Crunch time. Cramming. Waiting until the very last minute.
These words conjure the exhilarating adrenaline rush that I, for one, am prone to humblebrag about, like I do about being overly busy or super-tired. It sounds better to say that procrastinating allows me to do my best work than to admit I have poor time management and mediocre self-discipline.
But what I have long thought to be a weakness may actually be a secret weapon for creative success.
As it turns out, the time we spend not completing our to-dos may be the thing that gives us the boost of divergent thought we need to create better solutions. Professor Dr. Adam Grant, author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, suggests a direct link between moderate procrastination and a boost in creativity.
Basically the idea is that by letting a problem percolate in your brain (aka putting it off till later), you give your mind time to put things together differently, to reach past the obvious solutions and make connections you’d miss if you worked on it too soon.
Granted, there is a point at which it is too late to adequately tackle something, at which point you've robbed yourself of the opportunity to consider every angle. But maybe a healthy level of procrastinating is a habit we don't need to beat ourselves up about. Here's how to find out whether or not you can turn procrastination into productivity.
Procrastinating Can Be a Chronic Problem
As with just about everything, moderation is key. There is ample research on the emotional and psychological causes and effects of procrastination and the degrees to which people procrastinate.
Dr. Joseph Ferrari, an expert in the field, explains, “Procrastination is not waiting, and it is more than delaying. It is a decision to not act. It is very helpful and useful to gather information to make an informed decision, but when one simply continues to gather beyond the point of adequate resources, then they are being indecisive and the waiting is counterproductive.”
Research suggests that up to 20 percent of people may be this sort of “chronic” procrastinator. Taken to an extreme, procrastination is a perpetual problem, caused in greater effect by emotional responses and behavioral paradoxes than by tasks themselves.
I am in the majority of people who are able—and very willing—to procrastinate in moderation. When I put off a task, it’s usually because I’m afraid I won’t do it well enough. The longer I stare at a blank new Word document on my computer, the longer I delay the defeat of writing something disorganized and lame. In contrast, when I allow my mind to work through a pitch while I’m folding laundry or making dinner, I generally have something more thoughtful to bring to the page when I return to my workstation. With intentionality, I can leverage the supposed vice into a virtue.
Learn to Strike an Ironic Balance
Grant gave a TED talk earlier this year on “The Surprising Habits of Original Thinkers.” One of the surprises? You guessed it: Spanning time and place, the most creative people—from Leonardo da Vinci and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the creators of Warby Parker—are those who procrastinate moderately. “Procrastination gives you time to consider divergent ideas, to think in nonlinear ways, to make unexpected leaps,” Grant says.
Grant is a self-proclaimed “pre-crastinator”—he tackles tasks as soon as they are given. I have long admired this kind of discipline. But my attempts at being so on top of things have proven lackluster. We have to find that perfect center where we aren't jumping the gun but we aren't digging ourselves into a hole. There isn’t enough time in either situation to be truly creative. That sweet spot of productivity is different for every person.
‘Quick to Start, Slow to Finish’
To figure out exactly how much waiting is enough—and how much is too much—it’s crucial to understand what is happening in the time between accepting the task and completing it.
Grant says the best procrastinators are those who are “quick to start, slow to finish.” The first step is being aware of the problem in need of solving, so that your mind can function as an incubator. Our initial thoughts are usually the most conventional and least creative. By allowing your brain a “time-out” to complete a different task (something as trivial as Minesweeper, loose as daydreaming, or engaging as reading a book), you may be able to make unanticipated—and perhaps more useful—connections later.
Carson Tate, an expert on workplace productivity and the founder of Working Simply, agrees: “High-performance procrastinators use another task or project to stimulate their thinking on all of their projects and tasks.”
Moderate procrastination works, in part, because the focus is drawn elsewhere; when engaged in worthwhile tasks, you may learn other things along the way. Grant illustrates this with the example of Leonardo da Vinci, who, in the sixteen years it took him to complete the Mona Lisa learned a great deal about light, and therefore, became a better painter, one capable of creating such a masterpiece.
Likewise, Grant notes that the phrase, “I have a dream” was not in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s original speech—the one he’d stayed up nearly all night working on and was still scribbling in the moments before he spoke. Rather, it came on the spot, a burst of history-changing creativity and improvisation that was the result of leaving himself open to a range of possibilities.
A Tool, Not a Crutch
Self-awareness and discipline are crucial in getting the most out of your procrastination, without taking it too far. “Procrastinating is a vice when it comes to productivity, but it can be a virtue for creativity,” Grant says.
When procrastinating is a means of escaping responsibility or the risk of failure, it doesn’t do anyone any good. Being busy for the sake of being busy is not a recipe for real happiness or fulfillment. But when time is spent purposefully on tasks that give your mind the space to do what it does best, you may surprise yourself with just how creative—and successful—you can be.
Photo Credit: Jordan Voth