Are you the sort of person who procrastinates?

Who always seems to put off starting work on something and is easily distracted?

While this procrastination may be a significant problem for being productive, and the resulting time pressure can be bad for creativity, there may be some instances when it can be beneficial.

According to new research from Shin and Grant (2021), a moderate degree of procrastination may actually be beneficial for your creativity.

The researchers wanted to see if there was a link between people delaying themselves starting work on a project, and that time being used to incubate ideas, resulting in output which was deemed to be more creative.

In order to test this, the researchers conducted three sets of experiments in the USA and Korea.

USA studies: Procrastination with YouTube videos

For the two USA experiments, the researchers tasked participants with coming up with ideas for various challenges (come up with online business ideas based for someone who won $10,000, help come up with ways to make as much money as possible in 3 hours), and manipulated the amount of distractions which the participants had available (low, medium or hugh numbers of YouTube videos they could watch). Participants only had a limited amount of time available, so it was their choice to procrastinate and watch the videos or get to work on the challenge.

When Putting Work Off Pays Off: The Curvilinear Relationship between Procrastination and Creativity, Shin & Grant, 2021

When Putting Work Off Pays Off: The Curvilinear Relationship between Procrastination and Creativity, Shin & Grant, 2021

What was clear was there was a curvilinear, or U-shaped relationship between creativity and procrastination.

In both USA experiments, the participants who had the lowest and the highest numbers of videos to watch were rated as giving the least creative output. Interestingly, the quantity of ideas generated did not seem to be affected by the procrastination, but the originality values were. The explanation was that:

  • those with low procrastination who needed to begin the actual work as early as possible had less time for the challenge to incubate in their minds, their minds to wander, and more creative ideas to be generated
  • those with the high procrastination option spent so much time procrastinating that they had less time to actually work on and complete the task

However, the participants with the medium option of procrastination actually came up with the most creative solutions. There appeared to be a sweet spot where delaying the start of work temporarily led to more original ideas being developed, bringing some more evidence for incubation possibly having an impact.

Korea study: Furniture manufacturing company employees

To test whether these results would hold up in a real-world example, the authors then surveyed employees about their tendency to procrastinate as well as their intrinsic motivation, and asked their supervisors about that employee’s creative output.

Once again, a U-shaped relationship between procrastination and creativity was found.

A moderate level of procrastination appeared to be the best indicator for creative output.

Field study linking procrastination and creativity in 170 Korean employees, Shin & Grant, 2021

Field study linking procrastination and creativity in 170 Korean employees, Shin & Grant, 2021

This study also found two other factors which influence the link between creativity and procrastination:

The impact of intrinsic motivation was especially strong. In both cases, the outputs of employees who had high intrinsic motivation were still higher after longer procrastination than those with low procrastination.

This may indicate that intrinsic motivation results in people thinking through creative challenges more deeply, or pushing into more original territory.

Either way, if you ever feel like procrastination is getting in the way of you being creatively productive, remember that a small amount of procrastination may actually be beneficial. Just don’t allow it to take too long, otherwise you will not have enough time or energy to actually get the work done.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.