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Procrastination as a Virtue for Creativity: Why It's False

All procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination.

What better way to attract readers than to say that up is down or in is out. When we challenge basic assumptions about the world, we attract that limited resource of attention. Moreover, when what we say is that one of our failures may be a virtue, we really hit a sweet spot with the human psyche.

That’s what Adam Grant did in the New York Times this past weekend with his Op-Ed piece entitled “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate.”

There are several problems with his argument, and each is deserving of criticism, because his essay perpetuates a misunderstanding about procrastination.

The gist of Grant’s argument is that while he typically, almost compulsively (his depiction, not mine), got tasks done well ahead of time, he learned through one of his graduate students that she was most creative when she procrastinated. Here was error #1.

As proof of this causal relation between procrastination and creativity, Grant offers up his graduate student’s rather informal survey and correlational data. The thing is correlation is not causation. The relation of supervisors’ ratings of employees’ creativity with the employees’ self-reported procrastination does not demonstrate that more procrastination will result in more creativity.

To his credit, Grant acknowledged that he “wasn’t convinced,” and his grad student now a professor, Dr. Jihae Shin, did conduct experimental work. The trouble is she didn’t measure procrastination, she measured delay. This was error #2. She didn’t have participants procrastinate. One group was asked to start right away, and the other was asked to delay by 5 minutes by first playing an online game. They did delay their work, but it wasn’t the voluntary delay of intended action with the expectation of a possible worse outcome (the psychological definition of procrastination used in the research literature); their delay was a purposeful delay. They did what they were told to do.

Now, here is where I agree with Adam Grant. Those in the delay condition were found to be more creative. Why? Well, we can speculate quite a bit about what happens when we delay a task and let a lot of nonconscious processing go on, but I won’t get into that. I will simply agree that giving ourselves time may be beneficial to our creativity. In fact, it may even be necessary! So, we might even want to call this delay “sagacious delay,” but certainly not procrastination.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that every once in awhile we’ll actually procrastinate and it will pay off somehow, and this might be increased creativity, but this isn’t typical. We will certainly cherish these moments as they serve as a ready justification for future procrastination, but real creativity comes from choosing to delay, not rushing a process that shouldn’t be rushed. Procrastination typically results in rushed, last-minute efforts, not careful consideration of the task at hand. Our research reveals this clearly.

In fact, Grant acknowledges this near the end of his essay. He writes,

“Of course, procrastination can go too far. Jihae randomly assigned a third group of people to wait until the last minute to begin their project. They weren’t as creative either. They had to rush to implement the easiest idea instead of working out a novel one.”

Notwithstanding that this study in no way measured “procrastination,” what we do agree on is that last-minute efforts can undermine, not enhance, creativity. It’s unfortunate that Grant saved this important bit to the end of his essay, because by this point most readers would have fallen prey to the confirmation bias, and were deeply convinced that their procrastination was simply a reflection of their truly creative selves, not the problem it seems to be.

In the last couple of paragraphs, Grant touches briefly on what to do if you suffer from that “destructive” kind of procrastination. This is error #3, an error that really permeates the essay itself. Put most simply, while all procrastination is delay, not all delay is procrastination.

What Grant has written about is delay, purposeful delay at that. His lived experience and the research he draws on shows that “haste can make waste,” and that purposely delaying action can be beneficial. I couldn’t agree more. Many kinds of delay in our lives are strategic and beneficial, and many others are inevitable and benign. In contrast, procrastination is that particular form of delay which captures our self-regulatory failure, where we fail to act as intended even though we are aware that this delay will probably come at a cost. Unlike the other forms of delay noted above, there is no upside to procrastination. As my colleague Joel Anderson (Utrecht University) has written recently in book chapter for upcoming book I co-edited, procrastination is “culpably unwarranted delay.”

Let me end this rather long post where Grant does. He writes,

"But if you’re a procrastinator, next time you’re wallowing in the dark playground of guilt and self-hatred over your failure to start a task, remember that the right kind of procrastination might make you more creative. And if you’re a pre-crastinator like me, it may be worth mastering the discipline of forcing yourself to procrastinate. You can’t be afraid of leaving your work un"

Clever, I like it, but this notion of “the right kind of procrastination . . .” is the thesis and main error of the essay. The right kind of delay may make you more creative. I agree that being too quick off the mark for all of your tasks may be an ineffective strategy when careful thought is necessary first. But, please, let’s not play in this semantic cesspool. All delay is not procrastination, and it’s important to know the difference. When you figure that out, you’ll probably use delay more effectively, and you’ll probably be more creative.

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