The Art Of Procrastination: Just The Right Amount Of Nothing

Recent research reveals that just the right amount of procrastination may be the perfect thing to spawn originality and creativity.

Recent research reveals that just the right amount of procrastination may be the perfect thing to spawn originality and creativity. About one-fifth of the adult population would identify themselves as chronic procrastinators. All-in-all procrastination gets a bad rap—but wait (no pun intended) there is a real possibility that it isn’t a bad thing for everyone all the time. In fact, according to Adam Grant in his new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, the fine art of procrastination may be the driving force behind more highly creative thought. 

Grant has been able to identify that a dose of procrastination may be the ticket to the fountain of creativity. He highlights famous procrastinators—such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Bill Clinton, and Steve Jobs—to make the argument that some very creative and productive people procrastinate. For the rest of us, he points to research showing that being given a task and then being asked to delay working on it produces something called divergent thinking—the very stuff of creativity.

Divergent thinking pulls information in from lateral thoughts and ideas. If I asked you how many uses can you think of for a paper clip, the answers would be drawn from divergent thinking. Grant’s central point about this delay in responding is that creativity doesn’t happen in spite of procrastination—it happens because of it. Waiting awhile after a task has been initiated gives us the advantage of generating more thoughts about the project. More thoughts increase the likelihood of some of them being better than the initial ones generated.

Adam Grant identifies himself as a pre-crastinator—meaning that he often completes material ahead of time, long before the deadline. As the youngest professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, he found that getting things done sooner rather than later has served him well. But after one of his students, Jihae Shin, challenged his pre-crastinistic tendencies, he has begun to mend his ways. Shin was able to show a link between workers who procrastinate and a higher rating by their supervisors on their creativity. 

As it turns out, too little procrastination cuts off lateral or divergent thinking—and delaying working on something too long produces anxiety and stems the flow of the creative juices. This should inspire us to build in a bit of delay to help open up our thoughts. As a writer, I’ve always found this helpful. I’ll write something and put it away for at least a few days. When I come back to it through the lens of fresh eyes, my mind has generated some renewed and (almost always) better thinking.

So which are you? Are you a pre-crastinator? Or a procrastinator? If you get everything done early you may be robbing yourself of more leisurely and creative thought. Getting things done without letting them incubate produces fairly predictable results that generally lack originality. On the other hand, if you’re procrastinating too long the pressure to produce also limits the production of more original or creative responses. If we wait too long we typically default to a less inspired creation. Why not try an experiment and let one of your projects simmer for a little bit and see what happens? Not too long or short—but just the right amount.

I’ve given this some thought and I think I’m an amateur-crastinator. I definitely don’t do things ahead of time—but I’m not a pro just yet. I’ve yet to find the perfect amount of time to delay a task. This is something I plan to work on.

Tomorrow.

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