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Why procrastinating can benefit students

April 5, 2017
When I hear teachers complain that their students refuse to follow the recommended steps to complete a research project, such as using note cards, preparing outlines or creating a timeline for a project, I secretly feel sympathy for the students. I was always convinced that I had a good enough system, and I liked it. When I did comply, the entire process was an irritant to me. In retrospect, I admit there were virtues in many of the formats suggested to me, but I still feel that the fun is in the creation and the proof is in the pudding.
We all have our own ways and ideas. Learning new ones is essential to broadening our perspective, but allowing students the flexibility to create a quality finished product through their own peculiar system may be just as important. One consistent element of my creative process is procrastination. I have never thought it was a virtue, just an inevitability. Procrastination, poor time management, evasive behavior — whatever you call it — makes our teachers, editors, colleagues and families crazy, but some of us just can’t seem to break the habit. Now, I have learned that at least some of that procrastination might be a good thing.
As a university student, Jihae Shin had a theory about procrastination and creativity. After surveying company employees to identify known procrastinators, she discovered that those same employees were rated most creative by their employers. In later years, she and Adam Grant developed an experiment to validate that assumption. Participants were divided up into three groups and given a task. The first group immediately began work, the second group was assigned to five minutes of Minesweeper or Solitaire before beginning, and the third group was to wait until the last minute to begin. The second group fared the best, while the last-minute procrastinators scored second. The diligent methodical workers who got right to work tended to go with their first and less creative thought, while group two relaxed and reflected for a few minutes to develop more creative ideas. Group three rushed through the task with poorer results than group two.
In addition to the effect time has on developing creative ideas, other advantages have been described that are pretty familiar, such as the tendency to get more accomplished by completing multiple smaller and easier tasks to justify postponing the larger project. Ironically, this often results in procrastinators being more productive people. The trick is to use the postponement time to ponder the bigger project. Studies have shown that we have better memory for unfinished projects. Walking away from unfinished work leads to the evolution of more complex and creative ideas when we return.
Despite the potential benefits of procrastination, those who procrastinate out of self-consciousness or fear often fail to ever complete the task at all. Procrastination turns into avoidance, failure and guilt. This is a destructive cycle that should not be confused with what I might call working procrastination.
So, sometimes the roundabout and somewhat messy process of completing a project arrives at a better result in the end. Once again, we find that fewer rules and more flexibility feed the creative process. The Puritan in me wants to get the work done and get it off my back, but that little demon inside keeps saying, “Let’s just think about that for a little bit longer.” In the end, just a little procrastination can go a long way, while too much procrastination gets you nowhere.

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