Did you know that there is a right way and a wrong way to procrastinate?
You are probably intimately familiar with the wrong way. That familiarity was ingrained into you by nightmare-inducing all-nighters in college, dizzying cram sessions before big exams, or knuckle-biting product launches that almost never came to be.
Students and employees who procrastinate are looked down upon for being lazy. Unreliable. Irresponsible. Unambitious.
But viewed through a different lens, procrastination is just a way of giving yourself the maximum amount of time to mull something over before you begin. You can gather your thoughts, take in more inspiration, and look beyond the most obvious solutions to find the most creative ones.
Procrastinating the right way is a great way to boost your creativity. Keep reading to learn how.
If you tend to procrastinate, you’re in good company. Here are three procrastinators you have probably heard of.
As the 42nd United States President, Clinton was renowned for his speeches, and he is still recognized as one of the greatest public speakers of the 20th Century.
However, many of his speeches were torn apart and rewritten just hours before the engagement, after what TIME described as “harrowing last-minute cut-and-paste sessions.”
Apparently, his aides prepared the speeches weeks, sometimes months, in advance, but he only made these changes when the pressure was at its greatest. Somehow, he persevered.
The esteemed painter and inventor Leonardo da Vinci spent 16 years finishing the Mona Lisa, and this was apparently not unusual. The Last Supper only took da Vinci three years, but that was only after a threat by his patron to cut off his payment.
His habit of picking paintings back up years after the fact is reflected in one of his most well-known quotes, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
Late in life, he claimed to have regretted “never having completed a single work.”
In October, 1934, a wealthy businessman commissioned Wright to design a house to fit on a beautiful but challenging plot of land in rural Pennsylvania with a creek running through the middle of it.
Wright visited the spot the next month, and then promptly dropped the project for almost an entire year.
In September, 1935, the businessman called him out of the blue and proclaimed that he would be visiting Wright in several hours and that he was eager to see the design.
Calmly, Wright began drawing the plans and presented them to the man upon his arrival two hours later. Those plans materialized over the next two years as Fallingwater, his most recognized private residence.
At age 83, Wright was asked which of his works he considered his “masterpiece.” He replied, “my next one.”
Clearly a lot of incredibly creative and successful people are also big time procrastinators. Interested in exploring this connection between creativity and procrastination, psychology professors Adam Grant and Jihae Shin designed an experiment to test it.
To test creative capabilities under different conditions, the two researchers brought together a group and asked them to come up with novel business ideas. These ideas would then be scored for creativity by an independent group of raters.
The group was divided into three sections:
So there were two types of procrastinators, and a hard-working group that could use the maximum time allotted. How did they do?
In fact, the second group, which had “procrastinated” for five minutes before they began, came up with ideas that scored 28% more creative than the first group’s.
Hearing about the assignment, and then delaying the work on it, gave them time to gather their thoughts (while playing mindless 90s era computer games). That consideration time gave them the opportunity to look beyond obvious solutions and move on to more unique ones.
And the third group? These super procrastinators ended up less creative than the “mild” procrastinators, so clearly there is a limit. With very little time left to complete the assignment, they were forced to go with whatever idea occurred to them first or seemed the easiest.
For most of us, procrastination comes really easily — perhaps too easily. It may start to become obvious in college, where the highly-regimented days of high school homework fall away to longer-term assignments like research papers and a less structured schedule in which to operate.
There may be check-ins to keep you in check, like peer critique days; but I know I wasn’t alone in my tendency to make most of my progress on art projects in the days leading up to the peer critiques.
Where does procrastination come from? There are five main causes of procrastination:
It can be hard to get started if you don’t know where to begin.
Without the right skills or understanding of the assignment, it is very difficult to break up a big project into smaller, more manageable tasks. Instead, you just end up putting it off – maybe you’ll figure out how to do it later.
Getting started on a big project is really intimidating, and if you are really tired, that intimidation suddenly feels insurmountable.
Perhaps you work a day job and you have a brilliant idea for a project that will let you pursue your dreams during your off hours. Exhaustion makes it really easy to put your dreams on hold.
Do you feel directionless? Do you have no idea where to begin? Or, perhaps, too many ideas and no idea how to cut them down?
A lack of focus is probably the cause. This vague feeling makes it easy to drift along, avoiding projects as the deadline looms ever closer.
Are you a perfectionist? If so, it is probably tempting to hold off on starting something until your vision of the project is perfect. A desire for perfection at every step of the process can slow a project to a crawl.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by a project you haven’t even started, and you have no idea how you can possibly succeed, this is probably the root of the problem. Beyond just being a cause of procrastination, this is also one of the biggest sources of creative block.
In the end, it doesn’t matter so much what is the cause of your procrastination; they all lead to the same problems.
If you are going to procrastinate, you may as well make the most of it. Here are some techniques for using your procrastinating tendencies to your advantage:
When you are working, you probably try to find a “stopping point” before you quit for the day. You go take your lunch when you’ve completed a measurable section of the project, or you stay late working out an issue.
By finding a logical place to leave things off, you are making it easy for your mind to set aside the project, only to be resumed the next time you get back to work.
But what happens when you don’t try to find a stopping point?
Quit in the middle of a sentence. Close out of your design project with only half of the type arranged. (But make sure you save, we’re not talking anything insane here!)
Unfinished work is hard for your mind to let go of – in a good way. Your mind keeps churning, considering other options, creative solutions to the problem.
Ever had a project that you just couldn’t stop talking, thinking, or dreaming about? This is how you make that happen.
So channel your inner George Costanza and quit on that high note! It’ll be good for your creativity.
Especially if your procrastination stems from a fear of failure or a sense of perfectionism, working in small doses can help you overcome the initial hurdle of getting started.
Fifteen minutes may not sound like enough time to create a masterpiece, and it’s not. But it will get you going, and over an extended period of time it adds up.
Plus, you’ll be following the advice above and pausing and resuming while in the middle of something, right? It won’t really just be fifteen minutes – you’ll be thinking about it all the time.
After a while, it won’t be so hard to work on your project for fifteen minutes at a time, so you can increase it to thirty minutes, an hour, or more.
Inevitably, the time will come for you to hunker down and do the work. Hopefully this time will arrive when you are feeling exceptionally inspired, and not just because of a looming deadline.
In an article for 99U, Cal Newport explains that there are two types of work: shallow work and deep work.
Shallow work (not to be confused with the “small dose” work above) is composed of maintenance tasks that do not require an especially high degree of concentration: maintaining an online presence, for example, or responding to emails.
According to Newport, “deep work is what produces things that matter in the world.” It requires a lot of concentration and perspiration to make happen.
How can you do more deep work? There are two things you need to do to make it happen.
First, you need to clear your schedule. Give yourself large uninterrupted times in which to work. Deep work does not happen interrupted. According to a study by the University of California, Irvine, it takes 23 minutes to recover from a distraction.
Secondly, you should work towards achieving flow. This is the “in the zone” feeling you get when, suddenly, your work seems effortless and like it is creating itself.
There are many tutorials online about getting into a state of flow, but essentially, you need a deeply ingrained interest in what you are working on, a clear mind, and time without distractions.
Clearly, there is a right way and a wrong way to procrastinate in order to boost your creativity.
Remember the study on creative business ideas; the group that procrastinated a bit before they began was more creative than the control group who jumped right in.
They had time to collect their thoughts and ideas before they started. They had the opportunity to look beyond the obvious solutions to the problem to pursue more unique ideas.
But wait until the absolute last second, and you won’t be very creative either; you’ll be grasping at the first thought that comes into your head.
Like many things in life, finding creativity through procrastination is a balancing act.