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6 Times When Procrastination Pays Off

We all recognize this word, but we may have trouble acknowledging that we personally know fully well what it means. Yet, is it always folly to be late off the starting block on a business project or task?

By Cathy Hutchison   •  August 25, 2017 2:09 pm EDT

Tags: business, methodology, philosophy,

We’ve all experienced times when procrastinating on a task came back to bite us. (That term paper back in the day comes to mind.) Scrambling to make a deadline causes us to berate ourselves with recriminations. Everyone knows we shouldn’t procrastinate. Right?

You might be surprised to learn that there are six instances when procrastination can actually pay off in business:

1. Responding slowly allows others to give input before you do.

Many designers are quick thinkers. Their brains make connections rapidly, meaning they can often dominate a conversation. Delaying to give an answer gives others the opportunity to respond—which can inject fresh thoughts into a conversation whether in person or by e-mail. This puts the designer in the position of being able to answer after considering the other thoughts on the table.

Of course, you don’t have to opt for “radio silence” when delaying to give an answer. You can procrastinate without seeming to by asking clarifying questions such as, “What advantages do you see?” or “Could you unpack that idea for me?”

Procrastinating gives time for others to put their ideas on the table—which as a designer, can give you a bigger idea palette.

2. There is a “second mover” advantage.

Adam Grant, in his book, "The Originals: How Non-Conformists Change the World," asserts that there is a distinct advantage to being the second mover. He cites one study that examined more than 50 product categories. First movers—those who brought the original product to market—failed 47% of the time, but improvers—those who entered the market once it was established—failed only 8% of the time.

We place a great deal of value on being first to market—but those who are first bear all the costs and incredible risks. Sometimes, moving a bit more slowly benefits us.

As Grant writes, “Surprisingly, as I’ve studied originals, I’ve learned that the advantages of acting quickly and being first are often outweighed by the disadvantages. It’s true that the early bird gets the worm, but we can’t forget that the early worm gets caught.”

3. Pressure can spark creativity (with the caveat that there has to be focus).

A Harvard Business School professor, Teresa Amable, was part of a team that investigated how time pressure in corporate settings affects employee creativity. What they found surprised them. While people reported that they felt the most creative when they were working under severe deadline pressure, the study showed that that feeling wasn’t an accurate assessment. People were the least creative when they were running against the clock with great pressure. (And in fact, they were often less creative for the two days following the deadline.)

But Amable’s team also found that it wasn’t the deadline that was the problem. It was distractions that created the challenge to creativity. People were able to be creative under pressure, but only when they were able to focus solely on the work.

We love to share stories of creativity under the gun—like the famous Apollo 13 solution—where mission control in Houston focused its attention on saving the crew with little time to spare. But procrastination to create deadline pressure only sparks creativity if the conditions allow for complete focus on the task.

4. Putting things off extends our timeframe for thinking about it.

Aaron Sorkin—creator of the popular television series "The West Wing"—once told Katie Couric in an interview, “You call it procrastination. I call it thinking.” And Joanne Foster writes, “Procrastination provides an opportunity to be more reflective, to develop questions, to let thoughts percolate, and to discover fresh ways to tackle what has to be done. Procrastination is a catalyst, of sorts, because it gives bonus time to synthesize ideas, change them, and develop a plan of action.” 

Sometimes what looks like procrastination on the outside isn’t 100% accurate because there is an internal process at work. The tale that Frank Lloyd Wright procrastinated for nine months on the Fallingwater commission and then drew the complete plans while the client drove from Milwaukee to meet him is often shared by architects as a justification for procrastination.

Just because the work doesn’t show on the outside doesn’t mean it isn’t being thought about.

5. Unnecessary tasks disappear.

Have you ever cleaned out your inbox only to find out that the e-mails at the bottom of the list were no longer relevant?

Sometimes one of the best reasons to procrastinate is to make low priority tasks disappear. After all, if it were important, it would already be done.

6. A pause may result in better decisions.

Author, Frank Partnoy, in his book, "Wait: The Art and Science of Delay," writes, “The essence of my case is this: given the fast pace of modern life, most of us tend to react too quickly. We don’t, or can’t, take enough time to think about the increasingly complex timing challenges we face. Technology surrounds us, speeding us up. We feel its crush every day, both at work and at home. Yet the best time managers are comfortable pausing for as long as necessary before they act, even in the face of the most pressing decisions. Some seem to slow down time. For good decision-makers, time is more flexible than a metronome or [an] atomic clock.” 

Many times great decisions are made swiftly—almost by gut instinct. But complex decisions need more than a gut feel. Sometimes, procrastinating on a decision can result in a better one.

Is there anything you need to procrastinate on today? It just might pay off.


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