Should Eliminating Procrastination Be a Top Priority?

Conventional wisdom suggests that procrastination is a bad thing. “Think about how much better you could have done if you had started a week ago!” our parents and teachers like to say.

But is this really true? Would we be vastly better off if we started studying, or writing that paper well in advance of the deadline?

Those of us who defend our procrastinating ways fire back with the argument “I work better under pressure!” Sounds reasonable enough…or is it?

Two types of procrastinators

In recent years, researchers have begun to take a closer look at procrastination, and are finding that in some cases, procrastination may have a…positive effect on academic achievement.

As a result, they are starting to conceptualize procrastination as a more complex and multi-faceted behavior than previously thought. Specifically, they are making a distinction between two types of procrastinators.

Traditional procrastinators (the “passive” type) tend to put things off until the last minute because of an inability to get themselves to act when they ought to. “Active” procrastinators, on the other hand, intentionally put things off and ultimately get things done when the time comes.

Curious to find out which type you might be?

The defining characteristics of active procrastinators

The early research in this area suggests that active procrastinators are characterized by four key characteristics:

1. Preference for pressure

Rather than getting stressed out by a looming deadline, active procrastinators see the deadline as a challenge, and respond with increased motivation to complete the task at hand.

2. Intentional decision to procrastinate

Passive procrastinators often drift from one thing to another, lacking the organizational skills or self-control to use their time effectively. They also engage in avoidance behaviors, where they put things off out of fear or a desire to avoid the feelings associated with a task (e.g. like when I avoided doing my counterpoint project because I didn’t understand it and kept putting it off until it was too late to ask for help and I ended up having to stay up all night just to turn in some sorry excuse for counterpoint that got me a B-).

Active procrastinators purposefully decide to put things off and reshuffle tasks in response to changing situational demands.

3. Ability to meet deadlines

Passive procrastinators often fail to complete their tasks. They tend to underestimate the time a project will require, and end up getting overwhelmed and stressed by the last minute demands of a task.

Active procrastinators are much better at estimating the time/energy/resources it will take to complete a project, and rather than getting overwhelmed and giving up, push themselves to work towards the goal.

4. Satisfactory task outcomes

Passive procrastinators drift toward more pleasant tasks and immediate gratification, avoiding the more difficult or unpleasant – yet more important – work at hand.

Active procrastinators may put off the same tasks, but when push comes to shove, get their act in gear and make effective and efficient use of their time. And when all is said and done, they complete the task satisfactorily.

Is cramming lowering your GPA?

With this in mind, a Korean researcher did a study of 172 college students studying for their midterm exam.

She was curious to see if studying ahead of time would result in better grades than cramming at the last minute.

So did it?

In most cases, no – save for one important exception.

Students classified as active procrastinators all scored pretty much the same, whether they started studying a week or more before their exam, or the night before. The same held true for those classified as passive procrastinators.

But when compared with each other, active procrastinators had higher test scores than passive procrastinators – especially amongst those who began studying at the last minute.

Active procrastinators who began cramming the night before (or day of) the exam averaged an 88%, while their passive procrastinating counterparts scored a 77%.

Take home point

So as it turns out, you may not need to feel so guilty about procrastinating – so long as you are putting projects off on purpose.

But if you know deep down that you are engaging in non-essential work as a way of avoiding that which is truly important, take a quick look at your daily to-do list and devote two minutes to doing the thing that scares you the most. Chances are, it’s the most important thing on your list!

(And no, I don’t think this necessarily applies to preparing for an audition, competition, or performance, where cramming is usually just a recipe for sub-par playing and a whole lot of stress. I’ve certainly given it a try on more than one occasion, and all it did was make me feel overwhelmed, frustrated, and burned out…)

photo credit: L-T-L via photopin cc

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14 Responses

  1. Very thought provoking… Thanks.

    Of course the downside of last minute cramming is that, whilst it produces good test results, the information retention rate is pretty poor in the long term.

  2. I have always been an active procrastinator. So were Mozart and Rossini, according to the publications from their times. No, I am not comparing myself to Mozart (or Rossini, for that matter), but there is something to be said for working things out in my brain long before the pen hits the paper – or the fingers hit the keypad! The only place where active procrastinating absolutely does not work is in the preparation for musical performance; we really do need to put the time in on the instrument. That said, though, active “brain practice,” through listening to recordings and score study, have a lot to do with my staying in musical shape, even though, due to a long, chronic illness, I don’t have the energy or ability to sit at my cello for long hours.
    One of my advisors said to me many years ago, when I was beating myself up for my inability to start writing papers more than two weeks before the deadline (although I had done the research), “Stop beating yourself up and start accepting that this is just your style, Connie.”
    She was right. I get the writing done when I need to and generally a day or two before the deadline so that I actually CAN do some revisions 🙂

  3. This is interesting — I do tend to be an active procrastinator. The major downside is the stress involved. It’s a VERY stressful way of getting things done, but there is some part of my brain that engages with a lot of mental energy, and “oh shit” is as good a spring of energy as anything.

    Also, I’ve found that while I can procrastinate in appearances from the outside, I do tend to do a lot of mental preparation work for the task that exists only in my brain. And even if I start work on the task early, I will inevitably have a last-minute idea to improve it that will only kick in the last hour or so that will entail a ton of quick work anyway. The best thing for me to do is to get a lot of the low-level sh*twork done early, so that I’ve cleared the decks for the inevitable split-second burst of inspiration that will happen.

  4. You know … I actually seem to have two gears. Last-minute blitz and slow, plodding inch-by-inch. Unfortunately, in today’s world, the latter is simply not acceptable to the majority of colleagues, to start something a year and a half in advance and do it by millimeters.

    When I work by myself, I seem to enjoy the latter method more. I write music note by note by note, one piece at a time, over a period of several months. And when I’m done, I’m DONE and it’s onto the next piece. And the only reason I can do that is because I work completely by myself when I do music. Maybe my active procrastination is only the way that I work when I work with others. I may simply dislike working with others. 🙂

  5. I am really enjoying your blog! This is much needed for sure.

    Personally, I like to acknowledge that I (and my students0 procrastinate. To try and fight it brings up feelings of guilt, etc.. SO what I actually do is recognize that I am procrastinating and let it happen a little but. I even “build in time” to my practice sessions to procrastinate as well. For instance, I’ll add 15 minutes to my warm up; sometimes I will sit down and start, then go get a glass of water, then play, then walk around, ….. I build in the time.

    Anyway, my 2 cents. You keep writing and I’ll keep reading!

    1. Indeed! As you and Constance have both pointed out, it’s the beating ourselves up and the guilt associated with procrastination that just adds insult to injury.

      Thanks for the tip!

  6. If you are seeing really high scores, feeling unusually cranky, finding your muscles unresponsive, or having difficulty playing at your normal level, rather than pushing yourself harder and practicing more, it might be more productive to dial things back a bit and ensure you are getting enough rest, and managing stress effectively in other areas of your life as well.

  7. I personally hate the feeling of cramming last minute.

    In my mind I thinking that I”m going to do worse because I procrastinated. However, oftentimes the results are not that bad because performance always comes down to the intensity of your study and attention.

    If you can infuse that into your daily non-procrastinating life then you’ll be ahead of the curve.

    Either way this is a great article that will help ease my mind about procrastination. Above all head towards your fears and you’ll be fine.

  8. Great article. Procrastination is a major problem of mine.

    I found the book “The War Of Art” by Steven Pressfield to be extremely motivating. Written for authors, it speaks to artists and creative types from all genres. I highly recommend the read.

  9. One musical place where active procrastination absolutely makes sense is improvised music, either solo or group. Having chops well in place obviously is necessary, but over-cooking prep for an improvisational framework can be just as deadly as under-cooking.

  10. No, eliminating procrastination shouldn’t be a priority because it doesn’t serve any particular goal. No, elimating procrastination shouldn’t be a top priority because a priority should look like something to be done – a work to be done. No, elimating procrastination shouldn’t be a priority, but you have to clarify your priorities and your responsibilities and you have to define what your activity is and what is the real purpose of what you do. Like this, you don’t need to eliminate procrastination.

  11. I find procrastination is really self-defeating. It’s that little voice in your head that says, “it’s not important enough” or “you know you’ll fail if you try.”

    Getting your goals accomplished now opens up so much more for you in the future.

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