Yesterday a meme popped up in my Facebook feed. It was a picture of Mozart with the following text superimposed on top: "If you ever feel bad about procrastinating, just remember that Mozart wrote the overture to Don Giovanni the morning it premiered."
It's kind of hilarious, but is it true? According to classical music news site CMUSE the real story is pretty similar, and might even be funnier.
Apparently, after a night of drinking, Mozart's friends reminded him that his opera was premiering the next morning and he was still short an overture. "At around midnight, Mozart went to his room and composed this work within about three hours that night, kept awake by his wife, Constanze, telling him stories of Aladdin's lamp, Cinderella and so on," CMUSE relates.
Mozart, at least, clearly worked well under pressure (and also under the influence), but he was a freak genius who started composing music at age five, so this last minute approach is still one normal people should definitely avoid, right? Actually, according to one legendary productivity guru, Mozart might have actually been on to something.
Some things really should be left to the last minute...
David Allen, the author of productivity classic Getting Things Done, used his personal note in his most recent newsletter to extol the benefits of doing some things right before the deadline. Take packing your suitcase, for example. Despite his status as an international authority on time management, Allen waits to the last possible moment to shove his things in a bag before leaving for a trip.
"If I gave myself more time to pack, I would take it, packing. Actually, not packing--deciding what to pack. Should I take a casual sweater? Two pairs of dress shoes, or one? Will I get time to jog on this trip, and how cold might it get?... Etc., etc. ad nauseam," he explains. "And if I give myself twice as long to pack, I don't wind up packing twice as well. Maybe three percent better. But the double stress I put myself through is not worth it."
... and some things really shouldn't.
That makes total sense for routine tasks, but does that same principle hold for more creative ones like, say, composing the prelude to an opera? About that, Allen isn't so sure. While he thinks that waiting until the last minute can actually save you time and stress on some jobs, he insists that for that to be the case, usually two conditions have to be met.
The first is that you know precisely how long the task is going to take, which pretty much disqualifies major artistic undertakings and other projects that demand an a-ha moment to complete. (Unless, of course, you're a Mozart-level prodigy. Then do what you like). Yes, the pressure of waiting until the last minute can sometimes lead to brilliant ideas. But only sometimes. Do you really want to risk it?
Plus, it should be noted that a ton of creativity research suggests that light bulb moments almost always spring from deep investigation into the subject and require time to marinate. If you've experienced the legendary "Eureka!" moment right before a deadline, it's almost certainly because you were thinking about the problem much beforehand.
What's the second requirement for leaving a task to the last minute? Consciously deciding to do so. If you're going to put something off, spoiling the time you've freed up by stressing pretty much offsets any benefits of your procrastination.
"Make it absolutely fine with yourself as a conscious choice, so some part of you on either end of it is not sucking your energy with the 'yeah, but you know you really shouldn't...,'" advises Allen.