“Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” Benjamin Franklin said. Though everyone, at some point, falls prey to instances of procrastination, there are some of us who do so regularly. Procrastination here is not a seldom occurrence, but a staple of the way in which some people work. Unfortunately, procrastination is often painted with an array of negative connotations and is widely regarded as a dysfunction.
Those prone to procrastination tend to focus more on short-term benefits while overlooking the long-term costs of putting things off until later. It’s a condemned practice, frequently touted as self-defeating or self-handicapping due to procrastinators pushing all of their work to the final hours before a deadline. This, in turn, can result in poorer quality simply because they have less time to work. What’s more, postponing our work on a task until just before a deadline can leave us open and vulnerable to unforeseen circumstances, potentially damaging our chances of a successful outcome. It’s no surprise, then, that procrastination has been linked to higher levels of stress, anxiety and even depression.
As is always the case, there are two sides to a story. Two-time Booker Prize winner and self-proclaimed procrastinator Margaret Atwood said of her routine that she “used to spend the morning procrastinating and worrying, then plunge into the manuscript in a frenzy of anxiety around 3pm.” And she’s certainly done well for herself. Renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright was startled by a client’s unexpected announcement that he’d be arriving to see Wright’s design for his new property – one which Wright had delayed starting. Supercharged with time pressure and a threatening deadline, Wright drew up plans in two mere hours. This was the design of Fallingwater, a historical landmark and ground-breaking feat of architectural design.
Clearly, procrastinators can get things done and do them extremely well. One of the biggest benefits of procrastination is while delaying a task until the last minute, we expose ourselves to more information and may pick up on crucial clues and hints nearer to the deadline. It’s much like letting someone go first in a game: you’re afforded the opportunity to learn what works and what doesn’t, and you can apply this to your own approach when it’s your turn. By procrastinating, we also free ourselves up to more tasks and opportunities early on. And, of course, some people simply perform at their best under pressure - a kind of pressure only a looming, dreaded deadline can provide.
Researchers have attempted to distinguish between functional and dysfunctional procrastination. In doing so, they’ve identified two types: passive procrastination and active procrastination. Passive procrastination, firstly, is more dysfunctional. Its hallmarks are poor time management and an unreliable record for meeting deadlines. It’s inherently self-sabotaging and prominent in highly competitive environments and where individuals regard task success as fundamental to their self-image in their work. Here, self-sabotaging and bad time management actually serves as a means to deflect any cause of poor performance to factors other than their own genuine ability, thereby protecting their own ego. In any case, poor performance is almost guaranteed regardless of the motive.
The more functional approach is termed active procrastination. This is characterised by a desire for pressure, intentional decisions to procrastinate, greater outcome satisfaction and greater ability to meet deadlines. Not being rigid, it affords individuals with the chance to be much more flexible and foster more control over their time management. While being much more likely to meet deadlines than passive procrastinators, this leads to higher outcome satisfaction, life satisfaction and greater associated wellbeing.
So if we procrastinate, how can we move from passive to active? We now know that time management, even if your approach is highly flexible, is still important. Take time to get to know your strengths and the conditions in which you can work best. But one of the most important factors is found to be self-forgiveness. Individuals who are ready to forgive themselves for dysfunctional procrastination may lead to more motivation to accept responsibility, less likelihood to engage in dysfunctional procrastination behaviours, and as a result, either procrastinate less or engage in active procrastination.
There’s certainly room for the procrastinators of the world as evidenced by all the accomplishments and achievements created in the sleepy, candlelit hours before a deadline. Keep your procrastination active though, take more agency over your working approach and time management, and practise self-forgiveness when things don’t go as planned. In all, it really depends on what works for you - but the main thing, obviously, is that you get the job do-