The benefits of procrastination are rarely discussed. People generally see procrastination as a counterproductive waste of time. Up to 20% of employees are “chronic procrastinators,” and research has linked it to stress, shame, and anxiety.
Even worse, procrastination correlates with poor work performance and lower grades. It can also lead to financial troubles, for example as a result of fines for not paying your taxes on time.
The benefits of procrastination, from Da Vinci to Einstein
But by concentrating on the negative side of procrastination, researchers have ignored its good points, especially when it comes to creativity.
In fact, famous procrastinators include Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
And now a recent study has found that a moderate amount of procrastination can actually enhance creativity at work, at least when employees are motivated, and have a job that gives them the opportunity to generate new ideas.
The basic idea is that procrastination provides extra time to generate novel insights.
In a series of experiments, researchers Jihae Shin and Adam M. Grant found that participants who procrastinated moderately – instead of a lot or a little – generated the most creative ideas (as rated by both their supervisors and external judges). In other words, they found an “inverted-U-shaped” relationship.
What is procrastination?
Shin and Grant define procrastination as “the act of intentionally delaying task progress or completion with the understanding that doing so may come at a cost.”
So their study attempted to discover the conditions that allow this “intentional delaying” to enable creativity.
YouTube videos as a temptation
They created two experiments that tempted participants to procrastinate. In both cases, the temptation took the form of watching funny YouTube videos instead of solving work tasks.
The first experiment had 119 college students write a business plan. This plan was meant to help a student entrepreneur who had won prize money to start an online company.
During this activity, the researchers provided the participants with the chance to watch either one, several, or many “funny” YouTube videos. Many of these videos had 50 million views or more, which at least somewhat verifies their funniness.
This is actually a realistic scenario. A 2017 survey of more than 1,000 U.S. office workers found that employees report spending an average of 77 minutes a day watching videos unrelated to their work. That amounts to $8,800 per year of lost time for each employee.
The second experiment consisted of 126 students, who worked on an actual task from a Stanford University class. The students had to generate as much money as they could within three hours, using $10 in seed money. These students were also given the opportunity to watch the YouTube videos.
In both experiments, neutral raters assessed all the ideas, and consistently found that the participants who procrastinated a moderate amount generated better ideas than those who either did not procrastinate at all, or who procrastinated a lot.
For example, some of the most creative ideas in the “seed capital” study did not use the seed capital at all. These participants looked beyond the restraints that the money represented, and instead went in different directions – for example, by filling bicycle tires for passing cyclists, or using their presentation time in front of the students to make a recruiting advertisement for a tech company.
From the lab to the real world
A third study took place in the real world, rather than in a university laboratory. It involved about 170 employees from a South Korean furniture company. People from various departments – such as strategy, sales, design, marketing, production, and customer service – took part.
They and their supervisors filled in questionnaires about the employee’s levels of creativity, procrastination, and motivation.
Again, the researchers found that moderate procrastination was most conducive to creativity.
What explains the “procrastination creativity” link?
The researchers think these benefits of procrastination – namely the ways it can boost creativity – have to do with the “incubation time” that ideas need.
When not procrastinating, people run the risk of settling on the first and most obvious solution to a problem. But under moderate procrastination, they have more time to let ideas bounce around. This extra time allows them to see a problem with fresh eyes.
At the same time, if they procrastinate too much, then deadline pressure starts to intrude. And this can force an employee to make a rash choice just to stay on schedule.
How to harness the benefits of procrastination at work
How can managers use this information to their company’s advantage? They could, the authors suggest, encourage “creative procrastination.” One way of doing so would be to introduce a new project “without immediately asking for solutions or proposals.”
They hope their research will allow people to see procrastination in a new light. “Our research challenges the dominant view of procrastination as an inherently dysfunctional behavior,” they write. “Although many employees struggle with procrastination, our research shows that when it comes to creativity, putting work off can sometimes pay off.”
Study: “When Putting Work Off Pays Off: The Curvilinear Relationship Between Procrastination and Creativity” (link)
Authors: Jihae Shin and Adam M Grant
Published in: Academy of Management Journal
Publication date: April 3, 2020
Photo: by cottonbro from Pexels
Extra: Four Benefits of Procrastination
Did you know that the word “procrastination” hasn’t always had a negative connotation? Ancient Egyptians, for example, had two words for procrastinate: one referred to “laziness,” but the other means “avoiding unnecessary work and impulsive effort” (source).
And the Romans used “procrastinate” to mean a sophisticated form of decision-making about when to act, and when not to act.
Some scholars believe that the negative connotations of procrastination only came about after the Industrial Revolution. With more complex technology, efficiency and adherence to schedules became increasingly important
But when the main goal is not “efficiency” as such, procrastination turns out to have many surprising benefits (source):
- Compared to non-procrastinators, procrastinators experience less stress and have better physical health when deadlines are far off. In this sense, procrastination can be seen as a strategy for regulating negative emotions and feeling better.
- Doing a task ahead of a deadline does not necessarily improve the quality of the work. As such, procrastination itself need not have a negative impact on task performance.
- Not all delays lead to negative outcomes. In fact, delays that result from time that was spent planning and gathering vital information can actually lead to better work.
- Some people are motivated by “deadline pressure,” and can still finish on time, sometimes even generating better ideas under time pressure.