Do you procrastinate? Procrastination is quite prevalent in modern society. Freelance writers, work-at-home entrepreneurs and other independent workers are especially notorious procrastinators.
Aaron Sorkin, the renowned screenwriter behind the television shows “The West Wing” and “Steve Jobs” is one such writer who's notorious for putting off writing. When Katie Couric, Yahoo! Global News Anchor and journalist, asked him about it, he replied: “You call it procrastination, I call it thinking.”
Admittedly, putting off work that you know should have been completed a long time ago doesn’t feel good. And the problem for the procrastinator is that society tells us that procrastination is bad — that it means you are lazy, not serious about your work and unprofessional. So we agonize silently over our recurring “bad” behavior and feel worse and worse about our habit of putting off tasks.
But we still can’t help ourselves—we continue to procrastinate.
Piers Steel, a psychologist at the University of Calgary, who has surveyed more than 24,000 people around the world, says that 95 percent of people confess to at least occasional procrastination. In his studies, he has also found that roughly 20 percent of adults are chronic procrastinators, five times the rate in the 1970s.
It is obvious to most of us that procrastinating can be a hindrance to productivity, so why do we keep doing it? Are there times when procrastination works in our favor? Surely, there must be something that people get out of procrastinating that has been propelling this habit for years despite it bad rap.
Dr. Steel attributes the increase in the number of people who procrastinate today to the changing nature of the workplace: the more flexible jobs become, the more the opportunities to put off work that we consider unpleasant or boring. However, in jobs that require a lot of creative input, a good number of people say their most original ideas come to them after they’ve procrastinated.
Frank Lloyd Wright, celebrated architect, interior designer, writer and educator, for instance, kept putting off a commission for almost a year to the point that his patron drove to meet him and demanded that he produce a drawing on the spot. Wright produced Fallingwater, his masterpiece.
A little procrastination can boost creativity
In an Op-Ed piece on the New York Times titled “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate," author and Wharton professor Adam Grant reveals that his former student, Jihae Shin, now a professor at the University of Wisconsin, conducted some experiments to investigate the assertion that our most original ideas come to us after we’ve procrastinated.
Shin randomly divided a number of people into groups and asked them to come up with new business ideas. One group was assigned to start right away, another group was given five minutes to first play Minesweeper or Solitaire and a third group was made to wait until the last minute to begin the task.
Everyone submitted their ideas and a team of independent judges rated how original those ideas were.
Ideas from the group that first played Solitaire (procrastinators) were rated 28 percent more creative than the group that started right away. The third group that waited until the last minute to begin their project wasn’t as creative. The researchers observed that this third group had to rush to implement the easiest idea instead of working out a novel one.
Solitaire is awesome, but it wasn’t the driver of the 28 percent spike in creativity. There was no increase in creativity when people played games before being told about the task. It was only after they first learned about the task and then put it off that they came up with more novel ideas. The study concluded that procrastination encouraged divergent thinking.
It would appear, in light of this study, that enhanced creative performance happens not in spite of procrastination, but because of it. After all, our first ideas are usually our most conventional, writes Grant.
How procrastinating boosts creativity
A reason procrastinating might help boost your creativity is because while procrastinating (i.e., thinking), people are subconsciously also recalling past experiences or tasks they had performed earlier and relating that memory or experience to what they are to work on. That enriches their work more.
Also, procrastinators get to avoid most, if not all the mistakes of tragically overeager early doers who are too quick off the mark for all of their tasks, failing to realize there is power in slow beginnings and small wins too. Small wins count as progress and can protect you from dangerous over-ambition and perfectionism.
Moreover, in every creative project, says Grant, there are moments that require thinking more laterally and, yes, more slowly. When you are always looking to finish tasks early, it is often a way of shutting down competing or complicating thoughts that would send your mind whirling in new directions. It is an avoidance mechanism people use to avoid the pain of divergent thinking, but it also keeps us from its rewards.
To manage procrastination better, start the project you are putting off and stop shortly afterwards at a high point. For example, start writing a paragraph or even just a sentence of that book or essay you are putting off and stop in the middle of it and walk away. When you return to it later, you’ll find you have fresh material at your disposal to easily pick up from where you left the train of thought.
Many writers, including Mitch Albom, author of “Tuesdays with Morrie,” use this trick. “If you quit in the middle of a sentence, that’s just great,” says Albom. “You can’t wait to get back to it the next morning.” The reason this trick works is because during those three hours, weeks or months you had enough distance to wonder, ponder and consolidate novel thoughts in your head.
It is also worth mentioning, as Grant points out in his essay, that resisting the temptation to sit down and start typing, for example, is not easy for all of us. Some people feel strong urges to start and finish tasks as soon as possible instead of dillydallying. For these people, starting a task immediately and making progress is like breathing and postponement is torment. Psychologists have coined a term for this condition: pre-crastination.
Pre-crastinators want to get things done sooner rather than later and move on to something else. When a flurry of e-mails land in their inbox and they don’t answer them immediately, they feel as if their world is spinning out of control. When they have a project that is due in a month, every day they don’t work on it brings a sense of emptiness - like a dementor is sucking the joy right from them.
Pre-crastinators prefer to start working at 7 a.m. and not leave their workstation until lunch, or sometimes dinnertime. That’s how they guarantee their productivity, and there’s nothing wrong with that if it works for you. However, if you are a serious pre-crastinator it may be worth it to discipline yourself to delay tasks or procrastinate a little. A little procrastination may be the secret ingredient that injects creativity to your work and skyrockets your productivity.
On the other hand, if you are a serious procrastinator and you just don’t know how not to procrastinate (most freelancers), don’t feel too guilty about it. Accept procrastination for what it is – not inherently bad. And use the "start-for-a-while-and-then-stop" procrastination trick to your advantage instead of beating yourself up. That way you will not only boost your creative performance and productivity, but also make your life much easier and enjoyable.