Do you have brilliant idea that you keep putting off or just aren’t able to bring to fruition? Or maybe it’s a small task that never seems to get done? Author Phyllis Korrki is here to let you know that you’re not alone. A reporter and assignment editor for The New York Times, Korkki tackles the problem in her book, The Big Thing: How to Complete Your Creative Project Even If You’re a Lazy, Self-Doubting Procrastinator Like Me. She shared what she learned in the process of writing her book — and why she pledges to be lazy for the rest of her life — on the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)
An edited version of the transcript appears below.
Knowledge at Wharton: I’ve never interviewed somebody that has described herself in this manner or as part of the title of a book.
Phyllis Korkki: It’s pretty out there. Honest subtitle, isn’t it? The book itself is a very meta book. It’s a book about creative projects, and my creative project is this book.
Knowledge at Wharton: What things did you learn about yourself in the process of doing this book?
Korkki: The idea for it came when I was writing a column in my job at the Times about deadlines. I said in the column, which was also kind of a meta column, that the only reason that I finished it was because I had a deadline, I was accountable to my coworkers, and I would have endangered my reputation if I hadn’t finished it. I thought to myself, how do we give that same sense of urgency to our own personal creative projects that no one else is asking for? I explore that in the book.
Knowledge at Wharton: Has doing this book changed your philosophy on your work at The New York Times?
Korkki: I think it’s opened up my voice a little more and made it a little more personal. I think my writing has gotten a little more personal. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it has had that effect, I think.
The reason I say I’m not a self-help guru is because I feel like I am suffering just the way most people are, and I feel like I have gone through a lot of failures.
Knowledge at Wharton: You say in the book that you are not a self-help guru. So what do you want people to take from this? Maybe a little bit of understanding of what you went through and how that could relate to their own situations?
Korkki: Exactly. The reason I say I’m not a self-help guru is because I feel like I am suffering just the way most people are, and I feel like I have gone through a lot of failures. As I say right up front, I am very lazy. There is all of this sort of self-help religion out there or inspirational kind of material that says you have to get up every day and you have to have discipline and you have to work every single day without fail on your project.
I would sometimes say to myself, I need to get up and do this, and then I just stay under the covers and read a mystery or play with my cat instead. I thought because I am that kind of person, I am not capable of doing a big project. It turns out it’s not true. You can be lazy sometimes, you can maybe not get up on one particular morning or two particular mornings. But if you get up on that third morning, and if you get up enough, increments add up and you can finish it.
Knowledge at Wharton: There were times where I saw a word or a phrase in the book that I latched on to. One is the word love. A lot of what people do with their projects ends up being a labor of love.
Korkki: Yes, I have a whole chapter on love and work. Freud is the one who was reported to have said that the most important things in our life, for us to feel fulfilled, are love and work. I call them our two psychic tent poles. But it’s very rare for a person to have complete success or fulfillment in both areas. So, we sort of put our psychic energy into one or the other. We talk about a passion project as a labor of love. We talk about our book as being like our baby. Very true.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also talk about drive being another thing.
Korkki: Yes, one thing I think that is important for this kind of project is for it to be intrinsically motivated. I make a distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Where something really fulfills a deep creative, spiritual or intellectual need, and it’s not driven by the need to be famous or get rich or get a lot of followers on social media. That shouldn’t be the main motivation for that. That’s not going to carry you through to the end.
Knowledge at Wharton: How often do you think that big thing that somebody is dealing with has nothing to do with their daytime job?
Korkki: I don’t know percentages on that, but I do talk about some people in the book who need to have a job that is completely different. For example, the composer Phillip Glas, before he was able to afford to work full time on his music, he drove cabs. He was able to make enough working part time as a cab driver to devote all of his mental energy to his music. I talked to another person who is a janitor full time, and he likes that that doesn’t tax him too much intellectually. He founded this museum devoted to the works of his late father.
I think it doesn’t matter who you are or what walk of life you are in, a certain segment of the population has this yearning to do it. Not everyone, and that’s OK. But if you do have it, it doesn’t matter what your income level or your job is.
Knowledge at Wharton: There were a couple of pieces that I went back and read a couple of times over. They’re not what you would consider to be the normal thought process in completing a project, but you talk a little bit about health, maybe with your own situation.
Korkki: The thing that happened was I got horribly anxious, and I got stomach pains and back pains. I ran to my doctor and said, “Will you please, please give me some Klonopin so I can relax?” She refused. She said, “Oh, it’s addictive,” so I was forced to seek natural answers to it. I actually took breathing lessons, believe it or not. I paid $350 to get a lesson in breathing. It really helped. What she told me made a lot of sense because I was breathing very shallowly, I was breathing vertically, I was breathing from the top of my body where there are barely any lungs. That was limiting the flow of oxygen to my brain, and you need oxygen in your brain to think clearly and creatively. You can apply this at work if you get really stressed out. Just breathe from the middle of your body, so you use your diaphragm, and breathe horizontally rather than vertically.
I would sometimes say to myself, I need to get up and do this, and then I just stay under the covers and read a mystery or play with my cat instead.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also talk in the book about nutrition. For a lot of people, nutrition in general is more of a concern. But I guess when you get into a project outside of your work, a lot of people will be like, “Oh, I’m just going to run through McDonalds. I’m going to run through Wendy’s because I need to get a quick bite and get back to my project.”
Korkki: Yes, you need to have protein to work on a project. I was eating these big cinnamon rolls that I got on a stand on the way to work. That gives you a huge rush and then plummets. You plummet and you can’t think straight. This nutrition expert I talked to said it’s really good to have protein for breakfast — eggs or even a can of salmon or something like that. And again for lunch, emphasize the protein. Then she actually said carbohydrates are fine for dinner because it helps you sleep, and I have a whole chapter on sleep in my book and how important that is.
Knowledge at Wharton: Sleep is such a vital thing, and so many of us these days are going faster and faster that getting enough sleep is hard at times. It’s understated how important it is to allow your body to recoup.
Korkki: Yes, and it’s part my whole thing, I have this sort of Zen thing in my book, “To do is to undo, and to do is to not do.” Part of the not doing is the sleeping because it rejuvenates, it recalibrates, it resets everything. It’s almost a cliché, but we all know we come up with our best ideas in the shower. That’s because we had a chance to rest, and our neurons and our brains have had a chance to do all of this other backroom kind of stuff that we have no idea what it is, but then suddenly it emerges to the surface and gives us these great new ideas.
Knowledge at Wharton: The idea of doing a project, especially if that project is not linked to your day job, is balance. I would be interested to see how you did it, and I’m sure a lot of the people you interviewed talked about it as well. It’s got to be an unbelievable balancing act to be able to pull these two things off at once and not have everything come down around you.
Korkki: That’s true. There’s been research done on willpower. Obviously you need willpower to do your job and to work on this project. Research has shown that we have a limited amount and use it on any number of tasks.
What I realized, and I think everybody needs to realize if they’re going to do this balancing act, is that if you have a really rough day at work and a lot of things going on, don’t expect yourself to be also able to work on your project. And forgive yourself. That’s one thing, I’m really hard on myself, and I would just beat on myself if I didn’t come home and work on the book. But then I would realize, I had a rough day at work today. I just need to relax. On the other end of the spectrum, recognizing that we all have days at work that aren’t as bad. We might be doing something a little lighter that’s just not as taxing on our brains. That’s the ideal time to work on the project.
Knowledge at Wharton: You also talk about illness being a factor in this as well. Some of the great thinkers and developers have had to deal with illness in their lives at some point — it’s understanding that if you’re sick, give yourself a breather.
Korkki: A funny thing is that I found that illness offers constraints. A theme that kept coming up is the importance of constraints. For example, I talked to this woman who had broken her ankle and couldn’t leave her house. She translated the memoirs of her grandmother in that time. So illness can do two things: It can give a deep meaning to your life, and it can be a way to translate pain to something creative and beneficial to others. It can also offer a constraint that will allow you to get something done.
Knowledge at Wharton: With all of the interviews you did, were there any that surprised you with how they tackled their big thing?
There’s a certain percentage of the population that only needs like three to four hours of sleep a night. Aren’t they the lucky ones?
Korkki: I talked to this doctor at the Mayo Clinic who was just incredibly busy. He has four different jobs and also wrote a novel. He writes poetry and does all of these different things. Well, then I found out his secret, which I relay a little bit in the book. But I wrote about it in the sleep chapters that he is a short sleeper. There’s a certain percentage of the population that only needs like three to four hours of sleep a night. Aren’t they the lucky ones? I think a lot of CEOs are actually short sleepers. That’s part of their secret, so they can get a lot more done. It’s not fair, but there you are.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you have a next big thing on the radar?
Korkki: Are you kidding? I’m going to be lazy for the rest of my life. Just rest on my laurels. No, not true! In my book, I mention a National Novel Writing Month. It’s a program that’s been going on quite a while now, maybe 20 years or so. People get together all around the world and write a novel in one month. If it’s 50,000 words, which is what they suggest, that comes out to 1,577 words a day, which is very doable. So I’m going to do that this year in November.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do you have an idea what you want to write about?
Korrki: No, no, not at all, and that’s fine, too. I’m just going to sit down Nov. 1 and see what comes out.
Knowledge at Wharton: I find it interesting that you take on this challenge to write a book playing off an article that you had written in The New York Times.
Korkki: I realized from the article I had to create some kind of fake accountability. Because even though I had a book contract, my book wasn’t due for like a year and some months, and I did procrastinate. I had to find what I call fake accountability, methods of sort of faking a sense of urgency to get things done.
Knowledge at Wharton: But you also talk about the fact that the experience becomes an important part of the process as well. You want to be able to enjoy the experience as you’re going through it.
Korkki: That’s very important. Sometimes it’s going to be unpleasant, but that’s about the challenge of it. Most of the time, you have to really enjoy it for its own sake. I talked to one fellow who initially wanted to invent his own software program like the founder of Napster. He quit his job to do that. He fantasized about being on the cover of Fast Company magazine, that was his big fantasy. Then he came to realize, “Oh my God, I just hate this. I hate doing this every morning. When I get up, I hate it.” He realized he wanted to be a writer, and not everyone becomes successful as a writer. But he’s still doing that because that’s what he truly, intrinsically enjoys.
Knowledge at Wharton: A lot of this ends up being what each person really has the time for, the understanding for and the enjoyment of.
Korkki: Yes, it’s an individual process for everybody. It may be that it’s not your time in life. Maybe you aren’t at the age to be doing it. I dreamed of writing a book when I was 11. Then in my 20s, I kept thinking, “Oh I really should write a book. ” But the fact is I didn’t have any material, I didn’t have an idea, and it was for the wrong reason at the time. I think I kind of wanted to be famous or something. It wasn’t until I was in my 50s that I had reached the age where I could write this book.
I talked to some wonderfully inspiring people — a man from Jamaica who always wanted to record a reggae album. He said he came out of the womb singing, but he joined the military and had a bunch of kids and a lot of other responsibilities. Finally, he retired and went down to Jamaica to Bob Marley’s old studio. He recorded that album last year at the age of 65. It’s really inspiring how you can do it later in life.
Knowledge at Wharton: The potential success after completing the project can be a negative if that’s the only thing that the people focus on.
Korkki: Yes, it’s really hard right now for me to deal with the promotion aspect of it, to be kind of wondering about the reviews and how well it’s going to do, because that really runs counter to why I wrote the book. This is a hard stage for me to be in, although it’s nice to do interviews like this where I talk about the substance.
Knowledge at Wharton: You are in an industry that is high pressure and going through quite an interesting transition right now. Your paper is going through a transition.
Korkki: Yes, it’s fascinating to be a part of.
Knowledge at Wharton: How has doing this changed or not changed your thoughts about career?
Korkki: That’s a good question. I love my job. Obviously, the Times as an institution has to be more concerned about the bottom line than I did about writing this book, and I’m thankful to have a job where I work for a company where I can support myself, and I’m able to do something like this and have it actually reach others. But it would be nice maybe at some point to move beyond that, to full-time authorship. But for now, it’s great being in both worlds.