The Creative Fuel Series: Procrastination can be a Good Thing
- 29 September 2022
- ByAnna Brones
- 2 min read
Recently, in a weekly online creativity workshop that I lead, we were discussing the importance of rituals in creative practice. We began talking about the ritual of procrastination. Yes, procrastination. That thing that we are all told we should feel bad about.
Procrastination is quite human. A lot of us do it. About 20% of American adults identify as chronic procrastinators, and even if it’s not a chronic problem, we’ve all put something off at some point or another.
Procrastination tends to be in the time management category, assuming that if we’re procrastinating we don’t have a good grip on how we use our time. But in fact, procrastination is emotional, a coping mechanism for dealing with the negative feelings that can be attached to a task (for example: the thing that gets in the way of you doing your bookkeeping or taxes on time). It’s a way of avoiding an unpleasant task. But in the process, we tend to attach a lot of shame and guilt to it which often just makes the procrastination worse.
But there are some things that actually can benefit from procrastination, and creative work is one of them. Creativity and creative thinking requires time and space. It doesn’t do best on tight deadlines, in fact it can be inhibited by them, and sometimes we do our best creative work when we’re not focused on the task at all. Just think about all those good ideas that you have had in the shower. Dopamine is flowing, we are relaxed, and we’re distracted enough so our subconscious can do the work.
When it comes to creative work, we need a little bit of distraction, we need a little bit of avoiding the task at hand—in other words, occasional procrastination good, chronic procrastination bad.
But if procrastination is something most of us do, why are we so resistant to it in the first place?
The entire concept of procrastination is rooted in a concept of productivity. As a capitalist society, we have put value on the things that equate money. Anything else doesn’t serve us. Think about words that we use when we talk about time. You can spend time, you can invest time, and you waste it. All words based on the assumption that time somehow has an inherent financial value to it. Procrastination doesn’t have a place in our hustle culture, because procrastination implies that we are doing something other than an activity that makes money, or worse, we are actively avoiding an activity that could make money.
But we know that’s not how being a human works—we are not robots who function on pure input and output—and we know that’s not how creativity works.
The word itself derives from the Latin procrastinationem, "a putting off from day to day.” Break the word down further and you get pro, meaning “forward,” and crastinus, “of tomorrow.” When you procrastinate on something, particularly something in the realm of creative work, you are in fact putting off a portion of the actual work until a future time. But whatever you’re doing in the time in between is still informing that future work.
Let’s use drawing an illustration as an example. You have a deadline to turn in the illustration on a certain date. Between now and then you do all kinds of things instead of sitting down and doing the actual drawing. You go on a walk. You watch a ridiculous TV show. You call a friend. You read a book. You clean your studio. Eventually you get to a point when you realize you don’t have the luxury of time anymore. You must sit down and draw the illustration or it’s not going to get turned in on time. You think of something you saw on your walk. You think of a line one of the characters said on the TV show. You think about a thing your friend said that made you laugh. You remember the color scheme on the cover of the book you read. You look over at your desk and realize that it’s clean and inviting. You’ve got a few ideas circling in your head. You sit down and get to work.
If this is you, you’re not alone. There are all kinds of famous people who are known as procrastinators. Frank Lloyd Wright is said to have designed his famous Fallingwater in two hours, after seeing the site and then doing nothing for almost a year. Those of us who love the creative genius myth are easily charmed by the idea that such an iconic building would have been born out of two hours of work. That, however, keeps us from honoring all of the thinking and marinating that would have taken place in the months before, not to mention the experience and work that Wright already had under his belt which would have informed any design. I have an artist friend who, when asked how long a drawing took to make, always says, “a lifetime.”
Our creative process is taking place even when we aren’t actively thinking about it, and procrastination helps us with creativity because procrastination helps to fuel divergent thinking. We can’t ask Wright what he was thinking about in those months before he did the famous drawings, but if we have engaged in any creative work of any kind we can postulate that all kinds of things happened in that time that informed the final design.
Psychologist and author Adam Grant once wrote an op-ed titled, “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate.” A lot of us probably don’t even need to learn how to procrastinate, but we might need to rethink exactly how we procrastinate, and at the very least, rethink how we view procrastination overall.
Chronic procrastination has its consequences (“8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life” screams one article), but there are creative benefits to embracing a little procrastination as a part of our process. If we want those benefits, then we can be intentional about our procrastination, and that brings us back to the ritual. It may sound counterintuitive, but a ritual of procrastination is done with your creative process in mind: making a ritual out of giving yourself permission to do anything that is not related to your creative work for the purpose of feeding your creative work.
You can be intentional and strategic about procrastination. You can give yourself time and space to think about a creative problem. You can focus on another project to help facilitate more divergent thinking. You can give yourself more room for inspiration. If you have ever been in a creative block, you probably know what this feels like; going on a walk often does wonders for working through a creative problem, more so than continuing to stare the creative problem straight in the eyes. When we’re intentional about procrastination, we stop pushing through when we’re in a block, and we give ourselves a little more grace and a little more space in the hopes that creativity will flourish.
We don’t create in a vacuum and creativity doesn’t come with an on/off switch. We have to constantly be investing in our creative selves, whether that’s taking in inspiration and ideas, moving our bodies, getting enough rest and taking a break when we need it, and yes, procrastinating.