There’s always something you’d rather be doing. Even right now, you might be reading this article in an attempt to avoid carrying out a less palatable endeavor.
Procrastination is normal, and especially so these days. Social media, streaming television and movies, the ease of internet access, and the ubiquity of smartphones can all distract. There are ample reasons why people procrastinate, and it’s always been thought of as a blockade to productivity.
But the perception of procrastination doesn’t always match the reality.
“Procrastination is not just avoiding or delaying a task,” says David Ballard, head of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence. “It also has to include an aspect that’s counterproductive, irrational or unnecessary.”
In fact, active procrastination can often help you get more things done. Below are four psychological reasons entrepreneurs should sometimes lean into procrastination
1. Procrastination helps spur creativity
West Wing creator and Molly’s Game director Aaron Sorkin once said on the Today show, “You call it procrastinating, I call it thinking.” Sorkin puts off writing sometimes until the last minute, and the results speak for themselves.
Even if we’re not all award-winning writers, when you’re putting something off, it doesn’t have to be a distraction. It can simply be a break, and that break can open up a world of new ideas.
When you allow yourself more time to sit and think about what you’re working on, different pathways to a result can bubble into your brain. A 2012 study in Nature discovered – through brain imaging – that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) lay largely dormant when rappers were freestyling. Some athletes might even refer to this as “the zone.”
For entrepreneurs, procrastination might be just the thing to trigger an answer that would be impossible to reach if they didn’t let their minds wander away from the task at hand.
2. Procrastination aids memory recall
In 1927, Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik first discovered how interrupting an event can actually help people remember it. After her professor noticed waiters at a nearby cafe remembered open tabs better than those that had already been paid, she tested the hypothesis by giving a series of puzzles to people to complete, while subtly interrupting half of them.
Those that were interrupted were able to recall details with 90 percent more accuracy than those who were allowed to complete the task. The Zeigarnik Effect was borne.
The same could be said for today’s entrepreneurs. Breaking for lunch, hitting the gym, reading a book, jumping on another task or simply staring out the window can help you better remember the various moving parts in the mission you’re trying to finish.
3. Shockingly, procrastination can enhance focus
This seems like a paradox on its surface. How can you focus better by interrupting what you’re doing – i.e. procrastinating?
Instead of bearing the monotony of working on a single task until it’s done, it’s more helpful to move away – at least briefly. Concentration wanes if we don’t break up the the tedium. Similar to triggering creativity, we’re better able to concentrate if we take a brief blow.
A study in 2011 looked at this psychological effect. Subjects were asked to remember random digits while performing a visual task. They found that once people were asked to recall the digits, their performance on the visual task declined over time. But when researchers interrupted the visual exercise with sporadic reminders of the digits, their visual scores remained high no matter the duration.
4. Procrastination often yields better decision-making
Oftentimes, entrepreneurs will receive an important email that needs an answer. There’s no hard timetable on the answer, but because of the weight of the question, people drop everything to arrive at an answer. If you don’t take a moment to sit back and let the full import of the question sink in, you’re liable to make the wrong decision.
Researchers at Columbia performed an experiment to test this idea. Would a little more time actually lead to better decisions?
First, they asked the subjects to determine which direction a set of black dots was moving across the screen. At the same time, a cluster of colored dots starting moving to distract them. Participants were asked to judge as quickly as possible.
When the colored dots moved in the same direction as the black dots, the results were basically perfect. But when they moved in opposite directions, the accuracy dropped.
Second, they performed the exact same experiment, but subjects were asked to answer when they heard a clicking sound, which they varied between 17-500 milliseconds – a time span meant to mimic real-life decisions, like driving. Researchers found that when decisions were delayed by about 120 milliseconds, their accuracy significantly improved.
However, the researchers differentiated between prolonged and delayed decision-making. If subjects made the decision too quickly, the brain was still filtering out the distractions (colored dots). But if it took too long, it could be hindered by other distractions.
The same could be said for procrastination. Procrastinate too much, or for too long, and nothing will ever get done. But, as we’ve seen, there are some serious psychological benefits to procrastination.