Delay, don’t procrastinate

Liz Guthridge Posted by Liz Guthridge, Managing Director, Connect Consulting Group.

Liz Guthridge is a coach, consultant and facilitator who helps leaders turn their blue-sky ideas into greener-pasture actions. She uses applied neuroscience, behavior design and mindful communications. 


Delay, don’t procrastinate

Last January, when I read Adam Grant’s New York Times op-ed piece Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate, I winced.

Adam Grant was describing the power of waiting, not the act of procrastinating. Even though I’m hardly an authority on procrastination, I know enough through my applied neuroscience education along with my psychology coursework to recognize and understand the difference.

Until now, I hadn’t planned to make a fuss or even blog about this. After all, Adam Grant is a creative researching psychologist, popular Wharton professor and best-selling author whom I greatly admire. So if he wants to be flip and misleading, well…..

However, a number of people in my circles are talking about how they want to be like Adam Grant. If they procrastinate, they too can increase and improve their creativity. So they’ll stop rushing to meet their deadlines and start to “procrastinate.”

So here’s my deferred reaction to this deceptive advice:

Delay, don’t procrastinate, if you want to improve your effectiveness including performing higher quality work and being more creative.  

Furthermore, delay in a deliberate manner by using time to your advantage.

In other words, don’t waste time as procrastinators do.

Instead, think through how you will use all the time available to you before your deadline, either real or self-imposed.

You can easily boost your brainpower if you intentionally take one, two or all three of these actions.

  1. Access your “milky way brain,” also known as your unconsciousness or System 1 thinking. As the Nobel Prize winner and best-selling author Daniel Kahneman refers to it in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, your System 1 is always working. It never stops, unlike our executive function (the pre-frontal cortex), which has limited capacity and tires quickly. When you give yourself time to stop thinking about your problem at hand and either let your mind wander or go do something else, your unconsciousness jumps into action in the background. It taps into your stored memories and experiences and connects neurons in new ways for you. That explains the “Eureka!” moments you enjoy, often when you’re doing anything but thinking about your problem or challenge.  For more about this check out the blog post, How to make your office as productive as your shower.
  1. Sleep on it whenever possible. This is more than an old wives’ tale. When we sleep, our unconsciousness continues to work in the background, not only making connections but also sifting through our memories, storing important items and forgetting the irrelevant. After sleep we’re also fresher and can see things we didn’t notice the day before. (For example, I recently referred to the late singer Whitney Houston instead of the author Whitney Johnson in a document, and didn’t notice my “wordo” until I reread the document the next morning ─ thank goodness!) For more about the value of sleep in particular and the importance of spacing in general to improve learning, refer to The Science of Making Learning Stick: An Update to the AGES Model.)
  1. Involve more brains. Working with others often takes more time than when you work alone. However, you can get more divergent thinking, which can add to the quality and creativity of your work. For this to work well, though, you need to respect others and their time, and give them adequate notice and an interval to help you.

In the procrastination examples described in his essay and new book, Adam Grant uses all three of these techniques. But he’s not procrastinating when he’s doing so—regardless of what he describes.

If you’re curious about the difference between procrastinating and delaying, check out this Psychology Today post Procrastination as a Virtue for Creativity, Why It’s False.  As the article’s author explains “All procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination.”

And if you want to delve even deeper into the value of delay, read Frank Partnoy’s 2012 book Wait: The Art and Science of Delay.

As our world spins faster and faster, you can reap many benefits when you slow down and delay and give your brain optimal working conditions.

Are you willing to delay, but not procrastinate?