The concept of productive procrastination is a myth

Procrastinating, or purposefully delaying?
Procrastinating, or purposefully delaying?
Image: Reuters/Jose Luis Gonzalez
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Procrastination may be the world’s oldest occupational hazard. Scholars say it was first identified—as a crafty demon—in Iranian texts that defined Zoroastrianism, an early world religion dating to the 2nd millennium BC.

Lately the habit has gained some buoyancy: A handful of psychologists suggest that pushing work off can be beneficial because it enhances creativity.

But before you sigh with relief and go back to watching cat videos at your desk, take note: a longtime scholar of procrastination aims to officially end the “productive procrastination” party.

Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor and director of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University, says the notion of productive or “active” procrastination is oxymoronic, nonsensical, and fraught.

“Everybody wants to find a virtue in human weakness,” he says. In his latest paper, co-authored with fellow Carleton researcher Shamarukh Chowdhury, he challenges and debunks the notion of active procrastination by attempting to replicate a 2005 study underlying the concept, and cites previous research that found procrastination is “usually harmful, sometimes harmless, but never helpful.”

Indeed, meta analyses of research have shown that procrastination can be tied to low self-control, poor performance, and fewer signs of well-being. Procrastinators often struggle with feelings of guilt, stress, and self-blame, and their relationships can suffer if their procrastination is chronic.

But the researchers who promote “active procrastination”—where the decision to delay work is deliberate, and tighter deadline pressure is purposefully used as a motivator—say it can lead to higher performance and improved health.

The disconnect between their thinking and Pychyl’s is that he wouldn’t call that behavior procrastination at all. “Procrastination is having an intention to do something and then putting it off, even though you’re going to be worse off for the delay,” he says. If a delay is deliberate and the outcomes are positive, he says, it’s not procrastination—it’s just what he’d call a “purposeful delay.”

This isn’t just a matter of semantics, Pychyl insists, but a matter of psychological well-being. He’s not a fan of playing fast and loose with the term “procrastination,never mind casting it as a habit that some people might need to actually cultivate. He fears pleasant-sounding variations of the term can function like a gateway drug. Quartz At Work attempted to get a comment from the authors of the 2005 paper Pychyl critiqued; one could not be reached, and the other said he wasn’t interested in revisiting the topic.

The six types of delays and why you should know them

To understand where Pychyl is coming from, it’s useful to consider all the reasons people put off necessary, if unpleasant, tasks, and to give these delays labels. Mohsen Haghbin, a researcher at Carleton who also worked with Pychyl as a doctoral student, developed a typology of delays. Building on previous research and surveys of his own students, he found there were six basic flavors:

  • Inevitable delays, which arise when one’s schedule is overloaded or disrupted by another obligation or need
  • Arousal delays, which occur when a person decides they’d be more motivated to do something at the last minute;
  • Hedonistic delays, which happen when a person chooses to do something else than the task at hand because of the instant gratification factor;
  • Delays due to psychological problems, such as grief or another mood or mental health condition, whether chronic or acute;
  • Purposeful delays, commonly required when a person needs to, say, think about an issue or creative work before getting down to the act of writing or producing something; and
  • Irrational delays, which are inexplicable to the procrastinator and often fueled by fear of failure and anxiety.

In practice, these categories are not mutually exclusive. An irrational delay might also be tinged with hedonistic urges, for instance.

And not all of these delays are a form of procrastination. The employee who misses a deadline because his manager interrupts him with another “drop everything else” task has suffered an inevitable delay, without the onset of procrastination. A slowdown in productivity after a death in the family might point to a person in the fog of grief, but it wouldn’t suggest procrastination.

Pychyl would similarly argue that a purposeful delay is not procrastination. When people intentionally push back their initial attack of a project or task in order to gather more knowledge or to let their ideas gel, what it really means, says Pychyl, is that “we’ve taken this important job called ‘thinking’ and called it ‘active procrastination.’” 

Lesson learned?

Terminology aside, Pychyl agrees with the “productive procrastination” crowd that purposeful delays can lead to improved creativity. (In any case, many of us are prone to wanting to believe in the power of it, the same way we cheer on studies that support the health benefits of  booze or the carbs in pasta.)

But the tactic of purposeful delays isn’t useful for everyone. If your personality type is already high in neuroticism or anxiety, intentional delays can crank up your fears and insecurities, and the feelings of dread are counterproductive.

And even a purposeful delay that doesn’t cause panic or dread is no guarantee that your work will shine. Research shows people make actually more errors under pressure. So when they finally get to work under the pressure of deadline, they might think, “Wow this is going well,” says Pychyl. “Well, yeah—compared to not doing anything, things are going great!”

What you’re not admitting to yourself in that scenario is that your project—the Thanksgiving dinner, the graduate-school thesis, the analytics report—may have gone smoother, and perhaps would have been splendid, if you hadn’t left it all to the end.