Procrastination, it turns out, may not be such a bad thing after all.
The most effective way to tackle a new creative assignment is to put it off for a while, according to psychologist Maria Konnikova.
“You’re actually doing the smartest and most productive thing in the world if you waste time,” she said last week in a workshop about the psychology of creativity at Adobe’s 99U conference in New York City. The bestselling author of several books, including one about Sherlock Holmes’ creative mind (2013) extolled the value of taking mind-clearing pauses before brainstorming, prototyping, or diving into a new task.
Her advice echoes that of several psychologists studying thought and creativity. In a 2016 TED talk, Wharton Business School organizational psychologist and self-described “pre-crastinator” Adam Grant argued that moderate procrastination was a necessary habit for original thinkers. “Our first ideas, after all, are usually our most conventional,” he explained in a Jan. 17 New York Times editorial.
Grant described a study by former student Jihae Shin, which shows that people who played a video game before working came up with more original business ideas than those who immediately put their noses to the grindstone. Canadian psychology professor and host of the iProcrastinate podcast Timothy A Pychyl also encourages procrastination, though he cautions that not all delays enhance creativity. The bottom-line: Creative insight needs time to gestate.
Famous out-of-the-box thinkers like Steve Jobs and Martin Luther King were chronic procrastinators. Leonardo da Vinci, one of the greatest creative minds in history, took 16 years to finish the Mona Lisa. Even the founders of $1.2 billion designer eyeglasses company Warby Parker, often cited among the most innovative companies today, admit they delayed finalizing their website until the last minute.
The purpose of procrastinating, said Konnikova, is “to make sure to have perspective before you start working.” To illustrate how such “perspective” works in the creative mind, Konnnikova flashed several optical illusions:
“The way that our vision works is a really good metaphor for the way our brain processes things or more broadly, how creativity works” she explained. In this painting by Octavio Ocampo, you can discern a couple facing each other. After a second or two, a golden goblet, and a pair of musicians appear.
In another layered image by Ocampo, you can see Don Quixote’s portrait flanked by several ghostly faces. Shifting perspective, you see the same “famous ingenious gentleman of La Mancha” astride a horse, with his squire Sancho Panza next to him.
People who take time to step back and assess each visual puzzle above are more likely to perceive the multiple layers in the images. In the same way, when we’re developing an original idea, a pause gives our brains time to form creative associations, and recognize patterns, or simply see things from a different angle.
Commenting on the 1892 drawing below, Konnikova added, “If you had jumped right into your assignment right away, you might have done an entire paper on the duck rather than the duck-rabbit.”
How to spend the extra time pondering, rather than working? Konnikova advised against multi-tasking. Instead, she challenged hyper-connected workers to take purposeful long walks, leaving their mobile devices at home. As Quartz has previously written, even a brief, directionless stroll can dramatically boost creativity.
Correction: The first two paintings above from Konnikova’s workshop are by Mexican surrealist painter Octavio Ocampo not Salvador Dali as previously indicated.