Is Procrastination Ever Good?

I’ll answer that question eventually. Just not right now.

If you’re a skilled procrastinator, you probably already know this classic trick: procrastinate by doing something productive.

For example, say you have a work project you really don’t want to get started on. You tell yourself: “I’d love to start that project, but I just have to do these dishes first.” The beauty of this technique is that you get to procrastinate and alleviate the guilt of procrastinating by doing something productive.

In a recent study, researchers looked at procrastination in a group of 1106 college students, with a focus on what they called “productive procrastination.” The example they gave was students spending time organizing notes rather than studying for an exam.

What they found was that “productive procrastination” isn’t an oxymoron. Students who tended to procrastinate by doing other academic tasks were similar to non-procrastinators on several measures of functioning including academic performance and alcohol-related problems.

By contrast, students who engaged in “classic procrastination” or who procrastinated by doing “productive” non-academic tasks fared worse.

This isn’t the first study to find that some types of procrastination are better than others. Research done in 2005 looked at the difference between “passive” procrastinators and “active” procrastinators – that is, people who procrastinate intentionally because they prefer to work under pressure.

The findings indicated that active procrastinators resembled non-procrastinators more than passive procrastinators on several measures, including academic performance.

Of course, if you aren’t careful, this can become a rationalization – “I’m not shirking my duties, I just prefer to work under pressure!” But the results do suggest that there’s such a thing as procrastinating for a good reason.

So why do people procrastinate anyway? There are a lot of factors that go into this, of course, but a 2016 study found one difference between procrastinators and non-procrastinators: people who procrastinated frequently tended to have a preference for immediate over delayed rewards that those who procrastinated less often did not. In other words, these people could be prone to procrastinating because they’re less interested in putting in the unpleasant work now to get a reward in the future.

Speaking of the future, I said I’d get around to answering that question in the title: is procrastination ever good?

There’s a philosophical answer and a scientific answer. The philosophical answer is yes – there’s a proper time for everything, and sometimes that time is later rather than sooner.

The scientific answer is maybe – at the very least, some kinds of procrastination seem to be better than others.

Image: Flickr/olivia mew