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