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Becoming a Master of Your Minutes by… Procrastinating?

Procrastination – the king of self-sabotage, the thief of time, and every person’s arch nemesis. Despite experiencing unsatisfactory results and promising ourselves that we won’t procrastinate the next time, anxiety, the fear of failure, perfectionism, fatigue, distorted views of time, or distaste for such “undesirable tasks” often gets the best of us and we engage in procrastination once more. 

Procrastination rarely seems to cultivate fruitful results (if at all), but many chronic procrastinators of the past have tasted success in spite of procrastinating. Frank Lloyd Wright, the great American architect, designed his most famous house just 2 hours before the commissioner came to approve the design. The house, called Fallingwater (Figure 1), “was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1966, and is listed among Smithsonian’s Life List of 28 places ‘to visit before you die.’”[1] Even if you’re not planning on designing and building a 5,330 square foot house on top of a waterfall in 2 hours (when you should have been working on it for an entire year), chances are that you have probably experienced some benefits of procrastination in the past. For example, have you ever noticed that you were stuck on a problem, and the day before you had to submit a solution you had your “eureka!” moment? You might argue that this kind of result is occasional, and that procrastination leads to nothing but distress, regret, and shame. But instead of constantly trying (and constantly failing) to stop procrastination to get rid of the negative effects, perhaps we should use our expertise in putting off important tasks to make us more productive and turn these ‘occasional results’ of procrastination into an everyday reality. 

Figure 1: Fallingwater; the world famous house designed in 2 hours[2]

Procrastination and productive? 

Those aren’t usually two words you usually hear together. 

Initially, it does sound counterintuitive, but it’s important to understand that there’s more than one kind of procrastination. The type of procrastination that we are most familiar with, in which individuals exhibit signs of laziness, is what is known as passive procrastination. Instead of passively procrastinating, we can use a tactic which psychologists refer to as active procrastination to make the most use out of our very limited time.

What is active procrastination? 

Active procrastinators have a preference for pressure, intentionally put off certain tasks, have the ability to meet deadlines, and still obtain positive outcomes. Anna Abramowski in her article, “New Voices: Is it time for active procrastination?” explains that “[active procrastinators] use more task-oriented coping strategies when they are under stress, unlike passive procrastinators who tend to use avoidance-coping strategies and rely on emotional reactions.”[3] The general idea of active procrastination is that even though you are postponing a particular task, you are still doing something else of equal importance (Table 1 shows examples of alternative productive tasks); then, you come back with a motivation fuelled by last-minute deadline pressure, ready to complete the original task. Oftentimes, your performance thrives in this kind of challenging scenario, and you start looking forward to the wave of adrenaline that washes over you as the clock keeps ticking.

Table 1: Examples of Procrastination Activities 

ProductiveNot so Productive
Reading your school’s newspaper (it’s always good to be aware of what events are going on at school)Re-reading all of Kim and Kanye’s twitter posts from 2017 (old news….)
Watching TED Talks, Podcasts, or Khan Academy videos (random informative lectures can’t ever hurt)Watching 13 episodes of Game of Thrones in one day (Netflix isn’t going anywhere)
Taking a long jog (exercise is good for your mental health)[4]Taking a nap (not productive, unless you’re someone who’s trying to treat your insomnia)
Volunteering at a local library, youth centre, animal shelter, homeless shelter, or hospital (it’s very satisfactory to improve the lives of others, and hey, who doesn’t like extra community service hours?)Going shopping even though you just spent 5 hours at the mall yesterday (what could you have possibly forgotten to buy that demands your attention over helping those in need?)
Meditating (even just ten minutes a day can boost your focus, immunity, emotional well-being, and physical health)[5]Worrying about all the things that could go wrong (it’s always good to plan ahead, but worrying just increases stress)

Benefits of active procrastination

There are countless benefits that come with this tactic, and though it’s not recommended to actively procrastinate on things you’re doing for the first time, active procrastination can be applied almost anywhere. As explained by Frank Partnoy in his book, “Wait: The Art and Science of Delay”, successful people wait until the last minute to make a decision.[6] It works because you give yourself more time to think through all the details (and sometimes, time may solve the problem itself). Essentially, the key to active procrastination is knowing how to manipulate your time. 

What science has to say

In 2005, Angela Chu and Jin Choi published a study in The Journal of Social Psychology that measured the effectiveness of this strategy.[7] They conducted a survey of 230 undergraduate students from 3 Canadian universities in which they asked the students questions regarding their patterns of time use, perception of time control, self-efficacy belief, motivational orientation, stress-coping strategy, stress, depression, life satisfaction, and academic performance. The students answered the questions on a scale of 1 (not true at all) to 7 (very true); after analysing the results, Chu and Choi divided the 230 students into three groups: non procrastinators; passive procrastinators; and active procrastinators. 153 of these 230 students classified as procrastinators, where those who scored less than an average of 4.33 were deemed passive procrastinators, and those who scored above 4.33, active procrastinators (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Results from Chu and Choi’s Experiments[7]

What Chu and Choi found was that:

“… active procrastinators… tend to have higher levels of purposive use of time, time control, and self-efficacy than do passive procrastinators. In addition… active procrastinators are more likely to experience positive outcomes. This pattern indicates that while active procrastinators procrastinate to the same degree as do passive procrastinators… their personal characteristics and outcomes are quite more similar to those of non procrastinators.”[7]

In 11 of the 12 categories, active procrastinators “outscored” the passive procrastinators. The only place where active procrastinators were found to have scored lower than passive procrastinators was on the “time structure” scale, which Chu and Choi speculate was due to the fact that active procrastinators are more flexible with their time and tend to “…go with the flow.”  

Chu and Choi (and other psychologists) have found that this alternative form of procrastination is healthy, particularly for students. Essentially, active procrastinators displayed the same positive results as non procrastinators, but in our unpredictable and fast-changing environments, it is likely that active procrastinators will function more effectively and still maintain their psychological well-being. And, besides, why put the effort towards ending procrastination when we can just actively procrastinate? Active procrastination is a golden middle between the two extremes of work habits—  passively procrastinating and overworking yourself. If you don’t feel like working on an assignment at the moment, then don’t do it for the sake of not procrastinating. Instead, use this method of procrastination to actively maximise your time and accomplish more things in various aspects of your life. Procrastination is a part of human nature, and to try to fight it would be, well, a waste of time.

References

  1. “Famous Procrastinators”, Procrastination and Science, April 15, 2014, https://procrastinus.com/procrastination/famous-procrastinators/.
  2. “Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater”, Khan Academy, accessed November 13, 2018, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/later-europe-and-americas/modernity-ap/a/frank-lloyd-wright-fallingwater.
  3. Anna Abramowski, “New Voices: Is It Time for Active Procrastination?”, The Psychologist 27, (March 2014): 180-183, https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-27/edition-3/new-voices-it-time-active-procrastination.
  4. Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal and Melinda Smith, “The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise”, Healthy Eating Tips to Prevent, Control, and Reverse Diabetes, last modified June 2019, https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/the-mental-health-benefits-of-exercise.htm.
  5. “Benefits of Meditation”, The Art of Living (United States), accessed November 13, 2018, https://www.artofliving.org/us-en/meditation/meditation-for-you/benefits-of-meditation.
  6. Frank Partnoy, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay (New York: PublicAffairs, 2013).
  7. Angela Hsin Chun Chu and Jin Nam Choi, “Rethinking Procrastination: Positive Effects of “Active” Procrastination Behavior on Attitudes and Performance”, The Journal of Social Psychology 145, no. 3 (2005): 245-64, https://doi.org/10.3200/SOCP.145.3.245-264.

About the Author

Priya Khandelwal, USA

Whether it be conducting research, developing code, competing in debate tournaments, or playing tennis for her school’s Varsity team, Priya Khandelwal always throws herself into her passions and strives to excel at everything she does. Aside from being an avid STEM student, Priya challenges herself through various maths and science competitions and aims to pursue a career in computer science.

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