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Why a little bit of procrastination is actually exercise for your creativity

We’ve all been there. The little bit of easing in we do before we get to the big task at hand. That easing in comes in different forms for different creatives. If you are like me, it usually means cooking up an epic gourmet procrastinator’s meal (a term I coined to understand and self-describe my antics before essay deadlines during my time as a Graduate student..you see through the process of coining it and explaining myself to friends I made myself feel better about my decisions). For others it may mean watching an episode of a TV show which turns into a marathon or partaking in the simple act of knitting.

Procrastination...really?

Some people call this procrastination, but that term has always come with a negative connotation. One that expresses a sense of bad time-management and laziness or even denotes a sort of risk-taking personality. And I am none of those things.  I am not a procrastinator even though it takes me half a day to actually sit down to get my work started . A contrarian in this regard, I know, to the text-book definition of procrastination. But I get it, the world calls this procrastination...so let’s just, for the sake of making things easier, agree to refer to it as such. Even though I think it’s that I just simply know that I work better in the evenings. Until the evening, I engage in, what I like to loosely call, “brain exercises” to get my brain used to the idea of and ready for the cognitive olympics I am about to enlist it into.

So how does procrastination help my creativity?

In fact, Adam Grant’s recent exploration of this concept helped me put my own creative process in perspective. He stated “while procrastination is a vice for productivity, I’ve learned--against my natural inclinations--that it’s a virtue for creativity.” What that means is that while procrastination delays crossing that task off from the to-do list and churning out that output, it actually helps your creative ability expand.

How so? Grant asked his then student, now professor, Jihae Shin, to conduct an experiment concerning how people thought up new business ideas. One set of people were told to start right away while the second set were told to play five minutes of Minesweeper or Solitaire. After submission of ideas it was found via independent raters that those that played the games were 28% more creative. What is key here to note is that playing the game wasn’t the cause, because those that played the game before being told of the task did not show signs of increasing in creativity. What that tells us is that the delaying itself of the actual task at hand is what made the respondents more creative in their submissions.

Procrastination is actually a normal part of many creative's creativity process

Other creatives have put this exact process into different frames. For example, Maya Angelou referred to her brain as having two components: the “Little mind” and the “Big mind.” The Big mind, according to Angelou, would allow you to “ consider deep thoughts, but the Little mind would occupy you, so you could not be distracted. It would work crossword puzzles or play Solitaire, while the Big mind would delve deep into the subjects [she] wanted to write about.” This implies that a delay in actually carrying out the work at hand does not mean that your brain is completely switched off to it. It seems, as is the case with Angelou, that it can be thought of as allowing your brain to ease into the idea of being stretched into the direction as required without force. It’s almost like allowing a sauce to simmer while cutting vegetables for the salad. Both together will produce dinner, however, one is a main, while the other is an appetizer. Similarly, when Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter of “The West Wing,” was asked about his habit of writing last minute by Katie Couric, he quipped “you call it procrastination, I call it thinking.”

How does this help you?

What does this mean for us everyday creatives? It means that we need to find ways to engage our “Little minds” while our “Big minds” are warmed up (you wouldn’t run a marathon without doing the appropriate stretches, would you?) It’s important to massage your creative faculties in different ways so the brain develops various types of creative and problem solving tools. You’d be surprised how much doing math equations in the form of Sodoku may actually help a jewellery designer. In my understanding, it’s all as simple of a concept as telling your brain to stretch in ways it does not yet know it can. What that does is prepare your brain for the future unforeseen circumstances of your creative exposition and allows your brain to reach out to all these unlocked methods of approaching your creative question at hand.

This can be understood as unlocking realms in video games. You know after unlocking them they are available to you in the future at any given time. Your knowledge of these realms and the techniques it took to unlock them are at your disposal in the future. This is especially important when it comes to that horrible big villain at the end of every major world as it means that you know which realms hold the easily accessible life points you will need in order to defeat said villain. I’m sorry that your creative question in this metaphor is a horrible Bowser-like character.
 

So lets procrastinate in a productive manner, but how:

So, I know, we’ve all been there. Half a day gone and 0 words on the screen asking ourselves “where did the day go?” Maybe it’s not writing for you, as it is for me. Maybe you were supposed to make X number of orders of jewellery and you didn’t get around to it until an hour before your regular bedtime because social media was beckoning or that crossword was too enticing to leave midway. But maybe, as I’ve tried to show, all the supposed “procrastination” is a key part of the process that make us that much more creative and our output, whenever we get around to it, that much better. So embrace it--just know how to control it.

If you are looking for worksheets to boost your creativity before getting around to doing the main task at hand checkout our creativity worksheet:

Further reading that were cited in this blog post:
1. Adam Grant: "Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate"
2. Maya Angelou: "Big Mind/Little Mind"