Does Creativity Require Procrastination? (Ep. 022)

Is procrastination an important part of the creative process, or is it simply laziness and avoidance? If it’s integral, how do we show students deadlines and time management are important while also allowing students the time to incubate ideas? If it’s not important, how do we help students deal with the down time they need to come up with their best ideas? Andrew opens the show by making a great case for why creative personalities need the chance to procrastinate, but then Tim comes on the show to tell him why he’s wrong (10:00). The guys also talk about what procrastination looks like in the art room (12:30) and the best strategies for finding a balance between both sides of the argument (19:30). Full episode transcript below.

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Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education, and I’m your host Andrew McCormick. We are going to discuss a topic today that I find personally fascinating, procrastination. Maybe I find this so interesting because I am what you might consider on the outside to be a procrastinator myself, a claim that I vehemently deny by the way. One of these days I’m going to write a big old honking rant on social media about how I’m really not a procrastinator. I’ll get to that some day.

I think maybe I find procrastination so interesting because I think about how it partners with some cause and effects. When we look at personality types and maybe even if it’s a prerequisite to people that are creative. Questions like is it true that creative types are more messy? I would say yes. Are creative types more likely to blah blah blah blah blah blah? I think that that’s a fun little game that we play oftentimes. I stumbled across this New York Times article a few months ago about the upsides of procrastination. To summarize, the author puts forward that procrastination has gotten a lot of bad PR lately and that it may actually be a huge boon to creativity. In fact it may be one of those pesky prerequisites to creativity.

To me that makes so much sense. To other artists though and teachers I know that this idea is going to be flat out insulting, so let’s dig into this a little bit. Number one, I think we need to talk about semantics. What does procrastination in the art room really look like and what does it really mean? We may have to try to define it here. Number two, are there students and artists that actually benefit from procrastination? Can we say that it’s not a hindrance and in fact actually a boost to their creativity and even production? Number three, could we, would we ever go so far as teachers to say that we should build in ways that our students can procrastinate in our classroom? That one is going to be a little bit of a stretch.

First let’s talk semantics. Like I said, I think that procrastination gets a bad rap and I think I’ve gotten a bad rap for being one of those people also. While I want to avoid turning this episode into me rationalizing why I always turn my stuff in in the last minute, I know that my own issues with procrastination and creativity are going to resonate with a lot of people out there. I choose not to even use the word procrastination if I can. Instead I prefer prioritizing, compartmentalizing, fermentation. Maybe I’m rationalizing it here but I think procrastinators pride themselves on always getting things done, and still doing them well.

I don’t wait to the last minute on purpose. I’d love to be the type of person who gets things done early and then I revamp them, rework them, edit them, but I’m more of a front loader. While it may look like procrastinators are putting things off, we’re thinking the entire time. By the time a work of art or writing gets done it’s been mulled over inside of our heads a million times, and this is why I liken it to fermentation. Like any fermenters out there, you know that eventually things are going to bubble over or even pop, and eventually that mulling and thinking, it reaches a critical mass and it just has to come out.

Maybe this is either because of the real parameters of a deadline or lack of creative brain space, but eventually the work comes out, and I would say it’s better for that sort of fermentation process. To be clear, simply avoiding work is not procrastination. This is why I think procrastination gets a bad rap. It’s not doing nothing. Creative practice, creative procrastination in your practice, it’s like an internal building. It’s gathering momentum. I’d liken it more to juggling or moving pots around on the stove. It’s compartmentalizing.

Procrastinator? No. Do I overextend myself and say yes to everything and then run out of time? Yes. I’m guilty of that for sure. Perhaps that’s the real culprit of procrastination. Maybe this needs to be another conversation or question. Are creative types likely to over promise and under deliver? Probably guilty of that one. We all know tons of procrastinators out there, whether you’re one or you have a colleague or definitely your students who kind of seem like they do nothing for stretches on end and then at the last minute come up with some amazing work.

I think what doing nothing looks like, it’s actually a part of that person’s process. There’s just different ways to get to the same place. Some people out there are going to be concrete sequentials. Every day a little bit at a time. Others of us are more abstract random. The big challenge for art teachers is being able to work with all types of learners, those that procrastinate and those that don’t.

Don’t get me wrong I think that there’s different levels of understanding of procrastination. Literally doing nothing, it’s not procrastination. It’s avoidance. Procrastination is thinking. Maybe it’s doodles, notes, checking out images online, doing research. Maybe it’s working on a new project despite the fact that a student already has three unfinished projects out there. As long as eventually, you know, we’ve got to have some deadlines out there to get students to turn in quality work, who really cares how long something takes or what the process looks like?

I’d even go so far as to say that if we forced naturally slower workers, those day dreamers and procrastinators out there to work more linear and more methodical, number one, that won’t work. People just don’t fly against their nature. Number two, even if somehow it did take hold, I think that we would sap out some of the energy and juice of that student’s work that made it so interesting and unique. The procrastination was an important part of their process.

Okay, so finally we are going to go out on a limb here. If I’ve done my job and I’ve kind of convinced you that procrastination isn’t all that bad, it’s not as bad as it’s cracked up to be, I wonder if we could agree that procrastination is actually a part of being creative that we might encourage it in our classroom. I know the naysayers out there will say, “But what about the real world? What about deadlines?” First off whenever teachers, adults talk to students about the “real world,” I find this totally insensitive.

It’s as if the trials and tribulations of being a teenager don’t compare to being an adult. I don’t envy the real lives and real struggles that my students are facing. Grump Andy Rooney time over here. Secondly, the real world, “real world,” is filled with procrastination. If I procrastinated on paying my taxes until midnight the night that they’re due I’m pretty sure that the IRS would still accept my money. If I turned in my lesson plans at the very last minute that I was given by my administrator, as long as they’re done and done well, what’s the problem?

If we start to see quality suffer due to always hitting the deadlines right at the very last minute then perhaps we need to take a hard look at our practice, but if the quality is good … Here’s what I’d suggest. If you wanted to have some wiggle room in your classroom and allow for some procrastination accept all artwork at any time for full credit. Let that sink in for a second. You still have deadlines however, and this is when you would like for all your students to have their work turned in by, but we all know that students learn and work at different speeds.

These project specific deadlines, these sort of checkpoints are soft. They can move a little bit. That’s fine. The one big hard deadline for the entire term, semester, or quarter, trimester, or whatever is the end of that term. Don’t penalize students with participation grades for taking a bit longer. Don’t dock their points if it’s a week late, because basically you’re kind of telling them it’s not even worth it.

If you dock their points fifty percent it’s like getting an F. You’re not going to encourage students to actually get anything done that way. If the work never gets done, right, you got to do what you got to do, but I think that the idea of soft, rolling deadlines actually teaches students to better compartmentalize and manage their time and still having quality work, than this weird, severe, artificial deadline that’s put in place by us the teacher. Grump rant over.

As this episode digs into questioning whether procrastination is all bad and if actually it’s a prerequisite to creativity, if you want to explore other possible prerequisites to creativity definitely check out the Art Of Education’s course, Crisis in Creativity. I personally love teaching the creativity class as I see firsthand some of the experiments that fellow teachers try on to boost their own creativity, whether it’s an artist date or morning papers, they’re always really interesting to see the different takes that people have to rekindling their own creative fires.

Definitely check out this course if rekindling your creativity is something that you might need right before the school year starts up again. Head on over to the and check out this course and all the other great courses under the courses tab. Now, without further pushing off the inevitable I’d better bring on the antithesis of procrastination, Tim Bogatz.

Tim, I get the sense that you hate procrastination about as much as I hate that really crafty craft out there. Why are you hating on procrastination so much?

Tim: Man, all right, so first of all we talk about crafts last week and hating on those, and now I have to hate on procrastination. I feel like you’re trying to make me look bad here.

Andrew: It doesn’t take a whole lot to do that.

Tim: Wow. Starting off strong tonight. With procrastination I don’t know if there’s one thing I can put my finger on, but just the thing I hate more than anything as a teacher is just apathy from my students, and for me too often procrastination looks like apathy, and it’s tough to walk that line and try and decide are kids really thinking about something or are they just stalling and delaying and just to get out of work. For me with high schoolers I really think most of the time they’re just trying to get out of the work. That’s where my frustration comes from.

Andrew: I have a feeling. When we were thinking about this episode I kind of knew this might come down to word choice and how we define procrastination, because I agree apathy is really, really frustrating and I know we’ve all had students where they do nothing and they actually probably do more work doing nothing than it would have been to just like, “Just finish you’re project.” You’re spending so much mental energy looking like you’re busy in doing nothing, as what, like a sign of protest or something? Just do the work.

I agree. Apathy, super, super frustrating. To me I think about procrastination as like a fermentation. It’s sitting. It’s stewing. I’m thinking about it. I’m mulling it over and I’m kind of waiting until that moment where the pot boils over and I’ve got to act. Do you see that a lot out of your students or am I just wishfully thinking that kids actually act and work that way?

Tim: I think, I don’t know, in my experience you’re romanticizing things a little bit. Let me ask you this, what does creativity or what did procrastination look like to you? Is it just sitting around? Is it working in your sketchbook? Is it multitasking where you’re sitting on your phone for a while until some kind of idea hits you? What does it look like for you?

Andrew: Man, you will all these good questions. I’m the interviewer here. Okay. I think looking at your phone and talking to your friends and dah-dah dah-dah dah-dah dah, that to me is avoidance, and I think avoidance is like that’s not procrastination. Procrastination to me is like … You’re going to box me into a corner here. It’s deep thinking. There’s a lot of thinking and it’s like even though I’m not working on artwork, I’m thinking about artwork. I’m collecting images or resources or ideas. I’m jotting down ideas. I don’t do a lot of sketching but I do more like kind of writing and scheming out.

Then it’s like it all comes together in this moment of fury where it gets done in three hours. Someone could say, “Well, you could have done that a week ago over the span of three days where it was like forty-five minutes here, and forty-five minutes here, and forty-five minutes here. Instead you kind of waited until the last minute.” During that time while I was waiting I was in my mind gaining momentum and speed. I kind of think of it as critical mass. It’s getting to the point where like-

Tim: Right. You’re just constantly building towards something.

Andrew: Right, and it has to happen, and I think about this phrase, what is it? Necessity is the mother of all invention. At some point you just have to act and it comes out, and I’ve noticed with my own work and maybe you can speak about if this happens with student work, or, again, if I’m just romanticizing. In the procrastination, in the waiting, in the accumulating of critical mass I think sometimes the work actually gets better than if it would have gotten done last Thursday when you thought it was going to get done. Does that ever happen with you and your students?

Tim: Yeah. I think it does with some students but the problem I have I think with building toward that critical mass is that the classroom is not necessarily a good environment for that. There are just so many distractions that get you out of that creative zone or out of that flow, and it’s really tough for kids to kind of stay focused on that work and stay thinking about that work along with the, what, forty-five, fifty minute class period you have. It makes it really difficult for kids to stay in that flow.

At the same time there are people that work like that and do better work when they work like that. I’m not one of those people. I’m one of those people that kind of sits down and just puts in the hours, grinds it out, and that’s the way I go with things, but a lot of my students are more towards your end of the spectrum where they wait and wait and wait, and then all of a sudden it just sort of explodes onto the paper and they pull an all-nighter and come in with some amazing work. I’m not in a position to judge like, “Oh, you shouldn’t have worked like that.” Because some people just do.

Again, like I said, I don’t know that the classroom environment is the best place to ferment those ideas.

Andrew: A couple of things on that. I totally agree that that’s probably a difference in some student’s working style, and you know artists who are like, “Every day I work on my paintings nine to four and then I’m done.” Whereas me it’s like I won’t work on artwork for two or three days and then like all of a sudden on a Friday night I’ll spend three hours just doing it, just out of the blue. To some degree that’s true, but then I also think your point that the classroom structure, the fifty minutes, forty-five minutes doesn’t lend itself to that fermentation and building.

I totally agree with you, but I would take it one step further. I would actually say that the school structure of most schools in America don’t lend themselves to anything productive let alone creative work or learning. If you were to ask any quality teachers or administrators, “Hey, design the best day that you could for your students to actually learn something,” no one would come up with the structure of every fifty minutes they’re going to jump from one random subject to another random subject. It just makes no sense.

As I’ve adopted a more choice approach I think about does my classroom feel like a real studio of artists working, and sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes the answer is no, and when it’s yes it’s like it’s despite the fact that we have to leave every forty-eight minutes with bells and this sort of industrial system. I’m kind of off on a tangent here. When we think about mechanization of school and forty-eight minutes and bells, I think sometimes about compartmentalization and prioritizing.

Our students are busy. They’ve got track practice and choir practice and other homework. Do you think that compartmentalization and prioritizing kind of goes hand-in-hand with procrastination or am I just rationalizing my own sort of work habits here?

Tim: No. I think it can go together pretty well, and I think that’s an important lesson for kids is to be able to figure out how to fit all of that stuff in. It’s not like you’re going to grow up and be an artist and just be able to sit around and think all day and then paint when you’re feeling super creative. You have a lot of other stuff that you need to do, and so I think it’s good for kids to be able to at least in their mind kind of go back and forth between things.

Maybe they are continuing to think about your project while they’re sitting in social studies. At the same time maybe that history that they’re thinking about gives them some kind of an influence or some kind of an idea when you’re in that class, when they’re in art class. I think part of it is figuring out how all of those ideas and how all those different responsibilities fit together, and how to create good work in spite of having to do all of that stuff. Maybe that takes the form of procrastination sometimes. Maybe it’s multitasking other times, but I do think kids need to think about where their ideas are going and kind of the direction of their thinking.

Andrew: That’s a really good point. School is kind of like a microcosm of “adult living,” and I think that’s one of the things that we don’t often tell our students when they’re feeling stressed and like, “Oh, there’s so many things.” Part of the purpose of school is not just so you can remember who the twenty-third president is or Pythagorean theorem or how to mix brown pain, it’s so you can become a productive citizen and know what it’s like to have to do the dishes, mow the lawn, pick up your kids and also make artwork at the same time, right?

Tim: Yeah.

Andrew: One of the things that you kind of mentioned is multitasking as a strategy for students to deal with this. Maybe I want to box you into a corner here a little bit, sir. You wrote an article a while ago on the Art of Ed about how it’s a good idea to have students making three or four different projects at a time. Am I kind of getting the gist of that right?

Tim: Yeah. We like to have three projects going at a time. One of them teacher assigned, one student choice, and one sketchbook assignment or sort of ancillary extra assignment.

Andrew: Is that in itself, isn’t that sort of, boy, how do I say this? Is that a way to kind of build procrastination into the day where it’s like if you’re not feeling it on this painting, remember you still have this project that you could work on? Let’s face it, we all needs those times away from a certain project so that we don’t totally burn out, but it’s better than like, “Well, I’m going to sit here and think and look at my phone and talk to my friends.” Is that kind of why you’ve done that a little bit?

Tim: Yeah. I think so, because you’re making me think that now that idea of three projects at once is sort of giving kids the tools they need to procrastinate on stuff. The original idea is just to kind of avoid that apathy or get away from kids doing all the things they do to avoid work, and so I think it’s kind of a balance for them as a student and for me as a teacher. There’s benefits for both of us because, like you said, a lot of times especially when we’re doing this really work intensive projects, you can’t just knock that out day after day after day. Sometimes you need a mental break. Sometimes you need a physical break from that kind of thing. It’s good for kids that have options.

Then for me as a teacher it works really well to help kids find something that they need to be doing, where if they’re tired of this or they don’t have any work out, I can say, “Oh, hey, what about that choice painting that you’re doing? This would be a good time to put some work in on that.” Or, “Hey, what about this sketchbook assignment? You have three of them that you need to do. Just knock one out right now.” It’s really easy for me to give them a very concrete, very direct thing that they can be doing. We’re kind of avoiding that downtime when they’re in class.

Andrew: Okay. I can see some cracks in your armor starting to show up. I can see you starting to soften on procrastination and it’s not such a bad word. I’m going to hit you with this. There’s been tons of research and writing and articles and blog posts out there about the nature of creative people is to procrastinate, is to over commit and get overextended and do everything at the last minute but yet still do it well. There’s even people who say procrastination is like an integral part of their creative process, like that creativity needs room to breathe and that word ferment, like I brought up. Do you think that those people are just completely full of crap?

Tim: No. No. Not at all. I think that they’re onto something. I think that it’s worth thinking about, and I think it goes back to kind of what we talked about a little bit ago about everybody having a different working style. You obviously, in your classroom, appreciate those kids who are procrastinating because you see that as sort of a creative measure. For me I’d get frustrated with that but at the same time I need to be open to it, because like I said there’s some kids who wait, wait, wait, and then come back with just this amazing work that was done in a day and a half.

There are all different styles and I can totally buy that creativity can require procrastination. At the same time it also goes back to what we said about the school day not being conducive to that. We can’t just have our kids sitting and thinking, and sitting and waiting, and sitting and procrastinating for fifty minutes every day because nothing is going to get done. Whether you consider that playing the school game or whatever you want to call it. In my classroom I can’t let kids sit and do nothing for that long.

Andrew: Right. You’re kind of opening up a whole other side conversation here which is when is it okay to allow students to fail, and is that something that they’re learning? You talked about the soft skill that students learn in art, maybe better than any other class, which is like time management and how do we shuffle all this stuff around. Then we could get into the whole like if you want to sit there for two weeks and do nothing, there’s going to be consequences to that. I think that’s a whole other topic about when is it okay to allow students to struggle and when do we jump in and intervene.

Let’s get you out on here on this. As you’ve been thinking about this, do you have any kind of parting words either in the affirmative or negative on procrastination? Do we have to stamp it out or is it something that we can kind of work with but find our own little happy medium?

Tim: I think, like we say every second or third episode, it’s all about finding that balance. It really is. I think on one hand we need to allow our creative kids, our procrastinating kids some time to do that. We need to be understanding as teachers for those kids who are procrastinators or who are the creative type that need a little more time to think.

At the same time as teachers we have a responsibility to not let our kids fail. We need to not let them sit day after day after day. You need to find something for them that’s either moving them forward in the creative process, something concrete that they can work toward even if it is just brainstorming, thinking, writing ideas, sketching, whatever. They need to be productive in that time even if they aren’t working on that project. I think, like I said, we need to allow for a little bit of procrastination, but at the same time we do have a responsibility to make sure our kids are making work and are doing the things that they need to do to be successful.

Andrew: Hey, man, thanks for coming on. I’ve got to type up these show notes but I’m probably going to do it at midnight on the day that they’re due. I’m going to get to it right before this episode goes live. Okay?

Tim: All right. Sound good. Thanks for having me on.

Andrew: All right. Thanks, Tim. We’ll talk to you later. Bye.

Tim: Bye.

Andrew: Thanks to Tim for sharing his thoughts on the debatable importance of procrastination and how important it is on being creative. I think while we have different personal stances on procrastination it was really great to hear Tim reaffirm my belief that some people just work this way, that procrastination and that fermentation is just part of their creative process and that finding balance is really the key. Keep them moving, keep your students moving, but also allow for some of that downtime, that daydreaming, that fermentation to really encourage creative solutions.

Now if we can just figure out a way to revolutionize the way that we structure the typical school day in America to allow for more creative and innovative environments and solutions, that’d be great. I think Tim and I are going to get right on that, I mean eventually. Yeah. I’ll get to it eventually.

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