Procrastination or Creative Pause?

As a teacher, I’ve sometimes had students who were master procrastinators. They tended to overestimate the amount of time they had for an assignment and underestimate how much time it would take them to do it. Of course, then they ended up with too little time to do a good job. We can all be procrastinators, though, when there’s a task we dislike. Personally, I dislike dusting, and tend to find all kinds of other things to do until finally the dust bunnies turn into dust monsters I can no longer ignore.

But is procrastination always a bad thing?

Recent Research on procrastination among creative people and a famous example

Not according to Dr. Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of Business. Yes, too much procrastination is not a good thing. But he has studied the habits of original thinkers and made a surprising discovery. Many creative people are moderate procrastinators. They are quick to start a project, but often slow to finish it, which gives them time to think and try out different ideas.

Leonardo da Vinci was one of the most creative people ever. Yet he worked slowly, developing over time his sfumato method of blending edges until they almost dissolve, (sfumato in Italian can mean to evaporate like smoke). But it was worth it, because in his later masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, we see the technique at its best. Most art historians agree da Vinci began the Mona Lisa in 1503, but its completion date ranges from 1506 to as late as 1516! Now, we know he worked on many other things during that time, but still, he was slow to finish!

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1506, Louvre, Paris, public domain

Dr. Grant also found that many creative people are willing to take risks and even fail in order to learn and make progress in their work. I have a poster in my art room that tries to encourage my art students to take some risks as they work.

One of Leonardo’s projects failed almost as soon as it was completed. In Milan he was commissioned to paint a large fresco of the Last Supper on the dining room wall of a monastery. Fresco was done by painting with tempera paint on wet plaster, and artists had to work quickly before the paster dried.

It’s what Michelangelo did on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But Leonardo wanted more time to blend paint and experimented with different base than plaster, which began to mold and flake off very soon, taking the paint with it. Yet the painting was considered a masterpiece from the very beginning and many copies were made of it. After WWII modern restoration techniques finally helped restore the original fresco, although little original paint remained.

The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, 1492-1498, public domain

4 ideas we writers can take away from the research of Dr. Grant, and the work of people like Leonardo da Vinci.

  • Too much procrastination means we’ll never finish the work. And we can’t really call ourselves creative unless we do the work.
  • We should be quick to begin (beginning may be brainstorming, doing research, making timelines and outlines, character studies, etc.) but give ourselves plenty of time to think through our ideas, especially when working under a deadline.
  • As hard as it is, we need to give ourselves time and permission to try different things, knowing some may fail.  
  • Last but not least, perhaps we need to rename moderate procrastination as creative pauses!

Tell us about your creative pauses

We all know someone, or have experienced ourselves, a time when putting a project aside for a time gave ideas time to percolate, and we came up with something even better in the end.

Have you ever worked on a project and put it aside for a while because it just wasn’t working? Did you then come back to it with fresh eyes and find a solution?

Kathy O’Neill grew up in Maine. She loves the Lord and His gifts of family, pets, and walks on the beach when storms send waves crashing against the rocks. As a teacher, writer, and speaker, she enjoys engaging children’s and adult’s hearts and hands to discover God and their own creativity through art, history, and nature. Kathy has written for The Quiet Hour, Light from the Word, Refresh Bible Study Magazine, Highlights, DevoKids, Clubhouse Jr., Starlight, and Appleseeds. Visit her website for a link to her blog and to discover fun activities and workshops.


7 thoughts on “Procrastination or Creative Pause?

  1. I agree that pauses are necessary. Sometimes time away from a project gives me the clarity I need to re-enter it. But make sure you go back to it!!

  2. This is a fantastic post, Kathy! I struggle to find that balance because I absolutely LOVE research. I realize if I’m not careful, this becomes a procrastination tactic for me, especially when I’m struggling with a project. However, research also takes me on some productive rabbit trails that give me additional writing project ideas. And you can’t ever have too many of those, right? But I do need to discipline myself to get back to my project in a timely fashion. Thank you for putting procrastination … I mean “creative pause” … into perspective.

  3. Oh, Cindy, I love research, too! And it can take us in so many fascinating directions. But, you’re right, we have to balance research with writing. What strategies do you use to achieve that balance?

  4. I love creative pauses. One pause turned into a picture book I used for a school presentation early this year. Thanks for the great post, Kathy.

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