How Procrastinating Can Boost Creativity

April 20, 2016 Katharina Lochner
image Adam Grant

What Makes Creative People, Creative?

How are creative people different from others? In a TED Talk, Adam Grant, professor at Wharton Business School, outlines three characteristics that many originals (as he calls them) share: They are moderate procrastinators, they feel doubt, and they try something new in spite of experiencing fear of failure.

In two subsequent studies Dr Grant and his colleagues found that people who procrastinate moderately are more creative than those who are heavy procrastinators, but, and this might sound surprising, also than those who don’t procrastinate at all. According to his research there is a “sweet spot” between pre-crastination (starting way too early before the deadline) and extreme procrastination (starting way too late). What happens in the minds of creative procrastinators is this: They start working on a task; then they do something else while the original task is still active in the back of their minds; thus they make new connections; once they get back to the original task they come up with more creative ideas and solutions than they would have if they had not procrastinated.

Moreover, originals feel doubt although they might look confident. Doubt per se is not a bad thing, as Dr Grant outlines. However, there are two kinds of doubt, self-doubt which is paralysing and idea-doubt which is energising. Idea-doubt leads humans to keep improving the idea until it will really work. But in a state of idea-doubt one will still stay optimistic, thinking “I am just not there YET”. This is, by the way, in line with findings we reported on before: When people get the feedback “Not Yet”, they understand that they are on a learning curve instead of getting the feeling of having failed, and this can lead to the most encouraging results. In any case, it means that originals doubt the default and look for something better, and once they come up with their own idea they are critical about it and try to improve it over and over again.

Finally, originals feel fear of failure like all of us, but their fear of not even trying is even greater. And they do fail, but they try again and again.

So what can we learn from this? Taking a break while working on a creative task and doing something else (thus procrastinating moderately) is beneficial. Being doubtful of our ideas leads us to improving them, but we have to refrain from self-doubt. And, finally, failing is normal, but if we never try we will never know!

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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