Do you incubate or procrastinate?

Rodin’s Thinker — Incubator or Procrastinator?

Perhaps you will recognize yourself or one of your team members in the following scenario:

One week from now, you will be speaking at a major conference. You have known about this for six months, and recently you have been thinking about what you will include in the 45-minute presentation about a technical topic. As you do your other work, you never really stop thinking about the presentation and the looming deadline. You may find you don’t sleep well the closer you get to the impending deadline, yet you know you thrive under pressure. You have never missed a deadline, but you still wonder why you consistently wait until the last moment. You chastise yourself thinking, “Why do I do this to myself? I am such a procrastinator!”

And then, at the last possible moment, you sit at your computer and the concepts and visuals seem to “pour” out of you. You work for several hours creating slide after slide and deliver it to the conference organizers the afternoon of the deadline. Fast forward one week. You present to the conference attendees, receive one of two standing ovations of all conference speakers, and afterwards people congratulate you on the fine job you did conveying complex information.

I recognize this person because he is my husband. He and I approach deadlines in quite opposite fashion. I work ahead of schedule and he taunts the schedule – at least that is how I saw it until recently. We have discussed his “weakness” of procrastination many times – and still the behavior persists. So, when I read Robert Biswas-Diener’s work on this topic I had an “ah-ha” moment and shared it with my husband.

Biswas-Diener, Ph.D. is a positive psychology coach, speaker, researcher and the author of several books and articles. Working with a self-described procrastinating client, Biswas-Diener could have easily followed client’s lead and coached him to identify ways to mitigate this apparent weakness. Instead, he asked the client a few probing questions and listened to the responses. Unlike those who consistently procrastinate, Biswas-Diener learned this client always made deadlines, turned in superior work, and thrived under pressure.

Upon hearing that description, the word that came to Biswas-Diener was “incubator.” Those who incubate do not miss deadlines or turn in shoddy work. Instead, they think about the project, presentation, (or whatever is soon due) as they do other things. Then, as they stare down the deadline, their work is ready to be “hatched.” Incubators describe feeling more engaged with their work when they act on it under pressure. In essence, Biswas-Diener turned a client’s supposed weakness into strength. (In positive psychology, we think of strengths as a capacity that comes naturally to us and that we use consistently.) He did this by considering not only the client’s behavior, but also the results of that behavior, which in this case, were positive. Further, he checked with the client to see if the strength of “incubator” resonated with this client. It did.

As I read about this, I thought about my husband, the former procrastinator, now incubator. As an engineer/researcher, he agrees this strength truly suits him. And then I thought about the implications of “incubator” in the workplace. How can this strength can be identified and celebrated in the workplace? Are incubators better suited to solo projects where their last-minute work style doesn’t appear to thwart the efforts of others? How can managers and team members, (particularly those prone to completing their work well ahead of deadlines), learn to manage their anxiety and trust that incubators will meet deadlines and provide superior work? I believe the answer lies in the crux of my work as a positive psychology coach: Allow people to work to their strengths. However, it is also important to ensure the strength is used in the right way at the right time. When that fails, do as I do with my husband and set early deadlines in case something goes awry!