Björn Rust (he/him) is a post-industrial designer cum researcher, innovator and educator, developing context-sensitive innovation practices for people, planet and beyond.

Recent writings

  1. Opportunity hoarding
  2. Doing away with bullshit
  3. The course of my life, so far

Procrastination for creativity

I have yet to meet someone that does not struggle with procrastination or able to completely avoid distraction. It seems our increasingly chaotic lives rob us of focus. They tear us away from the task at hand, as Italo Calvino put it:

There is always something to do: go to the bank, the post office, pay some bills... always some bureaucratic tangle I have to deal with.

It’s comforting to know that even the brightest among us have to deal with the same »bureaucratic tangle«, but that does little to abate the feeling that we could be working harder or smarter. In response to the question »Do you work every day or only on certain days and at certain hours?«, Calvino answered:

In theory I would like to work every day. But in the morning I invent every possible excuse not to work: I have to go out, make some purchases, buy the newspaper. As a rule, I manage to waste the morning, so I end up sitting down to write in the afternoon. I’m a daytime writer, but since I waste the morning I’ve become an afternoon writer. I could write at night, but when I do, I don’t sleep. So I try to avoid that.

This probably sounds familiar to most creative freelancers. It’s certainly been my experience in the past but it seems the opposite problem, namely pre-crastination has its own disadvantage. In Adam Grant’s article for The New York Times he describes his struggle with pre-crastination and compulsive pursuit of flow. A student of his challenged his habits by announcing that her most creative ideas occurred after a period of procrastination. Grant wasn’t convinced, so he asked So Jihae, now a professor at the University of Wisconsin to design some experiments:

She asked people to come up with new business ideas. Some were randomly assigned to start right away. Others were given five minutes to first play Minesweeper or Solitaire. Everyone submitted their ideas, and independent raters rated how original they were. The procrastinators’ ideas were 28 percent more creative.

Could it be that by procrastinating we may be inadvertently facilitating the second stage of Graham Wallas’ creative process? This four-stage process comprising Preparation, Incubation, Illumination and Verification champions the importance of giving the mind time to process data captured during the Preparation stage.

Jihae’s study seems to support this notion. But we must be careful at which stage of a project we procrastinate. As Grant relays:

When people played games before being told about the task, there was no increase in creativity. It was only when they first learned about the task and then put it off that they considered more novel ideas. It turned out that procrastination encouraged divergent thinking.

So we must take immediate action when we are assigned a task, tapping into our accumulated intellectual resources. Acting on hunches, speaking with friends and colleagues to develop a position on the subject at hand. Only then can we afford to procrastinate, or as it seems, only then do we deliberately procrastinate.

Inspired by: The New York Times
Reference: The Paris Review

Return to top