Updated: Jul 27
Sorry - I’ve had this article in my head for a while, but just got around to writing it!
Have you ever noticed that amazing ideas – solutions to problems, creative new fundraising strategies, innovative partnerships – often seem like they come to you out of the blue? You may spend an hour working hard to solve a problem, but the best answer comes to you once you stop and take a short walk, or watch a few funny Youtube videos.
A study by Jihae Shin and Adam Grant shows that procrastination (to a degree!) may be conducive to creative problem solving. They asked participants to write a business proposal for a student entrepreneur who had just won $10,000.
For some of the participants, they inserted a surprise that encouraged moderate procrastination. In the profile of the student entrepreneur, they embedded links to funny, viral Youtube videos as part of the student’s background. This “clickbait” was a form of procrastination – it took the participant away from completing the task, even though they knew there was a deadline.
They found that the moderate procrastination group, where participants watched 4 videos, actually came up with ideas that were almost 30% more creative than those who just completed the assignment. Holding the assignment in their heads while they put off the task and did something else gave the participants the ability to engage in divergent thinking instead of just locking into one idea.
Another example of this is one of Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous works, the Mona Lisa. He painted the Mona Lisa on and off starting in 1503. But he didn’t complete it until close to his death in 1519. During this 16 year span, his studies and experiments dealt with optics, such as how light strikes a sphere. Some observers might comment that he started a painting and then let it sit on a shelf for 16 years. But in reality, his innovative experiments during this time were vital to the originality that made Mona Lisa famous.
I want to give 2 major caveats based on the research above. First, the participants were still holding the idea of the project in their minds. They didn’t just forget about it for a month and then come back to it. And secondly, there is a point after which procrastination is no longer useful. In the business proposal study, participants who watched 8 videos were not better than those who watched none.
So what do I recommend? Know yourself. What are the things that are easy for you to do that make you feel creative? If I frame a difficult issue in my mind, and then go for a long drive, my mind will automatically start coming up with new ideas while listening to music or an audiobook. Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, works out alone every morning because it allows his mind to work on the big topics he is holding. Find what works for you! Just know that sometimes it is helpful to step away and give your mind the time and space to work creatively.
Maneva Group is a woman and minority owned national executive search firm focusing on the social sector with expertise in completely managing the recruiting process, curating diverse and exceptionally qualified candidate pools, and advising C-suite executives and board members through crucial hiring decisions.