Is procrastination healthy for creativity?
Recently I read an article which seemed to imply this. The main theme of the article being that a certain amount of procrastination is good for creativity. My immediate reaction to this was that procrastination was being misinterpreted. I had always understood procrastination to mean something negative. This is confirmed by checking out dictionary definitions. The Collins dictionary defines procrastination as ‘to put off or defer (an action) until a later time; delay’.
Adam Grant in his TED talk discusses procrastinators and concludes that moderate procrastinators were more creative whereas high or low ones were not so. Of course, there is a problem here in determining whether our procrastination level is low, moderate, or high! However, when you listen to Grants talk, it becomes clear that what he is really talking about is incubation and not procrastination. The same is true of the original article I had read that sparked this trail of thoughts.
So, what is the issue you may ask?
I have on numerous occasions coached someone who was a procrastinator, in that they left things undone until they became urgent. I have done this myself, and in fact am doing it right now in that I promised myself I would write this blog last month and have put if off several times.
Some people have a tendency to procrastinate and this mostly comes from a negative place.
- They may be perfectionists who put off things because the result needs to be perfect, and they may be afraid of taking the task on for this reason.
- They may just not want to do the task because it bores them or they dislike aspects of it.
- Or they are just too busy to get going on it.
All these reasons are undoubtedly genuine however, I would doubt whether any of them would result in a more creative approach given some delay in tackling the problem. Procrastination can create anxiety and that is not conducive to creativity.
The second is that just delaying the task is not good enough to improve creativity around it. What Grant and others have confused is the state of procrastination with that of incubation.
Incubation is a part of the creative process and is particularly valuable in a creative problem-solving approach. However, there is an important point to consider here that sets it apart from procrastination. Incubation requires a prepared mind. This means that the incubation occurs after some thinking or work has been done on the issue at hand. Then a period of incubation can allow the unconscious mind to process ideas, and this will eventually be brought into the conscious mind.
So, what is happening in this period of incubation?
Professor Gilhooly refers to the importance of forgetting during incubation. I have experienced this many times as a facilitator of creative techniques. When someone takes on another activity totally unrelated to the issue they had been working on, they continue to incubate unconsciously and consciously focus on the new task. This can result in a kind of forgetting process and when they come back to the issue fresh insights can arise. Alternating techniques can also work to produce this, as can introducing an element of play, or even a walk whilst problem-solving.
How often do we prepare something such as a speech, then when we are doing something else, like taking a shower, fresh thoughts come into our mind to improve on what we had prepared? This is the process of incubation.
Turning procrastination into Incubation
We can therefore turn procrastination into incubation by taking some action on the task. Any action will start the process of our minds working on it while we continue with our lives. The result will be richer for this.
However, a final warning, that if you do not start the process rolling with some work, then the task will end up in that pile of procrastinated tasks and put even more pressure on you.
Barbara is an executive coach, leadership and creativity facilitator. She has coached in a variety of corporate settings, and has developed a unique approach to using creative techniques in her coaching and workshops to enable change at a group or individual level. She has recently co-authored a book on creativity for leaders, called Creativity Cycling , with Dr. Tracy Stanley.