Your work deadline is approaching, those emails haven’t been answered, and you have to pay your bills, but you tell yourself the to-do list could wait another day or two. We know the feeling. Procrastination is something many of us can identify with, but the good news is, it might not be such a bad habit. In fact, some experts suggest that the opposite of procrastination could be just as (if not more) harmful to your ability to think creatively: precrastination.
Are you obsessive about staying 10 steps ahead of the game? Then you just might be a precrastinator. In a New York Times column, Adam Grant, self-proclaimed precrastinator, defines the idea as such: “Precrastination is the urge to start a task immediately and finish it as soon as possible. If you’re a serious precrastinator, progress is like oxygen and postponement is agony. When a flurry of emails land in your inbox and you don’t answer them instantly, you feel as if your life is spinning out of control.” Sound like anyone you know?
While it might seem like getting ahead is generally a good thing, helping us to stay on top of deadlines and avoid the pesky anxiety that lingers when due dates are fast approaching, precrastinating has its downfalls. Grant explains that a former student of his, Jihae Shin, now professor at the University of Wisconsin, challenged the idea that procrastination is harmful to productivity by conducting an experiment in which she asked a group of subjects to come up with new business ideas. Some subjects were told to start brainstorming right away, while others were given five minutes to play a game called Minesweeper before beginning. The results of her experiment showed that those who waited to start came up with ideas that were deemed 28 percent more creative than those of their counterparts. According to Grant, this is because procrastination encourages one to think outside the box.
Instead of jumping on a task or assignment right away, giving yourself a little extra time to process your thoughts and allow divergent thinking can ultimately lead to better, more fully formed ideas. Grant explains it this way: “Our first ideas, after all, are usually our most conventional. My senior thesis in college ended up replicating a bunch of existing ideas instead of introducing new ones. When you procrastinate, you’re more likely to let your mind wander. That gives you a better chance of stumbling onto the unusual and spotting unexpected patterns.” And those unexpected patterns, Grant and Shin would agree, are the building blocks for the most creative thinking.
So there you have it: Starting a task hastily just to get it done right away might actually hurt your work more than it’s helping, and taking some more time to think through your ideas isn’t always a bad thing. Just be sure you don’t wait too long!