The Skeptical Methodologist

Software, Rants and Management

Procrastination and Creative Thought

Unfortunately, I can’t find the original article in regards to creative thought, but I did just read this in regards to procrastination.  It’s a study I’ve heard about a few times.  In summary, the conclusions are that people who are given an abstract task, or one without a clear-cut solution, tend to procrastinate more than people given a concrete task.  The lesson here, it’s claimed, is that simple things like setting up To-Do lists can really help you become more productive.

This is true, of course.  But I think the study missed another important conclusion, that is, why would humans approach abstract problems in such a non-productive way?  I’d argue that, in fact, with real abstract problems, procrastination is the best thing you can do.  That is because your brain has two modes, a focused/attentive mode, and a meandering mode.  Psychologists are just no realizing that we spend most of our time all day in this default, ‘meandering’ mode.[*citation needed]

Meandering mode is day dreaming, it’s not concentrating, it’s just kind of sitting there.  But despite what you look like your doing (i.e., nothing), your brain is actually incredibly active during this time.  And not just single parts, but a whole cadre of brain areas light up.  Psychologists wondered what we could be doing that required so much energy, and why our brain would so easily go into this ‘default’ mode that seemed so worthless.

The theory is that this sort of default thinking is where most of our creative thought comes from.  Creative thought requires linking together many seemingly unrelated ideas.  Indeed, creative thought is the exact opposite of clear cut, algorithmic thinking.  Just try and come up with a ‘process’ for being creative.  Process is what we’re good at in focused thinking, but is incapable of genuinely new thought.  For that, you just need to sit back, clear your mind and let ideas come to you.

Isn’t this the best strategy for dealing with abstract problems?  Abstract problems generally are abstract because they require creative solution.  They aren’t problems we’ve dealt with, in an exact way, before.  The abstract problem that slowed down the people in this study was writing a diary entry.  Most people put it off because they had yet to think of something to say.  The best thing they can do is to sit back and stop thinking about it.

So the real lesson of this study is that, while it’s true that things like ToDo lists keep us from turning concrete problems into abstract problems, we shouldn’t ignore the power of simply putting things off when it comes to solving truly abstract problems.  Problems we don’t know how to solve don’t need solutions right now, as we’re likely to implement the wrong ones.  Problems that you don’t immediately see a solution to need research, thought, and some good procrastination.


January 25, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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