In cultures focused on productivity, procrastination often gets a bad rap. We’re encouraged to start early and finish first—or risk failure.
For many of us, however, procrastination can serve a purpose. You might work better under pressure, for example, or prefer to address tasks that cause you stress in small doses. Or maybe procrastination helps make executive tasks that you don’t like to do, such as planning or decision making, feel more manageable (many neurodivergent individuals in particular can likely relate).
If you are naturally inclined to procrastinate and able to do so without missing deadlines or sacrificing the quality of your work, you don’t need to feel guilty about the habit. Besides protecting you from short-term stress, research shows that mindfully delaying a task can boost creativity and innovation. It can also buy you time to gather information while doing tasks you actually enjoy.
Want to master the art of delay? These three tips can help you get started (or not).
1. Familiarize, then procrastinate.
In one study, researcher Jihae Shin, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, asked participants to generate new business ideas. Some people were randomly assigned to start brainstorming immediately, while others were given five minutes to first play a game. The result? Ideas from participants who delayed brainstorming were rated as 28 percent more creative.
The key is to shift your attention elsewhere after you understand what the task entails. According to organizational psychologist Adam Grant, when we moderately prolong a task, our brains don’t table thoughts about the task altogether. Instead, we process the task in the background, which gives us more time to come up with innovative solutions.
If you ever had an epiphany while on a run or in the shower, you know firsthand the power of a slightly distracted, meditative mindset. When you have time to spare on a creative task, try to “play with delay” and see what the perspective shift can do for you.
2. Procrastinate with purpose.
Facing a stressful task that you’ll do anything (and everything) to avoid? Plan to procrastinate. This practice, which psychologists call “active procrastination,” entails coming up with a loose plan for when the task needs to get done. For example, rather than committing to a specific time that feels confining once it rolls around, give yourself the freedom of a broader window that factors in time for procrastination.
Studies show that those who procrastinate with a loose plan tend to use their time more wisely than those who “passively procrastinate.” They’re also quicker to switch gears if the plan changes.
And rather than defaulting to a social media scroll while procrastinating, consider tackling another less daunting item on your to-do list. According to the progress principle in psychology, the act of checking off a completed task is a major source of motivation.
3. Forgive yourself.
Procrastinators can be particularly critical of themselves, especially when reflecting on work delays. In a related finding, research indicates that chronic procrastinators tend to have larger amygdalae—the region of the brain responsible for processing emotions, specifically anxiety and fear—than non-procrastinators.
But this self-deprecation only further ramps up procrastination. If you are running behind schedule, try a pep talk instead of a scolding. Studies show that forgiving yourself can make you more motivated and less likely to procrastinate in the future. And if you choose to procrastinate, do so with self-compassion. Try to validate the reasons why you aren’t immediately getting started—maybe your brain truly needs a break, or you don’t have everything you need to do the task well. Own your break time fully, so you can then own the task ahead.