Science of Productivity: How Procrastination Boosts Creativity

November 5, 2020

Procrastination – or at least chronic procrastination – hampers productivity. The reasons why are obvious. However, a moderate amount of procrastination when it comes to certain types of tasks can actually boost productivity by increasing your creativity.

You may think that creativity is either antithetical to productivity or simply unrelated. But creativity actually enables greater productivity. Creativity is generally defined as the combination of novelty and value. If you are better at coming up with novel and valuable solutions, you will be more productive than your peers.

The Science of Productivity segment brings you scientific insights you can trust into how to accomplish your goals faster. It is part of the Anything But Idle productivity news podcast.

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Prefer to read? Here’s the transcript:

The science of productivity segment brings you scientific insights you can trust into how accomplish your goals faster. In this week’s segment, I want to share research from well-known Wharton Professor Adam Grant on procrastination’s benefits. Yes, I said benefits.

Procrastination is common and becoming more common. Some surveys have found that 25% of people call themselves chronic procrastinators, which is up from 6% 40 years ago. And procrastination is largely known for its consequences, which include lower work and academic performance and negative financial outcomes.

However, Grant and his colleague Shin thought it may contain certain benefits for creativity. Why? Because creativity benefits from incubation. We are more creative when we have more time to sit with the problems and creative challenges. Our first ideas are often our most conventional or ordinary ideas, but when we have more time, we tend to engage in more restructuring of the problem and we access more remote knowledge and information that either we wouldn’t think is directly related to the problem or is stowed away in our subconscious.

To test this, Grant and Shin asked students to help a fellow student entrepreneur by writing a business proposal for him and then they distracted a subset of them by including popular YouTube videos in the information for the assignment. When their proposals were rated by judges, those who procrastinated for a moderate amount of time generated ideas ranked as more creative.

It turns out, though, that there are limits to the benefits of procrastination. Those in the high procrastination sub-group generated ideas that were less creative than the moderate procrastination group and roughly as creative as the low procrastination group. The high procrastination group has limited incubation time because they are nearing the deadline. This makes them focus more on goal completion, which causes their minds to shield them from less clearly related sparks of inspiration and ultimately, to produce more concrete ideas.

It turns out that the old saying “let me sleep on it” may make sense for those doing complex problem-solving or other tasks with high creative requirements.

Sources:

When Putting Work Off Pays Off: The Curvilinear Relationship Between Procrastination and Creativity.” Shin, Jihae and Grant, Adam. Academy of Management Journal (Apr 2020).