Active and Passive Procrastination: Definitions, Examples, Differences, and Criticisms

Active procrastination involves deliberately postponing decisions or actions, in order to use the pressure of a near deadline as motivation to get things done. This type of procrastination is sometimes associated with positive outcomes, such as improved academic achievement.

Passive procrastination involves postponing decisions or actions due to an inability to do things in a timely manner. This type of procrastination is associated with a variety of negative outcomes, such as worse performance and increased stress.

The concept of active procrastination and the distinction between it and passive procrastination are both highly controversial, as are the claims that active procrastination leads to positive outcomes. This means that while it can be useful to understand these types of procrastination, it’s also important to understand the caveats about them. As such, in the following article you will learn more about active and passive procrastination, and see what the potential distinction between them means for you in practice.

 

Examples of active and passive procrastination

An example of active procrastination is a student who deliberately postpones doing their homework until right before it’s due, because they concentrate better when they’re under intense time pressure. Conversely, in this context, an example of passive procrastination is a student who postpones doing their homework because they can’t bring themself to get started earlier, even though this unnecessary delay stresses them out.

Another example of active procrastination is someone who deliberately postpones working on an important project, because they find it more enjoyable to work on things under the pressure of a near deadline. In this context, an example of passive procrastination is someone who postpones working on a project so much that they miss the deadline for it, because they feel too anxious and overwhelmed to get started.

 

The differences between active and passive procrastination

The differences between active and passive procrastination are that active procrastination involves deliberate delay that leads to positive emotional and behavioral outcomes, whereas passive procrastination involves involuntary delay that leads to negative emotional and behavioral outcomes.

These differences are described as follows in the original paper on the topic:

“Cognitively, passive procrastinators do not intend to procrastinate, but they often end up postponing tasks because of their inability to make decisions quickly and to thereby act on them quickly. Active procrastinators, in contrast, are capable of acting on their decisions in a timely manner. However, they suspend their actions deliberately and focus their attention on other important tasks at hand.”

Affectively, when a deadline approaches, passive procrastinators feel pressured and become pessimistic in their outlook, especially about their ability to achieve satisfactory results… Their thoughts of self-doubt and inadequacy increase the chance of failure and induce feelings of guilt and depression… Active procrastinators, on the other hand, like to work under pressure. When faced with last-minute tasks, they feel challenged and motivated, and that feeling immunizes them against the kind of suffering common in passive procrastinators.

Different cognitive pathways and affective responses interact to produce different behavioral patterns: Active procrastinators are persistent and able to complete tasks at the last minute. Passive procrastinators, on the other hand, are more likely to give up and fail to complete tasks.

On the basis of the above circumstances, we proposed that active procrastination is a multifaceted phenomenon that includes cognitive (decision to procrastinate), affective (preference for time pressure), and behavioral (task completion by the deadline) components as well as the physical results and satisfaction with them. Because of these fundamental differences (cognitive, affective, and behavioral), we expected active and passive procrastinators to have distinct psychological characteristics and to achieve different outcomes.”

— From “Rethinking procrastination: Positive effects of ‘active’ procrastination behavior on attitudes and performance” (Chun Chu & Choi, 2005)

 

Associated types of procrastination

Active and passive procrastination are sometimes characterized as forms of positive procrastination and negative procrastination, or as adaptive procrastination and maladaptive procrastination.

Furthermore, passive procrastination is associated with the concept of traditional procrastination, while the concept of active procrastination is associated with the type of procrastination displayed by well-adjusted procrastinators, who procrastinate regularly but who are generally not negatively affected by their procrastination.

In addition, the distinction between active and passive procrastination is associated with the criticized distinction between avoidant procrastination, which involves delaying due to fears and anxieties, and arousal procrastination, which involves purposely waiting until right before the deadline to make tasks more exciting. However, similarly to the distinction between active and passive procrastination, the distinction between these types of procrastination has also been criticized.

Finally, another associated concept is productive procrastination (also known as structured procrastination), which involves doing beneficial things while delaying doing more important things. This type of procrastination can be beneficial in some cases, compared to non-productive procrastination, though it’s also associated with a variety of dangers. Like active procrastination, it is considered to be another type of positive procrastination, and it is not mutually exclusive with active procrastination, which means that people may engage in both at the same time.

 

The active procrastination scale

Active procrastination is generally characterized as having four key components:

  • Outcome satisfaction, which represents the tendency to be pleased with the result of your work, even if you had to rush through it.
  • Preference for pressure, which represents the preference for getting work done under the pressure of an upcoming deadline.
  • Intentional decision, which represents the deliberate decision to delay.
  • Ability to meet deadlines, which represents the ability to complete tasks on time.

Active procrastination, as based on these components, can be measured using the New Scale of Active Procrastination (developed by Choi & Moran, 2009):

Background

This scale for measuring active procrastination consists of 16 statements, with 4 statements for each of the 4 components of active procrastination.

The person who is being assessed should indicate how true each statement is for them on a scale of 1–7, where 1 is “not at all true” and 7 is “very true”. A higher score indicates a greater likelihood of engaging in active procrastination, unless the question has an (R) after it, in which case the reverse is true (i.e., a higher score indicates a lower likelihood of active procrastination).

Outcome satisfaction

  1. My performance tends to suffer when I have to race against deadlines (R).
  2. I don’t do well if I have to rush through a task (R).
  3. If I put things off until the last moment, I’m not satisfied with their outcomes (R).
  4. I achieve better results if I complete a task at a slower pace, well ahead of a deadline (R).

Preference for pressure

  1. It’s really a pain for me to work under upcoming deadlines (R).
  2. I’m upset and reluctant to act when I’m forced to work under pressure (R).
  3. I feel tense and cannot concentrate when there’s too much time pressure on me (R).
  4. I’m frustrated when I have to rush to meet deadlines (R).

Intentional decision

  1. To use my time more efficiently, I deliberately postpone some tasks.
  2. I intentionally put off work to maximize my motivation.
  3. In order to make better use of my time, I intentionally put off some tasks.
  4. I finish most of my assignments right before deadlines because I choose to do so.

Ability to meet deadlines

  1. I often start things at the last minute and find it difficult to complete them on time (R).
  2. I often fail to accomplish goals that I set for myself (R).
  3. I’m often running late when getting things done (R).
  4. I have difficulty finishing activities once I start them (R).

However, as shown below in the section about the criticisms of active procrastination, this scale suffers from various issues, such as its improper use of reverse-coded questions and the conceptual overlap between some of its components, which are important to take into account if you intend to use this scale or results that are based on it.

 

The potential benefits of active procrastination

Some research suggests that, compared to passive procrastinators, active procrastinators are more similar to non-procrastinators when it comes to using time purposefully, having higher self-efficacy, experiencing less stress, and having better academic outcomes. Furthermore, some studies suggest that there may be other benefits to active procrastination, such as an improved ability to solve problems in a creative way, and an increased tendency to be in a flow state while working.

However, as noted below, there is uncertainty regarding some of these benefits, such as the increased self-efficacy and improved academic achievement, which indicates that active procrastination may not be lead to these benefits in reality, especially not in a consistent manner.

 

Criticisms of active procrastination

Though there is some support for the concept of active procrastination and for its potential benefits, as shown above, this concept has also been heavily criticized. Specifically, research suggests that active procrastination may not be beneficial after all, and that this concept and its assessment suffer from a variety of additional issues.

These criticisms, which are outlined in the sub-sections below, have important implications with regard to active procrastination, so you should take them into account if you’re considering using the concept of active procrastination yourself in any way.

 

Active procrastination might not be beneficial

There is substantial uncertainty regarding the potential benefits of active procrastination, for example when it comes to whether it’s actually associated with increased self-efficacy or improved academic achievement. Furthermore, some studies suggest that active procrastination may be associated with various issues, such as reduced motivation, reduced use of learning strategies, and increased stress and guilt.

 

Active procrastination suffers from methodological issues

There are substantial methodological issues with the way active procrastination is generally assessed.

For example, one study found that outcome satisfaction and preference for pressure, which are considered to be two separate components of active procrastination, appear to measure the same underlying psychological construct, which the researchers in the present study categorized as just preference for pressure.

Similarly, studies have criticized the fact that active procrastination is primarily measured through the use of reverse-coded questions, in a way that can lead to various issues. For instance, when it comes to the ability to meet deadlines component of active procrastination, one study notes:

“The APS [Active Procrastination Scale] ability to meet deadlines subscale is [merely] a reverse complement of commonly used procrastination scales…

This generates a dangerous dynamic: simply reversing items from an established concept and labeling it differently is more likely to produce pseudo-constructs rather than constructs that are conceptually distinct from one and other.”

— From “Purposeful delay and academic achievement. A critical review of the Active Procrastination Scale” (Pinxten, et al., 2019)

 

Active procrastination suffers from conceptual issues

The concept of active procrastination has been criticized by various researchers, who argue that it’s a form of delay that’s distinct from procrastination. As a key study on the topic notes:

“The fundamental flaw associated with the definition of active procrastination is that Chu and Choi (2005) have misconstrued purposeful, deliberate delay as procrastination. Strong empirical support for different types of delay has been found by Haghbin and Pychyl (2015) who developed a typology of 6 types of delay. Based on this typology of delay, active procrastination may be understood as a combination of purposeful and arousal delay, not procrastination per se. In fact, as Chu and Choi’s research reveals, individuals who score high on the measure of active procrastination resemble non-procrastinators who actively choose to delay their tasks by reprioritizing them when necessary to meet the deadline of the scheduled goals…

Clearly, the construct of active procrastination creates a semantic debate as to how an individual can ‘actively’ procrastinate. Given that one of the defining features of procrastination is self-regulation failure (e.g., Tice & Bratslavsky, 2000), we might use a substitution of this phrase in their construct as ‘active self-regulation failure.’ When expressed like this, it becomes obvious how active procrastination might be considered an oxymoron. Semantically, Chu and Choi (2005) have confused active procrastination with strategic delay used by non-procrastinators. The basis for this distinction is Pychyl’s (2013) argument that ‘all procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination,’ which has been overlooked in the research on active procrastination.

There is strong empirical support for a distinction between procrastination and other forms of delay in the work of Haghbin and Pychyl (2015) who developed multidimensional scales to assess and differentiate problematic delay or procrastination from other forms of delay. Among these types of delay, Haghbin and Pychyl’s (2015) research demonstrated extensive validation and ample evidence supporting the constructs purposeful and arousal delay.

Not surprisingly the definition of active procrastination coincides with the definition of both purposeful and arousal delay making active procrastination a heterogeneous construct. A construct is said to be heterogeneous when it includes features of two separate constructs under one single construct (Edwards, 2001).

In the case of active procrastination, the decision to deliberately procrastinate on certain tasks and not others in order to prioritize work according to the external demands resembles purposeful delay. Conversely, delaying tasks to feel the time pressure which then acts as a motivating factor to work more effectively resembles another type of delay, which Haghbin (2015; Haghbin & Pychyl, 2015) identified as arousal delay.

Empirically, these researchers provided a clear distinction between purposeful and arousal delay in terms of their own etiologies, consequences and relations to different emotional experiences. Purposeful delay does not include any internal need to postpone tasks, but the reasons are external situational factors, which require people to make rational decisions and reprioritize their tasks. In contrast, arousal delay includes the internal need to experience high arousal, thrill and excitement as a motivation by delaying tasks to the last minute but no external factors are in effect to enforce task completion.

Furthermore, both types of delay relate to different personality traits, well-being and personal outcomes. For instance, Haghbin (2015; Haghbin & Pychyl, 2015) found that purposeful delay had a positive relation with conscientiousness, self-control and well-being, whereas the opposite was found with arousal delay. This further questions the conceptualization of active procrastination as it includes only positive outcomes even though it includes arousal delay in its definition, which involves negative outcomes.

Additionally, despite being labeled as a type of procrastination, active procrastination does not include any of the defining features of procrastination even though it has been noted as a form of procrastination. Klingsieck (2013) and Haghbin and Pychyl (2015) specified voluntary needless delay, irrational belief, an intention-action gap, delaying despite the probable negative consequences, and delay accompanied by subjective emotional discomfort and/or poor outcomes as the defining characteristics of procrastination. Based on these defining features alone, it is apparent that what Chu and Choi (2005) label as active procrastination is not procrastination at all, as active procrastination is neither needless nor based on irrational beliefs, there is no intention-action gap (only a delayed intention to act until later), and the outcome is neither negative in terms of performance nor subjective experience.”

— From “A critique of the construct validity of active procrastination” (Chowdhury & Pychyl, 2018)

 

Using active procrastination

Active procrastination represents a potentially appealing idea—that procrastination can be a deliberate adaptive behavior, which helps people achieve better outcomes.

However, given the large amount of research that calls into question the benefits and validity of active procrastination, you should be wary about this concept, especially when deciding whether to use it yourself.

As such, if you’re a procrastinator who likes to postpone things until right before the deadline because you believe that doing so helps you perform better, then you should be wary of this tendency, and make sure it truly leads to better outcomes for you. When doing this, you should consider the following:

  • What can you gain by using active procrastination? For example, does it help you focus better when it’s time to work?
  • What can you lose by using active procrastination? For example, does it lead to worse outcomes for you than not procrastinating, when it comes to things such as reduced performance or increased stress?

Based on this assessment, you can decide whether you should use or avoid active procrastination.

If you do decide to use active procrastination, you should do so in a way that maximizes its benefits and minimizes its downsides. For example, you can set intermediate deadlines for yourself for large projects, so you can benefit from working on things right before an approaching deadline multiple times.

Alternatively, if you decide to stop engaging in active procrastination, you should generally start by figuring out why you procrastinate in the first place. Then, you should pick the anti-procrastination techniques that are likely to be the most effective in your particular situation, and implement them until you manage to reduce or overcome your procrastination.