Many of us are familiar with the act of procrastinating — putting off tasks until, or past, their deadline. Why do people procrastinate? Does it only bring them disadvantages, or does it also have some benefits? We investigate in this Spotlight feature.
Procrastination typically gets a bad name as a habit that impacts productivity and holds people back from fulfilling their potential.
Some researchers define procrastination as "a form of self-regulation failure [...] characterized by the needless delay of things one intends to do despite the expectation of negative consequences."
Medical News Today spoke to some people who seem to shun procrastination, afraid that putting things off will affect their productivity and create more stress.
One person told us: "I never procrastinate because if I do even for a little while, I will never do the job. It makes it hard to prioritize, and it can be stressful, but I feel in control."
However, she also noted that never procrastinating on anything can also mean that she sometimes ends up doing unnecessary work.
So is procrastination all doom and gloom, or can it bring us certain benefits? And why do some people tend to procrastinate in the first place?
In this Spotlight feature, we look at the reasons behind procrastination, its effects on health and productivity, as well as some instances in which procrastination may prove helpful.
Why do we procrastinate?
When referring to procrastination, some people may think of it as poor time management, an inability to organize and prioritize tasks, meaning that we do them at the last minute, or even past their deadline.
Increasingly, research has shown that procrastination is, in fact, a complex, often maladaptive reaction to various perceived stressors.
One study found that procrastination is positively related to psychological vulnerability. Other research pointed out that people who tend to put tasks off until the last moment may have lower self-esteem than their peers.
Moreover, Fuschia Sirois, Ph.D. — now based at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom — also found that people who procrastinate tend to have higher levels of stress and lower levels of self-compassion.
Sirois explains that "serial" procrastinators are stuck in a vicious cycle, in which the thought of previous uncompleted tasks haunts them, paralyzing them, and stopping them from completing present tasks, as well.
"The lower levels of self-compassion among chronic procrastinators [...] indicate that treating oneself harshly, with self-blame, criticism, and a general lack of kindness and acceptance after failure to act on intended actions may contribute to the stress associated with procrastinating and further compromise well-being, and potentially physical health.
Fuschia Sirois, Ph.D.
A study published in in 2017 supports this idea. It shows a correlation between certain types of procrastination and neuroticism, a personality trait that denotes a high susceptibility to feelings of anxiety, worry, or frustration.
And last year, research whose findings appeared in the journal Psychological Science indicated that the people who are most likely to keep on procrastinating seem to have larger amygdalae than non-procrastinators.
The amygdala is a brain region that plays a crucial role in the regulation of emotions, particularly processing anxiety and fear. In their paper, the authors explain that "[r]egarding action control, this could mean that individuals with a larger amygdala volume have learned from past mistakes and evaluate future actions and their possible consequences more extensively."
"This, in turn," they add, "might lead to greater concern and hesitation, as observed in individuals with low [decision-related action orientation] scores."
Procrastination's effect on health
In another study, Sirois and Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D. — from Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada — suggest that people may use procrastination as a "quick fix" for the negative moods created by the stress related to a specific task.
One person told MNT: "I tend to procrastinate if there is a task that I don't want to do, perhaps because it is unpleasant, stressful, or boring."
"It means that I often put off doing tasks that it would benefit me to do straight away, which can sometimes mean more stress in the long-term," he added.
According to Sirois and Pychyl, this person's self-assessment is accurate.
As a short-term solution, procrastination does not take into account the long-term impact of leaving tasks unfinished until the last moment. As the authors put it in their paper:
"[In procrastination] the burden for completing the task [is] shifted to some future self that will have to pay the price for the inaction. We believe that tomorrow will be different. We believe that we will be different tomorrow; but in doing so, we prioritize our current mood over the consequences of our inaction for our future self."
In a seminal study from 1997, researchers Roy Baumeister and Dianne Tice suggest that procrastination is a kind of "self-defeating behavior because it apparently leads to stress, illness, and inferior performance."
Baumeister and Tice found that procrastinators might enjoy lower levels of stress when they procrastinate compared with non-procrastinators. However, their stress might affect them with redoubled force in the long run, as they face the consequences of not having completed their tasks on time.
The researchers also quote previous studies suggesting that procrastination has links to poorer mental health, as well as lower performance on tasks.
Can procrastination bring benefits?
However, other researchers believe that procrastination is not entirely devoid of benefits.
Angela Hsin Chun Chu and Jin Nam Choi argue that there is more than one type of procrastination and that different kinds of procrastination may have various outcomes.
In a study whose findings appeared in The Journal of Social Psychology, Choi and Chu cite previous research that argued that "not all delays lead to negative outcomes." They proposed that "delays resulting from time that was spent planning and gathering vital preparatory information can be beneficial."
Thus, they distinguish between two types of procrastinators:
- Passive procrastinators do not intend to delay solving a task, but still do so because they are unable "to make decisions quickly and [...] act on them quickly."
- Active procrastinators purposefully delay task-solving, as they prefer to work under pressure, as it allows them to "feel challenged and motivated."
Choi and Chu argue that the psychological profile of "active procrastinators" is closer to that of non-procrastinators, and that, in their case, procrastination may bring some unexpected benefits.
The study authors write that "even though active procrastinators may plan their activities in an organized fashion, they do not restrict themselves to following a preplanned schedule or time structure."
Such procrastinators allow themselves the flexibility of dealing with changes and new demands as they come, so they can spontaneously solve several competing tasks. The researchers note that:
"If something unexpected comes up, [active procrastinators] will switch gears and engage in new tasks that they perceive as more urgent. In other words, active procrastinators may have more flexibly structured time and are more sensitive to changing demands in their environment."
'A virtue when it comes to creativity?'
Psychologist Adam Grant, from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, argues that people who "put off" solving a task for a little while — thus engaging in moderate procrastination — are often able to come up with more original ideas about how to solve that task than people who get started on their work right away.
Grant makes this argument in the book Originals: How Non-conformists Change the World. He reiterates it in a popular TED talk, which you can watch below.
In his TED presentation, Grant says that "procrastination is a vice when it comes to productivity, but it can be a virtue when it comes to creativity." This point of view seems to find some support in existing studies that indicate a correlation between creativity and "putting things off."
Grant explains that the link between moderate procrastination and originality likely exists because when we actively put off a task for a while, our preoccupation with the task itself does not disappear. Instead, the pending work "runs in the background" of our brains, buying us time to find innovative solutions.
One study published in Personality and Individual Differences in 2017 also found a link between creative ideation (coming up with creative ideas) and active procrastination. It suggested that among 853 undergraduates at Chinese universities, "active procrastinators" may be more prone to creativity.
Boredom may have something to do with this boost in creative thinking. Older research from the University of Florida in Gainesville, suggests that people who procrastinate may be more prone to boredom than their peers.
And while boredom itself is a concept that sometimes has negative connotations, studies have shown that allowing ourselves to feel bored for a while can boost our creative abilities. The researchers explain that this may be because when we are bored, we allow our minds to wander, thus "training" our imaginations.
Finally, while putting off a task forever out of fear and self-doubt may be paralyzing and unhelpful, a little bit of "directed" procrastination will likely not be harmful and may allow us to assess the task at hand more imaginatively.
And for some of us, that pressure of looking a deadline straight in the eye can be just what we need to keep us on our toes. As Calvin, one of the main characters of the comic strips Calvin and Hobbes, once said: "You can't just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood," and that mood is "last-minute panic."