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Why Great Artists Should Procrastinate

by Clint Watson on 8/16/2010 9:34:42 AM

This article is by Clint Watson,  former art gallery owner/director/salesperson and founder of FineArtViews. You should follow Clint on Twitter here.

Not long ago in a BrushBuzz discussion thread , I wrote:


I find the best way to be productive is to simply ignore all the stuff I "should" do and just do the thing I want to do [1].

Unfortunately that has resulted in a file cabinet full of months of accounting that is backlogged. But I still feel WAY more productive when I create "art" (code). In the end, it's not that hard to catch up on bank reconciliations - it's a lot harder (impossible) to get that creative spark back if you don't strike while the iron is hot.   - (Clint Watson)

Let's explore that idea further.  I'm often accused of being a procrastinator.  Yesterday, my wife accused me of being "artistic" in my ability to procrastinate.  When she said that, I don't think she meant it as a compliment, but perhaps, if you think about it, it was one.

Consider what Paul Graham wrote about procrastination :

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I'd argue, is good procrastination....Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work.   - (Paul Graham)

To those whose work isn't creative, that last bit sounds like a hollow excuse, after all, errands and accounting are "real work" in a sense.  But, I suspect that most people, even non-creatives, would agree that errands and accounting constitute "small stuff", which implies that some other types of work besides errands and accounting must be something closer to "big stuff".  So let's distill what Paul said into a more general concept:

"Good procrastination is avoiding small stuff to do big stuff."

Of course, that's meaningless without some definitions.  Fortunately, Paul provides us with a good definition of "small stuff" - "What's 'small stuff?'", he asks, "Roughly, small stuff is work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary. " This statement, necessarily, means "big stuff" must be work that has a good chance of being mentioned in your obituary.

The problem is that none of us really know, ahead of time, which works are going to be "obituary worthy" and which are going to be crap.  We have to invest the time and energy to create them to find out.

Every artist produces some crap artwork.  I've sure written a lot of crap code in my day.

Unfortunately, you don't get to choose to create only the good ones.  If you want to produce the diamonds, you have to produce the crap.  Therefore, your only choice, if you want to do great work, is to produce all of them.

And if you have to produce all of them to get the "obituary worthy" diamonds, then the way to create the greatest art possible is to stop whatever you're doing and create every single time inspiration strikes.  Remember:  It's not that hard to catch up on bank reconciliations - it's impossible to get that creative spark back if you don't strike while the iron is hot.


So, when does inspiration strike and can we control it?

Gwen Stefani says it much more eloquently than I can:

Sometimes it's so hard to find what it is I'm trying to say. people might think you can turn creativity on and off, but it's not like that. It just kind of comes out. A mash up of all these things you collect in your mind. You never know when it's gonna happen, but when it's like magic. It's just that simple and it's just that hard. - (Gwen Stefani) [source]


If what Gwen said above is true, and, in my experience, it is, then the answer is no - we can't control when inspiration strikes.  And that means that when it does, we must be prepared to drop our plans and follow it.

So let's summarize my hypothesis:

If, to maximize your chances of creating great art, you have to pursue inspiration every time it strikes and, if you never know when it's going to strike, then, to produce great work, you will, necessarily have to "blow off" some tasks if you want to take advantage of that inspiration. 



So you tell me - when inspiration does strike, should you head to the studio and start creating or should you run errands?

And the funny thing is, the more you create, the more it happens.  It's a self-sustaining feedback loop.  So, for those who do great work, inspiration strikes a lot. [2]  Therefore, a lot of the stuff creative-types "should" be doing gets "procrastinated." And the more creative one becomes, the more likely the other things (the "small stuff") are to be put off.

And, consequently, the rest of the world thinks that artists are "flakey."

But now you know that's really a compliment.

Go change the world,

Clint Watson


[1] By "want to do" I meant more broadly - the "great work I want to do."  I'm not saying that you can simply drop everything and drink margaritas on the beach because that's what you "want to do."

[2]  Even with the best of intentions, inspiration still sometimes strikes at the most inopportune moments.  It's impossible to always drop everything and act on it.  I picture a great warehouse out in the cosmos full of great work that was never realized because the spark was not acted upon.  It makes me a little sad to think that those "lost" great works are denied from this world forever.

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Backstory: About Clint. Email EditorTwitter. Republish. ]

Related Posts:

Evaluating Opportunities Part 2

How Matters More Than How Long

How to be More Productive Part 1

How to be More Productive Part 2

Evaluating Opportunities

Topics: FineArtViews | inspiration 

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Lori Woodward
Good morning Clint. I honestly don't know if this is one of the greatest posts you've ever written, or if it just scratched where I'm itching today.

Either way, WOW!!!!

The struggle between the "shoulds" and when creativity strikes is constant. As a woman, if I never food shop or make dinner - everyone's unhappy.

I'm coming to the conclusion that if I do what's important and often enough that the "crap" gets worked out of my artwork for the most part, I can pay others to do the stuff I'm not interested in - stuff that may be their delight.

No one can create the unique art I do... lots of people can make a dump run and do the dishes (and be a bookkeeper). My mother, a single mom, was a bookkeeper - she never had trouble finding work. She was good at it too.

I had set today aside as the day to get all the chores out of the way to make room for painting the rest of the week, but I had a writing-epiphany this morning, so I wrote for more than an hour and got all my thoughts down. Now, I'm free to catch up.

I carry around a little pad of paper to record ideas as I am doing other stuff. I also have an ipod that is a voice recorder, but sometimes it's embarrassing to record your thoughts in public ;-)

Debra Groesser
Clint, I agree with Lori...this is one of your best posts! It is a constant struggle...juggling all the "should do", "need to do" and the "want to do" things. I'm a big list maker...I make one every night before I go to bed. Lately so much has been piling up and I've been overwhelmed... and struggling with my work (producing some pretty "crappy" stuff). I finally sat down last night, until the wee hours of the morning, and got a ton of paperwork, marketing, etc, (and yes, paying bills and balancing the checkbook), done so that I can spend today painting on a piece that has been percolating in my head and heart for a few months now. It's amazing how clear my head feels this morning with so much of that other "stuff" off my "to do" list. With all this creative energy I have now...I'm going to procrastinate the rest of the "should do" stuff and am off to paint. Thanks for affirming that it's okay to do that Clint!

Curtis Verdun
Great article, Clint. Now I'll feel less guilty for sacrificing the "needs" of my business for some productive studio time. I also agree that we need to be careful about postponing action when inspired creatively. I have accumulated many sketches (and some writing) for future paintings that I don't even remember doing! Now, if I hadn't "recorded" at least something from those particular inspirations, they would have been lost forever.

Roslyn Hancock
Love this article, Clint. It rang so true for me too.
I have been on stall for 10 years since beginning my return to art as a career. My son was in a shocking accident, but he has recovered remarkably, and he and my husband have given me Tuesdays and Thursdays to be entirely wrapped in my art. It is heaven, and I call those days be-nice-to-Roz days. To get to your point about procrastination, yesterday, Sunday, I hit a wall of self-doubt. The portrait I am working on just flattened out. i did everything possible other than paint. I awoke this morning with a bounce and it all came back. I leaped at the chance, even though a Monday. Arranged for my son to get to his appointments with help from my husband, and painted all morning. Bliss. AND tomorrow is be-good-to-Roslyn day. My cup runneth over!

Marian Fortunati
I always love turning around your thoughts to see the way they fit into my life and my art.
Inevitably they make me think just a little bit differently ... and, I think, help me head mostly in a forward direction.
Thanks, Clint!

max hulse

You have the knack of saying what I need to
hear at the time I need to hear it.

My sense of responsibility has me responding to
the needs of others all too often, and putting my own needs (in this case the need to paint when I feel inspired) on the back burner.

Thanks for another good lesson.

Max Hulse

Sandra Haynes
Oh Clint, such true words.....I have "flakiness" down to a fine art form. And customers and non-artist friends just love it! That wasn't my original intention, to be flaky, but "civilians" seem to prefer that artists be different than the crowd.
It's become such a part of my life to do the creative stuff rather than the "chores" that there now is no guilt attached! How great is that!

Helen Horn Musser
Clint, I'm so excited you are becoming an artist and understanding all about us. It is sad when we are not appreciated. Those who don't should study lives of master artists to see it is a constant, driving force for us to work. Everything else seems to be a waste of valuable time. Sometimes it takes years to learn the craft and then to be able to create what is in our head. You are young but, not too young to waste time so strike while the iron is hot. Thanks for all your incite; you are truly a sensitive guy, a trait of all artist

Peggy Guichu
This post makes more sense to me than I probably should admit. I've never considered myself a procrastinator, but I will now wear this symbol happily in my heart. I've always said that my true creativity lies in my orchestration of accomplishing and completing my chores faster each time done for the one and only reason; to get back to my easel. My procrastination is in the choosing of which chore I will pick that will send me more quickly to that end result.

Thank you for putting a word to my insanity.

Clint Watson
To those of you who commented yesterday - sorry I didn't respond, got inspired and procrastinated social media stuff :-)

Clint Watson
Helen - thanks for your kind words. I feel God has blessed me with an understanding that life is short and is a gift. I plan to enjoy it - even if that means blowing off the "small stuff" to the extent that I can. (obviously there's a point that small stuff has to get done)

Like my wife says when I get stressed out about an overflowing inbox, "nobody wishes, on their deathbed, that they spent more time at the office...."

George De Chiara
This is one of the hardest things to juggle in my life. Sometimes I can't just drop everything to paint and I must try to hold onto the inspiration. Other times I am able to get into the studio and paint. I've noticed I'm usually happier with the paintings I produce when this happens. Many times these mark a break though for me. Is it because I know I'm blowing off other things to do this so I better make the most of it or is it really the spark?

Helen Horn Musser
Clint, that is so true for an artist; some people are office people and like doing that work giving us more time at the easel. Maybe you need a little help with that. You are amazing with all the businesses you take care of. Our economy needs more jobs.

Oona Leganovic
But what if I feel inspired almost all of the time? I don't think I could eat or sleep on a daily basis if I would follow this piece of advice. There is always at least one idea in my head...

Does anyone perceive a difference between 'inspiration' and 'motivation?' I sometimes think that motivation is really the more fundamental constant that allows the spark of inspiration to take off when it strikes.

Clint Watson
Oona - I acknowledge that at the end and in the footnote. I lament those inspired pieces you'll never get to....

Carol Schmauder
I needed this article right at this particular time. I have had an idea brewing for a new painting in my Shattered Reality series and everything keeps getting in the way: the strawberries are ripe and need processing, etc, etc, etc. Somehow I keep getting roped into "chores" and have had no time to paint. YIKES. I need to make a copy of the statement "The only way to create the greatest art possible is to stop whatever you're doing and create every single time inspiration strikes." and post it where I can see it often. Thanks for your article.

Daggi Wallace
It's good to see that we all seem to have the same trouble striking that balance in our lives between the chores of daily living and pursuing that creative spark. I love what Clint wrote about having to also produce crap in order to create that diamond. That has been a huge problem for me. As a single parent of two kids with a full time day job my studio time is so limited that I feel a constant pressure to produce something worthwhile, something that will hopefully bring in some income so I don't have to work overtime in my other job to make mends meet (thus allowing me more studio time which is the ultimate goal anyway). I have to really work on believing that ANY studio time is worthwhile and adds to my growth as an artist.
Sometimes, inspiration hits at the most inopportune times ( at work or while busy with the kids' activities). I have to admit that when the kids were smaller I often felt like a terrible mother, being pre-occupied with "creative thoughts" and becoming irritable when I couldn't act on them. I felt guilty when I was thinking of the next painting while playing with my daughters and guilty when I made time in the studio while they napped or were at school and the house didn't get cleaned! It's much easier now with them being teens,of course, but I still struggle with the juggling of keeping up a household, a job and raising a family. I do wonder about the many paintings that were never realized, wonder how much further I could be if I had just entered more shows, taken more classes etc. But I have learned that I have done the best under the circumstances and in the process maybe even taught my girls that you don't have to put your dreams on hold until the kids are in college. You don't have to have a spotless house, either (but an uncluttered one sure helps to keep the mind uncluttered as well). Sometimes it's much more important to follow that muse wherever she may lead you!

Esther J. Williams
Clint, this is cool. Yesterday, I was cleaning my oil palette and saw that I had a nice chunk of cadmium yellow left. I saved it and at the same time I let that yellow absorb it`s warm brilliancy into my right brain. Later I went to the produce stand to get a lemon for an apple pie. I have been procrastinating for days to make that pie from scratch, the lemon was the last fresh item to get. When I was at the lemon pile, my eyes went very wide and I absorbed that yellow again, connected it with my blob of cadmium yellow and the next thing I did was pick three lemons instead of one. So, am I going to make the pie? No, I am painting the lemons right now! I hadn`t planned on this. The pie can wait!
I am a firm believer in being spontaneous, dropping everything when the creative muse sparks.

Jean Corbett
I loved your post today! My husband is wonderful in letting me paint when the mood strikes - but what I really need is a WIFE!

Alma Drain
this newsletter has been so good for me, i now look at my art different. instead of doing a good painting i now look for ways to improve what i just did. and this last article on balance and not putting things off was really a help. As artists creativity may hit at any we have to be ready to respond to our urges to create. And taking a family trip well thats a good thing to do, not only you will have fun but come back all ready to do some work on your art.

Joanne Benson
Good advice Clint. Now if only I could follow it!

Pamela Poole
Clint, I've gotten this newsletter for quite a while, and liked it all, but this is your BEST! So glad you were inspired/motivated/whatever to write it down and share it with us! Like most reading it, I have family/faith priorities and responsibilities, added to the fact that I love a clean house and studio--and unfortunately so does my hubby, though he also encourages me to "manage my time" so that I can set aside studio days just to paint (he doesn't quite get it). I long for the day when I sell enough art to pay for a cleaning person once a week, so that I will have fewer imagined paintings in that warehouse you mentioned! I've been working for two days toward a studio day, and so far the inpiration has held up...but honestly, I have to say that though I know in my head that the junk paintings HAVE to happen along with the good ones, their occurrance at all sometimes is a squelcher to my inspired times when I long for the studio--I will think, "Is making time for this really worth procrastinating on _____?"

Lori Woodward
Today, I took this blog to heart. I purposely ignored chores and painted on and off all day... on three paintings.

I even took some risks and tried new things - realizing that I'll improve if I sometimes lose.

I think your blog here is going to be a turning point for a lot of us artists. There are 2 paintings sitting here in front of me. There is no dinner to go on the table, but so what?

Clint Watson
Thanks Lori - I think it's a bit of turning point to me to, to be able to articulate it. I think it can even be simplified further but I'm saving that for another article.

If dinner's not ready have a bottle of wine, then you won't care if you're hungry :-)

Judy Mudd
Roslyn, I think I can relate to your situation the most. I do my "day job" at home because I have a physically disabled daughter who needs daily care living with me and my husband. So, after my daughter, job, and general household duties, comes time for my art. Inspiration and art time seldom coincide so I carry a briefcase complete with watercolors, paper and brushes so I can take it wherever I am at the moment. Sometimes you just gotta paint and at least I can get something down. Last week was particularly rough and I didn't get to pick up a brush all week. When I finally did get to paint late at night, it was almost like "ahhhh".

I've had people I know who paint say to me, "oh, I don't care for still life" or "how can you paint that stuff". Yes, I agree we must do the small stuff to get to the big stuff, procrasination or not.

Lori Woodward
Clint, I had a glass of wine because you said so :-)

I cooked enough chicken this evening (after dinner)for the rest of the week though. I feel so good because now I have my day all set tomorrow to devote to painting.

Judy, it sounds like you've got a lot on your plate all the time. Congrats on carrying your watercolors - they sure are easy to take along and no cleanup! I'm often amazed at how much some artists have to do and still get time to paint. It makes me feel like such a wimp!

Phyllis O'Shields
This post was written directly to my heart. I function around the art. Firstly, time is set up each day for painting, so the time is there always. But sometimes this does not work because the inspiration is just not there. I definitely delay any task in order to follow an idea or inspiration. Problem is, that it does not usually come back with the same intensity, many lost paintings can happen in this format. Eventually the mundane routine things do get done at some point, outsourcing helps, but definitely being an artist means stopping all things in order to create. Thanks for the validation. Phyllis O'Shields

Hi Clint,

I liked your article but I have another thoery which I practice all the time. I call it purposeful procrastination. When I have an idea, I sit on and stew....sometimes for months while I do all the "little stuff" or finish other "big stuff". If the idea sticks and I can't stop thinking about it, then I know that piece will be good or rather - great. It happens to me all the time. When I paint in the spur of the moment without procrastinating a little, it never turns out as well as I hoped.

Purposeful procrastination. For artists like me.
-Crystal Rassi

Douglas House
Thanks Clint,

Painting scares me. I'm always afraid of the crap I know is still there waiting, so I procrastinate a lot.

I need to turn it over to those Divine forces we do not understand that guide us through our worst times and create our best work.

Connecting to those Divine forces is a lifetime quest.

Thanks Clint
Doug House

Daggi Wallace
Doug, just remember, with each piece of crap you produce you are one step closer to a piece of greatness! So, just get in there and keep painting, one after another, without worrying about the outcome. Do the work, and the Divine Forces will do theirs!

Donna Robillard
Thanks for sharing your insights - good things to think about.

Nadine Robbins
Just found your site and love it. Looking forward to following you posts. They are very helpful.

Douglas House
Hi Nadine,

Thank you. I am pleased you like the work. I would like to see your site. Please forward site address.

My Best. Doug

Sue Cooney
Thank you!

I needed to write about the topic of procrastination in a book I'm writing, and if a blog post is possible as well, hey that would be great = one less thing to procrastinate about.

Whilst in many ways, I could write a book on my own world class experience with procrastination, (there, out and owned), as I explore the subject of procrastination, I have allowed myself to feel stung by this word for so many years, and now this word procrastination may actually be about to liberate me.

Why do I / we procrastinate? I can relate to putting things off, stalling, I personally procrastinate more with finishing, I tend to have another great idea and start, but only finish a small percentage - sad but true.

I found Neil Fiores book The Now Habit helpful, he writes that some people put off finishing, as we learned in early childhood that whatever we produced wasn't good enough and we equate finishing with pain, so we have a habit of putting off what we imagine will be a painful experience.

I've also been exploring the difference between time-line and timing which I feel is relevant. Times-lines we could say are all the linier systemised things we do in life, based on concepts rather than motivation born of insight or inspiration. Building a blog has a linier structure, taking a plane flight, we need to book, get our selves to the airport, go through passport control...

I see and feel timing as more organic (intuitive) waiting for certain pieces to fall into place, which could mean we unknowingly wait and suddenly we feel inspired, or the right person or piece of information appears.

In hind-site I can see at least some of the situations I procrastinated over would not have been a right path for me, and yet the experience I did have was valuable for who I am, or where I am today. It would have been so easy to rush on, or fall under the influence of pressure and "make" a finish because I felt I had to or that I was supposed to, but the finish would have lacked that holistic sense of fruition.

I suspect this website that attracts artists or those with artistic interests is the perfect place to explore creatively new frontiers and understanding to let's face it, a word that probably conjures up little other than blame or shame - procrastination.

Very best wishes,

Sue Cooney


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