The Original Myth: Procrastination as a Source of Creativity

Procrastination is, by definition, “Putting off despite expecting to be worse off.” When people talk about the creative benefits of procrastination, I usually rant about oxymorons, but let’s examine this a tad closer. Certainly, this is an old idea, having been put forth a few times, such as Van Eerde’s (2003) “Perhaps procrastination is functional to creativity because it may serve to incubate ideas” or Cohen and Ferrari (2010) “Prior research supported that procrastination may prolong the incubation period for creativity.” Most recently, in his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World and, for good measure, accompanied Ted Talk and mass media campaign, Adam Grant revives the notion that procrastinators are more creative than non-procrastinators because they are given a chance to incubate their ideas. Incubation requires a delay between when you start and finish, like leaving cookies to bake in the oven. Unfortunately, the research on this isn’t exactly supportive, with lots of “maybes” and “perhaps” at it’s usually strongest. At its weakest, well here’s what I came up with when I myself wrote on the topic:

The most common excuse I hear from people who procrastinate at work is that they are more creative under pressure. I can see how it might appear this way. If all your work occurs just before a deadline, that is when all your insights will happen. Unfortunately, these insights will be relatively feeble and few compared to the insights of those who got an earlier start, since under tight timelines and high pressure people’s creativity universally crumbles. The bleary-eyed 3:00 a.m. crowd scrambling to finish a project will usually come up with routine, unremarkable solutions. Innovative ideas are typically built on the bedrock of preparation, which includes a laborious mastery of your topic area followed by a lengthy incubation period.

And the research I relied on seemed to be rock solid, coming from these two sources, the pinnacle of academic journals that publish this sort of stuff (at least when I get anything in there, I am pretty happy about it):

  • Baer, M., & Oldham, G. R. (2006). The curvilinear relation between experienced creative time pressure and creativity: Moderating effects of support, support for creativity and openness to experience. Journal of Applied Psychology, 91, 963–970.
  • Amabile, T. M., Hadley, C. N., & Kramer, S. J. (2002). Creativity under the gun. Harvard Business Review, 80(8), 52–61.

But things change. Maybe I got it wrong. Grant is an excellent researcher (he really is), so this was very possible. Thumbing to the reference section at the back of The Originals, there it was: “The Research Base.” An unpublished manuscript by Jihae Shin. Must be some study I thought. Unfortunately, I don’t know and neither do you. No one does as no one is allowed to look it. Asking Jihae for copy, especially given that they are trotting it around in the media like a prized pony, I got this polite but surprising response:

Hi Professor Steel,

Thank you for your email. The research with Professor Grant is in preparation, so we are not able to share it at this stage, but we will gladly circle back when it’s ready.

Best wishes,

Jihae

Piecing together pieces from newspaper articles, magazine spots and other flotsam, this was I could glean. Jihae did a survey showing those who procrastinate are reported as more creative by their supervisors. Though I would really like to know the exact measures she used, especially as there are dozens of good and bad ones for both creativity and procrastination, let’s assume good. And add her results to the pile. When I said this was an old idea, I was being factual. There have been a few scores of systematic reviews and meta-analyses such as Feist’s (1998) on the topic of individual differences and creativity, with a more recent one by Ma (2009) comprised of 111 other studies.

Things get a little complicated here as there are different types of creativity, especially the artistic versus problem solving split, and that procrastination is usually studied under terms like low conscientiousness, lack of persistence or impulsiveness. But altogether, they paint a coherent picture. Summarizing this jumble is Feist’s (2010) chapter in The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity, “The Function of Personality in Creativity.”

If those who have a desire to produce works that leave a mark on the world are to succeed, they also need to be driven, focused and ambitious. They are not the kind of person who gives up easily in the face of hindrances and roadblocks. And that is generally what the research on drive and creativity continues to show: Creative artists, businesspeople, and scientists are driven, ambitious and persistent.

Not quite the description of a procrastinator. But still, we haven’t seen Jihae’s manuscript. Let’s further give this mystery paper the benefit of the doubt and assume this one unpublished study undid or updates that which was done before. This can happen and maybe this is one of those times. Jihae and Grant offer another follow-up study to help cement their case.

As Adam describes it in the NYT magazine article, Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate, Jihae asked people to come up with new business ideas. Some had to start right away while others had to delay five minutes by playing Minesweeper or Solitaire. The punchline: “The procrastinators’ ideas were 28 percent more creative.”  Timothy Pychyl does an excellent job dismantling the piece in his post “Procrastination As A Virtue For Creativity, Why It’s False: All procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination.” Aside from “What is this creativity scale that allows anyone to determine something is 28% more creative?”, essentially Jihae found that those who were forced to delay had more good ideas. This is a classic incubation study, among hundreds previously, but as Timothy Pychyl stresses, it isn’t a procrastination study. Procrastination requires delay, but this delay has to be voluntary and knowingly dysfunctional to be procrastination, and that five minute Solitaire break is neither. Again, for incubation to work, you start early, get really familiar with the project and then take a break. That isn’t procrastination, which starts with the break and then does the work only towards the end. Furthermore, if you want to generalize waiting five minutes playing a game to people putting off projects for months, it is much like concluding that taking a five-minute rest improves subsequent physical performance so it follows we shouldn’t exercise much at all.

Even if we let all of this go, we run in one further problem. Let’s assume, against the bulk of the body of science, that procrastination is causally related to creativity; remember, procrastination is still putting off despite expecting to be worse off. Expectations are usually borne out so procrastinators are often less happy, less healthy, less wealthy and usually just plain less.  So if you are recommending procrastination, you are also recommending all that pain and productivity loss associated with it. It is a bit like suggesting another way of increasing creativity: cultivating certain types of mental illness. Consider this nugget by Ma (2010), “The results showed that a person with a higher score on psychopathological traits had higher scores on divergent creativity than a person with a lower score on psychopathological traits.” In many ways, counseling someone to procrastinate to be more creative is like counseling someone to be have more psychopathologies so they can be more creative too.

What can we make of this? A co-author of Adam Grant is Barry Schwartz, who while recently justifying why the findings of his own famous book “The Paradox of Choice” failed to replicate, gave this reply:

It is no doubt true that scientists sometimes seek popular audiences prematurely — before their claims have been adequately tested by peers. I, myself, may have been guilty of this when I wrote “The Paradox of Choice” a decade ago. I believe that in most cases, the reason for this is that the scientist believes she has found something out that, while hardly certain, will improve the lives of at least some people.

I expect this is the case, that this is simply benevolent oversight. Adam Grant is a remarkably productive researcher, with the same organization that I am a Fellow, the Society of Industrial Organizational Psychology, giving him a well deserved early career award. Furthermore, he seems like a fantastic guy, almost obsessively good, as best as I can judge from NYT Sunday Magazine article featuring him. Presently, he has far exceeded the popularity of anyone else in my profession and achieved this by popularizing the science from my field. He writes with style and a great sense of narrative, with collaborators like Sheryl Sandberg (i.e., CEO of Facebook). With his way with words, his scholarly reputation, and the media connections he now commands, he has a vast and trusting audience that will listen to him. All this doesn’t precludes he occasionally gets it wrong though, as I argue he did here, but it does mean when he messes up that it will still be widely accepted as the final word of science.

About pierssteel

Piers Steel is a professor in the human resources and organizational dynamics area and is the Distinguished Research Chair in Advanced Business Leadership at the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business. He is a recognized authority on the science of motivation and is known internationally for his procrastination research, receiving widespread media coverage.

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