The Perks of Being a Procrastinator
As college students, we have all experienced the downward spiral of procrastination. It starts out innocently enough: “I’m just going to take a short break and watch this baby panda video,” you tell yourself. After the video ends, YouTube decides to do you the favor of displaying other baby animals in your related videos. Oooh, a baby hedgehog! I have to see this! Five minutes later: BABY KOALAS!! Seven minutes later: Wait, is that a baby giraffe? One hour and twenty baby animal videos later: How is it 2 AM?! I still have six pages to write about World War II! If this scenario sounds alarmingly familiar, you’re not alone. It turns out that between 80 to 95% of college students procrastinate during the course of a semester.
Why do we procrastinate if we know that it will only lead to stress and anxiety? One possibility is that procrastination is a result of misdirected flow. “Flow,” a term coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, refers to a state of intense focus in which a person loses track of time due to complete immersion in a task. Flow is usually considered a positive experience, but a group of South African researchers found that people experience an undesirable flow when they procrastinate on the internet.
Although procrastination can hinder performance, there is a significant but lesser-known benefit of letting your mind wander. Research shows that procrastination actually facilitates creativity, insight, and problem solving. Setting a task aside or even daydreaming allows the mind to incubate and turn over various solutions to a problem. For example, a study in 2012 found that engaging in a mundane task that requires little cognitive effort, like folding laundry, leads to greater problem-solving ability compared to engaging in a demanding task or resting.
Anecdotal evidence also supports the link between procrastination and creativity. Some of the most successful startup companies originated as ideas that were simply stumbled upon. For example, Jack Dorsey came up with the idea for Twitter (worth $19 billion as of October 2015) when he wanted to send short messages to co-workers in his office. The founder of Nike, Bill Bowerman, thought of creating a rubber-soled shoe while making waffles for breakfast. Other successful procrastinators include Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton, Aaron Sorkin, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
An interesting study in 1999 found that winners of the Intel Science Talent Search engaged in productive procrastination, meaning they employed their procrastination either as a form of anxiety to propel them to work or as an incubation period to generate new ideas. This idea of an incubation period is why experts recommend letting your mind wander periodically throughout the day to enhance cognitive function. In a 2014 article in the New York Times, Dr. Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist and professor at McGill University, said, “You might be going for a walk or grocery shopping or doing something that doesn’t require sustained attention and suddenly – boom – the answer to a problem that has been vexing you suddenly appears. This is the mind-wandering mode, making connections among things that we previously didn’t see as connected…Zoning out is not always bad…people who work overtime reach a point of diminishing returns.”
Daydreaming is even more crucial today, since our brains take in an average of 174 newspapers’ worth of information on a daily basis, five times more information than we consumed in 1986. Dr. Levitin says that taking breaks is “biologically restorative,” because even though the brain is an incredibly advanced processing system, it is still limited and can become overloaded if not properly rested.
Given this information, what can you do to capitalize on the restorative benefits of procrastination while still getting your work done? Here are four research-backed tips: (1) Work for short blocks of time, taking frequent breaks every 15 minutes or so. (2) Remember that progress is more important than perfection. Doing some work is better than doing none at all. (3) Picture what will happen if you don’t complete your work – the anxiety can serve as motivation. (4) And finally, don’t feel guilty about letting your mind wander every so often during the day. Think of it as giving your brain a much-needed break from reading 174 newspapers.