The Surprising Upside of Procrastination

We all groan about procrastination as though it's a problem we have to fix. But what if procrastinating offers some magical secret advantages?

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #638
The Quick And Dirty

As long as your procrastination isn't creating pain for you or someone relying on you, here are some of the magical advantages it can deliver. Procastination can:

  • Inspire creativity
  • Trigger a feel-good rush
  • Allow a problem to solve itself
  • Shut down over-polishing

The world as I see it is made up of two kinds of people: those who make their beds every day, and those who laugh at the bedmakers because why bother.

I’ve always been a bedmaker. I like the feeling of a tiny accomplishment early in my day. I’ve also always been a bit self-righteous about it. Bedmaking requires a sense of discipline. So obviously, making your bed is just better, right?

Sometimes, under the right circumstances, procrastinating feels good. And it also delivers a different kind of result.

Like making a bed, I’ve always defaulted to assuming that planning takes discipline. So that must mean planning is always better than procrastinating. But what if my logic is wrong? This pandemic has me calling a lot of old assumptions into question. And while I’m still largely a planner, I’m finding myself dallying with procrastination in small doses.

And you know what? Sometimes, under the right circumstances, procrastinating feels good. And it also delivers a different kind of result. So let’s talk today about when and why it’s OK to let procrastination take the wheel.

Is my procrastination helping me or holding me back?

If procrastination tends to be how you roll, start by asking yourself whether it’s serving you or holding you back.

Here are a few questions for you to sit with:

  • Am I scrambling but making things happen, or am I dropping balls or missing deadlines?
  • Do I feel like my work product suffers from the rush?
  • Is my procrastination negatively impacting anyone other than myself ?
  • Would something in my life improve if I put more effort into planning?

Be honest with yourself. Let your answers inform the approach you take.

If your procrastination is either impacting someone else or holding you back in any way, it may be time to strive to overcome it. But if your answers leave you feeling OK, then let’s talk about why procrastinating can be a useful thing.

Procrastination can inspire creativity

Wharton professor Adam Grant describes an experiment to explore the relationship between performance and procrastination. In it, participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Each participant was asked to think of a new business idea. In one group, the instruction was to pitch the idea immediately. The other group spent a few minutes playing a game before pitching their ideas.

The result? Ideas pitched by those who played before responding were rated overall as 28% more creative than ideas delivered by the right-away group.

“It turned out,” Grant said of the experiment, “that procrastination encouraged divergent thinking,” a more expansive way of thinking.

So what does this mean for you? Maybe leveraging procrastination isn't about doing everything at the last minute. Instead, what if you chose to let procrastination fuel tasks commanding creativity, and you were intentional about letting your brain roam free for a bit before committing to an answer.

Procrastination can trigger a feel-good rush

For some, scrambling to deliver something at the last minute feels chaotic and icky, like you’ve lost control. For others, though, procrastination delivers an adrenaline rush. that dose of excitement you get when you race down the slope or jump out of that plane. In other words, it feels great! That rush of adrenaline may be the very thing that sparks your creativity and gets you moving to the finish line.

I have to confess that my adrenaline-infused race to the finish also felt oddly good.

While I’m pretty much a planner to my core, I did have a snafu a few months back when a client made a last-minute change to a program design that had me overhauling my facilitation plan up to the last minute.

In the moment, this last-minute scramble felt off for me. I was born to plan. But I have to confess that my adrenaline-infused race to the finish also felt oddly good. And I credit that rush with the creativity it took for me to land the finish at the 11th hour. And the program was a win!

If you’re a chronic procrastinator, start paying attention to how you feel in the last-minute rush. Is it exciting? Does it inspire creative ideas? Or is it stressful, leaving you wishing you’d just done it sooner?

Because ultimately, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Sometimes the problem just solves itself

Years ago, I had a boss who patently ignored any non-emergency problem the first time it hit his radar. When he first announced this professional philosophy to me, I laughed. It wasn’t the funniest of jokes, but when your new boss cracks one, you chuckle.

He didn’t laugh back. He wasn’t joking. Whoops!

“If it’s important enough, or if they really need my help,” he told me, “they’ll call or email again. And if they don’t, then they didn’t really need me after all.”

I say this in the kindest way possible: You may not be as necessary as you think. Celebrate that!

I’ve got to tell you, this actually worked in his favor. Sure, I saw him get burned once or twice—your ability to prioritize effectively really is critical here—but on balance, problems really did resolve themselves.

If someone’s asking for help that you can offer in five minutes or less, then do your colleague a solid and drop that favor. But if the ask will require more time or energy, maybe just sit on it for a bit. Resist the urge to respond for now and see if a follow-up request finds its way to you.

I say this in the kindest way possible: You may not be as necessary as you think. Celebrate that!

Procrastination shuts down over-polishing

It’s been a while since I’ve eaten in a restaurant. But I remember this quirky thing that used to happen. I’d look at the menu and decide what I wanted. Then I’d put the menu aside while my dining companions continued to browse. After a minute or two I’d pick up the menu again and start to reassess. And I’d second guess every choice I landed on.

I finally learned the trick for me was to wait until the waiter approached the table. At that point, I’d give myself a minute to peruse and choose on the spot.

Part of being successful at work is knowing when to call something good enough and move onto the next.

Maybe I just have food on the brain. But sometimes when you finish something too early—whether it's choosing a meal or wrapping up a project—you feel compelled to keep returning to it, wondering if there’s more to be done or a better choice to be made.

There is almost always a better use of your energy. Part of being successful at work is knowing when to call something good enough and move on to the next. If you’re someone who struggles to declare “all done,” then dipping your toe into the pool of procrastination is worth a try.

So where does this leave us on procrastination? Does it help or hurt us? The answer, like the answer to so many big questions, is: It depends. If you’re a chronic procrastinator, ask yourself whether it’s really a problem before you head down the path of solving it.

And likewise, if you’re a planner like me, maybe it’s time to consider just a dalliance with waiting till the last minute on a low-stakes piece of work. You never know what creative solution or adrenaline rush you'll end up celebrating.

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.