Many Creative Geniuses May Have Procrastinated—but That Doesn’t Mean You Should
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Legend has it that when Frank Lloyd Wright took on the commission for his revered Pennsylvania residence Fallingwater (1935), he initially put the project on the backburner. He didn’t begin working on it until nine months later, when the client, Edgar Kaufmann, dropped in on Wright’s studio unannounced. Then and there, the architect sketched a modernist house perched on a waterfall.
For Wright, it may seem that procrastination led to creative genius. In Andrew Santella’s recently released book Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me, the author—a self-proclaimed procrastinator—recounts the story of Fallingwater, as well as Leonardo da Vinci’s proclivity for finishing commissions years behind schedule, and Darwin’s delayed publication of the Theory of Evolution.
There are plenty of anecdotes like these—but whether or not procrastination is beneficial to creativity is an issue that’s debated, in a more concrete sense, among psychologists. Some believe in a form of procrastination that fosters well-being and creativity, but others argue that certain types of behavior, in which someone intentionally delays their creative work, don’t actually constitute procrastination at all.
Dr. Timothy Pychyl, a psychologist and associate professor at Carleton University, explained that procrastination is a form of delay. “Specifically, procrastination is a voluntary delay of an intended act despite expecting to be worse off for the delay (all things considered),” he noted. So, if you wait until the last minute to do a project or push a priority to the bottom of your to-do list, it’s only procrastinating if you know that you, or your work, will suffer. That’s what makes discerning the difference between procrastination and more intentional time-management difficult.
The intersection of creativity and procrastination gathered mainstream buzz in 2016, when the New York Times published an op-ed by Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, author, and Wharton School of Business professor. In the piece “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate,” Grant posits procrastination as a “virtue for creativity” and shares the research of one of his students, Jihae Shin, now a professor at the Wisconsin School of Business.
He described an experiment conducted by Shin where she gave participants a limited amount of time to come up with business ideas. The first group was asked to come up with ideas right away; a second group was assigned to play Minesweeper or Solitaire for five minutes before beginning to brainstorm; and a third group was delayed even more and thus had very little time to come up with ideas—working under that added pressure. The results showed that people in the second group were 28 percent more creative than the participants in the other groups. Grant, a natural “precrastinator”—the psychological term for a person who is motivated to start and finish tasks early—decided to try and emulate the behavior of the second group by intentionally delaying his creative work.
“What I discovered was that in every creative project, there are moments that require thinking more laterally and, yes, more slowly,” Grant wrote. “My natural need to finish early was a way of shutting down complicating thoughts that sent me whirling in new directions. I was avoiding the pain of divergent thinking—but I was also missing out on its rewards.” (Divergent thinking, the process by which a person comes up with various novel and appropriate solutions for a single problem, is widely considered to be a source of creativity.)
Grant was tapping into what some psychologists term “active procrastination.” This notion was proposed by researchers Angela Hsin Chun Chu and Jin Nam Choi in a 2005 study that explored the positive effects of procrastination among undergraduate students at three Canadian universities.
While past studies had linked procrastination to negative traits like poor academic performance, anxiety, depression, and health issues, Chu and Choi challenged these findings by surmising that there are two types of procrastinators: “Passive procrastinators are procrastinators in the traditional sense. They are paralyzed by their indecision to act and fail to complete tasks on time,” Chu and Choi wrote. “In contrast, active procrastinators are a ‘positive’ type of procrastinator. They prefer to work under pressure, and they make deliberate decisions to procrastinate.”
Their study found that “active procrastinators” fared better than their passive counterparts. They had strong GPAs and self-efficacy—belief in their ability to perform well—and were able to manage their time and emotions just as well as people who don’t procrastinate at all.
More recently, a December 2017 study led by Wenling Liu found a positive correlation between active procrastination, creative ideation, and creative self-efficacy (CSE), which is defined as “the degree of confidence individuals have in their capacity to be creative.” In regard to the CSE of 853 undergraduate students surveyed at eight universities in China, the researchers surmised that “it is reasonable to infer that when active procrastinators solve creative problems, their preference for pressure and attainment of good performance before the deadline induces an increased level of confidence in creative problem solving.”
Some of the debate comes down to a matter of semantics, or how researchers actually define procrastination in the first place. Certain psychologists, like Pychyl, argue that active procrastination is better described as “purposeful delay.” The people who are considered active procrastinators are deliberately putting off tasks until the last minute knowing all along that they would be able to do the task at that time.
“They did not have an earlier intention on which they procrastinated,” Pychyl explained. “They simply worked on tasks later, and if they can be defined by anything, it’s their emotional stability to be able to work under the pressure of the last minute.…Delay can bring many benefits, but procrastination, by definition, is a self-defeating delay as we expect to be worse off for it.” In other words, true procrastinators never put off work with the mindset that they’ll be able to perform well come crunch time. Procrastination comes with self-defeating intentions that “purposeful delay” does not.
In his new book, In Praise of Wasting Time, writer Alan Lightman discusses the benefits of giving oneself unscheduled time to simply think, play, or let ideas incubate. He cites the daily habits of historic creatives like writer Gertrude Stein and filmmaker Federico Fellini, among others, who built rituals into their daily schedules that allowed for their minds to wander freely. Stein, with her partner Alice B. Toklas, would amble the Ain countryside and gaze at cows to spur creative inspiration; Fellini would wake up at 6 a.m. each day and putter about his apartment before setting out for a walk. To an observer, this may have looked like procrastination, but Lightman nods to such activities as a means of fostering creativity, a “habit of mind for contemplation and reflection.”
In the end, it’s difficult to know if Wright and Leonardo were actually procrastinating, or if they were just delaying—perhaps working on more urgent tasks instead, or intentionally giving their ideas some time to change and grow. This idea of delay dovetails with various other research studies that have found that downtime and rest are beneficial to creativity.
It’s important to acknowledge that, in contrast, true procrastination can be deeply detrimental and self-destructive, and often doesn’t work out well in the end.
Pychyl suggested that many of the famous creatives associated with procrastination were likely actually delaying. “Just as there is the saying ‘One person’s garbage is another person’s treasure,’ I think we can also see ‘One person’s delay is another person’s procrastination,’ because from the outside we often use the word procrastination to impugn others,” he said.
He added that when we procrastinate, we don’t go into it with the mindset that it will lead to greater creativity. “Talk to any artist, musician, or writer,” Pychyl offered. “They know that you have to ‘show up,’ not wait for the muse.”