Yes, you read it right. Procrastination can actually make us more creative, according to Professor Adam Grant. The management professor at Wharton School of Business has highlighted the benefits of procrastination — especially for making us more creative. He told BBC Radio 4, “To be original you don’t have to be first. You just have to be different and better.”
Mozart was out drinking one day when his friends became uneasy. It was 3 November, 1787 in Prague and the next day was the premiere of his latest opera, ‘Don Giovanni’. It was set to become one of the most acclaimed musical works in history, a true masterpiece that’s still doing the rounds in opera houses across the globe centuries later.
There was just one problem: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozarthadn’t written the introduction yet. Evidently, the master composer was also an expert procrastinator, since he had actually been working that day – just on something else.
According to an account published in 1845, eventually Mozart’s companions convinced him that he could delay no longer and at midnight he went back to his room to get to work. He slogged away all night, as his wife plied him with punch to keep him awake. In the end, he pulled it off, but it delayed the next evening’s performance because there wasn’t time for the introduction to be copied or rehearsed.
Like many people, I’m a supreme expert at procrastination. When I ought to be working on an assignment, with the clock ticking towards my deadline, I’ll sit there watching pointless political interviews or wasting time on cyberloafing. I always believed in procrastination, but my schoolteachers and parents had completely opposite views. They were always after me to finish my studies and homework first. Now, Grant and his team found the benefits of procrastination through their research. I wish they had done this research 50 years ago!
A World Economic Forum article says that Grant and his team looked at the role of procrastination in improving creativity, conducting surveys within companies and carrying out experiments in their laboratory.
Within businesses, they found that people who procrastinate were more creative than those who get everything done a long time in advance. Equally, in experiments in the lab, they found that people who delayed a task by playing a computer game, such as Minesweeper or Solitaire, were 16 percent more creative.
“The idea of starting early but then delaying your finish is a great way to make sure that you have time to incubate,” he explained.
Other researchers have independently identified the phenomenon of positive procrastination, although there’s some disagreement on what to call it. “Structured procrastination” is the preferred term of John Perry, a philosopher at Stanford who published an essay about it in 1996. Perry was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in Literature for his essay, entitled “How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done“, in 2011. I like this term — “Structured procrastination” and it sounds great too!
The theory doesn’t just apply to business. Grant highlights some famous examples of his theory in practice. He explains that Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, and former US President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, were being rewritten right up until the last-minute. For Grant, this offers flexibility to improvise even once you’re in front of the microphone, rather than sticking to a script.
If I abandon my work, mid-sentence and not return to it for some time or may be days, but when I come back to it I have all sorts of new ideas. Grant believes we shouldn’t be afraid to start early, but equally we shouldn’t be afraid to be slow to finish. Once we get started, we’re typically able to keep going. Getting started is everything.
You never know, procrastination might just improve the end result!