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If you beat yourself up about procrastinating, maybe you should be kinder to yourself.

It turns out some of the most successful people in history were master procrastinators, including Leonardo da Vinci and Charles Darwin. Journalist Andrew Santella, whose own procrastination habit led to the new book Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, told Knowledge@Wharton that da Vinci promised to deliver a project for a church in Milan within six months but it actually took 25 years.

Feel better now?

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“To his contemporaries, he was a little bit of a joke. He was the guy who never finished what he started,” Mr. Santella said. “Part of the reason Leonardo didn’t finish things was because his mind was so active. He was drawn in so many directions by his insatiable intellectual curiosity.”

One of the things he learned in writing the book was that when we procrastinate, we rarely just do nothing instead of what we’re supposed to be doing. There’s always a replacement activity and often it’s more worthy of our time than what we were supposed to be doing. That’s positive – it has been called active procrastination – but a negative insight was that often we procrastinate to give us an excuse for failing. You may have said it yourself in your school days: “It’s not because I’m stupid or because I couldn’t pass the test but because I didn’t try my best.”

Frank Partnoy, who wrote the 2012 book Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, urges you to procrastinate on decisions rather than make snap decisions. If you have a year to make a decision, wait 364 days. If you have an hour, wait 59 minutes. Mr. Santella’s parting advice: Be more tolerant of procrastinators, both colleagues and yourself.

Mapping out your career ambitions

How do you grow your career in the year(s) ahead?

Here are three keys to moving ahead faster , shared by executive search consultant Marc Effron in Harvard Business Review:

  • Adopt the 70-20-10 model: Research suggests roughly 70 per cent of your professional growth will come from the work experiences you have, 20 per cent from interactions with others and 10 per cent will come from formal education. So it’s a three-pronged approach, with education the least potent.
  • Determine your from/to: When you use Google maps for a trip, it wants to know your from/to. It’s no different for your career. You need to figure out where you are now and where you want to go, as precisely as possible. “The challenge for many of us is that we’re delusional about our actual origin and destination. We often think we’re starting far ahead of where we objectively are and that we’ve arrived when we’re still hundreds of miles from our goal,” Mr. Effron writes.
  • Get the experiences: With experiences the big driver of career success, figure out what experiences can help get you from where you are now to the next stages. Reach out to experts in your field, inside and outside your company.

And don’t procrastinate. “The challenge is that you’re competing against every individual in your industry who wants to be a high performer. If you grow more capabilities more quickly than they do, you’ll perform better today, earn opportunities to perform better in the future, and a virtuous cycle will take hold,” he stresses.

Quick Hits

  • Starbucks and Tim Hortons are not the place to use your phone or video communication services, such as Zoom, to discuss private information about clients or other sensitive matters, consultant Jeff Mowatt notes.
  • If you are an early employee with a startup, it’s unlikely that the skills you have on day one will be the skills needed as the company scales to the next level, warns serial entrepreneur Steve Blank.
  • “Call me Ishmael.” The famous opening sentence of Moby Dick may not fit in your marketing material but the sense of mystery it augurs will help get your promotional emails read by prospects and your advertising draw attention, says consultant Roy H. Williams. Novelists, playwrights, and screenwriters know the value of mystery and you should experiment with it as well.
  • Consultant Alan Weiss has tired of hearing people complain about their boss and contend there’s nothing they can do about it. Put your energy on your work, not complaining. “Do you have problems with your career? Whose fault is that? What are you going to do about it?” he asks.
  • If a company follows a solid standardized interviewing process and throws in a brain teaser question near the end, search consultant Gerald Walsh advises you not to sweat it. In all likelihood they will base their decision on how you handled the job-related questions. 

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.

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