Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

Procrastination Is a Bad Habit, But Is the Opposite Any Better?

I don’t believe in procrastinating. That’s not to say that I’ve never put work off—I am human, after all. Generally speaking, however, it doesn’t make me feel good to delay things I know need to get done.

This is pretty much true from the minute I wake up (snooze? what’s that), get the coffee going (nine times out of 10, it has been prepped the night before, and I only need to press the “on” button), and head out for my run before going into the office.

I don’t start projects at the last minute, and have, in fact, never pulled an all-nighter—not in college, in grad school, or in my professional life. I believe in an empty inbox, and I prefer to work ahead so that if a project does happen to pop up last minute, I can handle it without getting overly stressed.

According to a recent article in The New York Times by Adam Grant, this makes me a pre-crastinator. And just like being a procrastinator, this apparently isn’t good either.

Let me explain: When Grant decided to see “if creativity happens not in spite of procrastination, but because of it,” he discovered that his “natural need to finish early was a way of shutting down complicating thoughts that sent me whirling in new directions. I was avoiding the pain of divergent thinking—but I was also missing out on its rewards.”

He was essentially acquiescing that procrastinators are often more creative because, “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 so, when Grant gave himself permission to delay his work, he found that, for example, going back to a piece of writing three weeks after he’d started it gave him fresh, nuanced perspective; the distance helped his end product.

Grant’s student, Jihae Shin, who did more comprehensive experiments, found that instead of just rushing to finish a task—an article, presentation, speech, what have you—giving in to distractions and delaying completion actually led to more innovation.

This doesn’t surprise me, and it probably doesn’t shock other Type A pre-crastinators either—starting something as soon as possible isn’t the same as finishing it as soon as possible. The former involves organization, the latter involves rushing. Pre-crastinators, I would argue with Grant, aren’t all about checking items off the to-do list, but they do derive great satisfaction from completing those tasks in a timely manner.

In the end, Grant found that perhaps “the right kind of procrastination might make you more creative,” and I’m OK with that idea, but I’m also quite content with the way I go about my work now. Sure, my best writing tends to be the stuff I begin and go back to at a later point. Depending on the day and what else I’ve got on my agenda, that might mean hours later or a week. I might like (OK, love) to get things done, but I won’t sacrifice quality to do it. And that’s what the experimentations seems to have missed.

Pre-crastinators who own it, you need not turn yourself into a procrastinating individual for the elusive promise of creativity—no matter what The New York Times says. If your email-answering, task-tackling self isn’t in a huge hurry to finish but simply to start, I’d say you’re doing something right.

Photo of team collaborating on a project courtesy of Shutterstock.