxuriate in leftover time—we’re going to get there by playing with our process.
Play with your process.
In Story Mode workshops, where I teach people to write, tell stories, and be creative, we routinely say things like “know your process” and “trust your strengths.” At the same time, we encourage people to experiment. If you typically compose messages on the computer, try pen and paper. If you usually review your own work by reading silently, have someone else read it aloud to you. If you normally present with PowerPoint, ditch the slides and draw on a white board.
In other words, don’t be complacent. Even if you’re totally at ease with your process, shake it up. Try something new. Do something different. Start sooner. Maybe you’ll discover an even more comfortable process, in the process.