Read this later: A link between procrastination and creativity

Procrastination is a near-universal human behavior, with some surprising benefits. But when the time comes to focus, Ryan Miller of the Weingarten Center offers tips and time-management tools.

Person asleep at an office desk.
Following a time-management plan and other tips are helpful for those who procrastinate. But the psychology behind why people tend to put off tasks reveals a surprising source of creativity. (Image: iStock/cyano66)

Procrastination is nearly universal as a phenomenon and psychologists and behavioral psychologists have studied what the full effects of procrastination are, where it emerges from, and how it can be combatted. Delay can be a self-handicapping strategy—it is preferable to fail due to being unprepared rather than just incapable; the blame is externalized rather than internalized.

Modern technology alone can’t be blamed for procrastination, no matter how much one scrolls social media. Procrastination has been a human behavior for centuries; it predates the internet. Procrastination is a set of emotions, including “I resent doing this task” or “I’m afraid I’m not going to do it well.” There are deeper, and potentially conflicting feelings involved in task avoidance. “Procrastination is a lot about the challenge of getting started,” says Ryan Miller, director of academic support at the Weingarten Center, who coordinates academic support workshops.

His team of learning specialists work with undergraduate and graduate students, and frequently talk about procrastination.

“External accountability is really helpful because I have given up on willpower,” says Miller. “It’s limited, its flawed. We are human; willpower is not always there for us. I like the idea of seeking support and accountability from others.”

Particularly, graduate students are encouraged to seek coworking sessions and “accountability partners.” This entails gathering on Zoom, spending five minutes talking about what they hope to accomplish, then turning off the camera and mic for a work session, with a check-in at the end.

Miller and his team offer tips for managing looming tasks: Break down a task into small, manageable steps; “Write dissertation” is too big for a to-do list item. Make the items concrete tasks rather than ideas. And if students continually struggle to make progress, they may need to sit down with a learning specialist.

In 2020, Wharton management professor Adam Grant co-authored “When Putting Work Off Pays Off: The Curvilinear Relationship Between Procrastination and Creativity” in the Academy of Management Journal. With Jihae Shin of Yale University, the two studied procrastination in the context of work with an internal or external deadline, and found a surprising link between procrastination and creativity.

“Although it is widely assumed that procrastination is counterproductive, delaying task progress may have hidden benefits for creativity. Drawing on theories of incubation, we propose that moderate procrastination can foster creativity when employees have the intrinsic motivation and opportunity to generate new ideas,” Grant and Shin write.

They conclude: “Procrastination is prevalent in the workplace, and it is a major source of stress … Since procrastination is often regarded as a form of self-regulatory failure, these negative emotional states often compound the problem, and may lead to a ‘depression spiral.’ Given the difficulty of eliminating procrastination completely, there may be ways to harness it creatively.”

When the time comes to approach a task, Miller advises working in “study blocks.”

Pomodoro kitchen timer.
The pomodoro study method follows a 25-minute working period followed by a short break, all timed. (Image: iStock/JD and Kyle Shoot Stock)

“I tell students if they have all day Saturday to study, don’t plan to do it all day. Make it two to three 90-minute study blocks—within those blocks people find the most concentration.”

Miller suggest the pomodoro method, named for the kitchen timer shaped like a tomato, or “pomodoro” in Italian: 25 minutes on, followed by a five-minute break. A two-hour block is four circuits, or pomodoros.

“When you hit start on the timer, it really feels like a start. If your attention or energy lags, you can look at the clock and see how much time you have left,” Miller says. Begin with something easy for the most effective and productive study block, like concept-mapping or brainstorming. The middle block is the for tackling the most difficult task, with the last block reserved for planning the next session.

This type of time management works best for students who are either working full time and studying, or writing a dissertation.

“I like setting minimum tasks,” Miller says. “If you can’t sit down until 8 o’clock at night, is there a minimum task you can do? You can write down five things you remember from lecture or read three abstracts. It gets you over the challenge of starting.”

Penn’s Graduate Student Center facilitates coworking and accountability groups for grad students, and supports students to be more efficient and effective in their academic pursuits. The Center runs a dissertation boot camp which directly addresses managing procrastination, and highlights the benefits of coworking virtual spaces, especially for students who are in their fifth or sixth year of dissertation writing, and not as tethered to the University.

“These are practices that can be developed as habits, but procrastination is an ongoing challenge we can never fully get over. But we can better observe and understand it, and understand our behaviors that lead us to it,” Miller says.

“But I think also there can be a positive side to procrastination; we feel like our ideas haven’t come together or we need more input or a better understanding of the task, we need more time or more reflection. We can consider the possibility of procrastination as a source of creativity. Given the difficulty of eliminating procrastination completely, there may be ways to harness it creatively.”

Miller concludes, “I don’t think people should beat themselves up. Honestly, sometimes for a lot of people the most productive day comes after the least productive day. That’s going to happen as well.”