Positive Procrastination: What It Is and Why It’s a Problematic Concept

Positive procrastination involves postponing things unnecessarily, in a way that leads to potentially positive outcomes, or at least to outcomes that are superior to those of traditional (i.e., negative) procrastination.

There are two main types of procrastination that are often categorized as positive:

  • Active procrastination, which involves deliberately postponing decisions or actions, in order to use the pressure of being near a deadline pressure as motivation to get things done.
  • Productive procrastination (also known as structured procrastination), which involves doing beneficial things while delaying doing more important things.

These two types of positive procrastination are not mutually exclusive, meaning that people may engage in both of them simultaneously. For example, a student might deliberately postpone studying for an important test until the night before because they feel that this will motivate them to study (which constitutes active procrastination), but while they’re delaying, they might also work on beneficial secondary tasks, such as homework assignments (which constitutes productive procrastination).

Though there are some claims that positive procrastination can be beneficial, this is controversial, so it’s important to understand the caveats about this concept before using and promoting it yourself. As such, in the following article you will learn more about positive procrastination and its potential benefits, see the caveats about it, and understand what this all means for you in practice.

 

Examples of positive procrastination

An example of positive procrastination is a student who deliberately postpones doing their homework until right before the deadline, because they feel that they concentrate better when they’re working under intense time pressure. Similarly, another example of positive procrastination is someone who deliberately postpones getting started on a work project, because they feel more motivated to work when they know that the deadline is near.

Both the above examples illustrate the active type of positive procrastination. Conversely, an example of the productive type of positive procrastination is a student who delays writing a paper by working on less-important academic tasks, such as organizing their notes. Similarly, another example of this type of positive procrastination is someone who delays getting started on an important work task, such as writing a report, by working on secondary tasks, such as answering emails.

 

The potential benefits of positive procrastination

Positive procrastination is associated with a number of potential—though controversial—benefits.

Specifically, when it comes to the active type of positive procrastination, some research suggests active procrastinators are more similar than passive procrastinators to non-procrastinators, in terms of factors such as purposeful use of time, self-efficacy, stress levels, and academic achievement. Furthermore, 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.

When it comes to the productive type of positive procrastination, this type of procrastination can motivate people to work on tasks that they would avoid otherwise. This means, for example, that if someone is likely to procrastinate on a certain task that they find aversive (e.g., because it’s boring), they might be able to motivate themself to complete it by scheduling a more aversive task, and then procrastinating on the more aversive task by completing the less aversive one.

Furthermore, productive procrastination can help people get more done than procrastinating in an unproductive manner. Specifically, if the alternative to productive procrastination is wasting time on entirely meaningless things, then productive procrastination is a way to at least get something meaningful done while procrastinating. For example, even though it would be better if a student procrastinator was working on their project that’s due soon, it’s generally more beneficial for them to work on an assignment for a different class while procrastinating, than to waste time browsing social media.

However, as shown below, there are issues both with the supposed benefits of positive procrastination and with this concept in general, so you generally shouldn’t assume that procrastination will necessarily be beneficial in any given situation.

 

Caveats about positive procrastination

Positive procrastination represents a concept that is appealing to some people—that procrastination can be an adaptive behavior, which leads to positive outcomes. However, there are many issues with the conceptualization of positive procrastination, as well as with its supposed benefits.

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

In addition, there are various issues with how active procrastination is measured and defined in research. For example, there is a problematic overlap between some of the key components of active procrastination, and people’s tendency to engage in active procrastination is generally assessed using questions that are phrased in a problematic manner. Furthermore, the classification of this type of behavior as active procrastination has been criticized by various researchers, who argue that it’s a form of delay that’s distinct from procrastination. As one study notes:

“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…

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)

Similarly, there are also important caveats about the productive type of positive procrastination. Specifically, this type of procrastination can lead to the following issues:

  • It can cause or exacerbate problems that procrastination can lead to in general, such as stress. For example, someone who is procrastinating on an important task might feel stressed because of this, regardless of whether their procrastination is productive or not. Similarly, someone who procrastinates on shared work tasks may harm their relationship with their colleagues, even if they’re procrastinating in a productive way.
  • It can lead people to procrastinate on their most important tasks for too long. For example, someone who engages in productive procrastination might end up missing the deadline for an important project that they procrastinated on, because the fact that their procrastination was productive served as an excuse for them to keep procrastinating.
  • It can lead people to procrastinate more. For example, someone who procrastinates on doing schoolwork by cleaning their house might feel that this gives them permission to procrastinate much more than they would otherwise. This is associated with the concept of self-licensing, whereby acting in a positive way in one regard makes people more likely to act in a negative way in another regard.
  • It can make people less likely to try to solve their procrastination. For example, someone who engages in productive procrastination may be able to do well enough in life that they don’t feel motivated to learn how to stop procrastinating, even if doing so would be much better for them in the long term.

Furthermore, the term “productive procrastination” can be misleading, because the use of the word “productive” suggests that this is an entirely adaptive behavior, which leads to better outcomes than not procrastinating at all. However, while productive procrastination can sometimes be more beneficial than traditional (i.e., unproductive procrastination), it’s generally worse than not procrastinating at all, both when it comes to productivity, and when it comes to associated issues such as stress.

Overall, while the concept of positive procrastination can be appealing, it’s also controversial and problematic for a large number of reasons, including the uncertainty regarding its potential benefits and the issues with how it’s defined. As such, you should be wary of using this term, and of viewing procrastination as a positive behavior.

 

Using positive procrastination

Given the caveats about positive procrastination that are outlined above, you should be wary about trying to deliberately use positive procrastination, especially if you do so with the expectation that it will lead to better outcomes for you than not procrastination. Rather, it will likely be better for you to figure out why you procrastinate in the first place, and then use relevant anti-procrastination techniques, so that you can reduce your procrastination or eliminate it entirely.

Nevertheless, if you still want to consider using positive procrastination, you should identify the specific type of positive procrastination in question (i.e., active or productive), and assess it by considering the following:

  • What can you gain by using it? For example, will it help you focus on your tasks?
  • What can you lose by using it? For example, will it cause you to miss important deadlines or to experience more stress?

Based on this assessment, you can decide whether you should use positive procrastination, and if so then what type of it. In general, you want to use positive procrastination only when its benefits outweigh its costs, for example when you’re likely going to procrastinate on an important task for an hour regardless, so you might as well get some minor tasks done in the meantime rather than waste your time on something meaningless like social media.

In addition, if you decide to use positive procrastination, you should do so in a way that maximizes its benefits and minimizes its downsides.

For example, if you decide to use the active type of positive procrastination, you can set intermediate deadlines for yourself for large projects, so you can benefit multiple times from the pressure of an upcoming deadline.

Similarly, if you decide to use the productive type of positive procrastination, you can do the following:

  • Make sure to work on meaningful tasks. For example, if you’re trying to decide what to work on while procrastinating, ask yourself which potential tasks are actually useful to get done, and which are entirely meaningless.
  • Structure your tasks in a way that helps you achieve your goals. For example, you can schedule tasks that feel urgent but aren’t really important to do, so that you can procrastinate on them without worrying while getting other things done.
  • Make sure that there’s a clear mechanism for getting important things done on time. For example, if it’s crucial to actually get the task at the top of your list done by a certain deadline, you can ask someone who can hold you accountable to check in with you before the deadline.
  • Minimize the negative side effects of your procrastination. For example, if you see that your productive procrastination is causing you stress because you keep worrying about the main task that you’re postponing, you can use anti-procrastination techniques that help mitigate the issue, such as increasing your mindfulness.
  • Recognize that sometimes you might just need a break. For example, if you’re procrastinating because you’re exhausted, consider that it might be better to simply go to sleep, rather than try to force yourself to be productive when it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to do so.

Overall, if you want to use positive procrastination in spite of its dangers, you should carefully assess its potential use first, to determine if it will be more beneficial or harmful. Then, if you decide to use positive procrastination, you should do so in a way that maximizes its benefits and minimizes its downsides, for example by structuring your tasks in a way that improves your ability to get things done on time.

However, given the many issues that are associated with positive procrastination, and given that it generally leads to worse outcomes than not procrastinating at all, you should be wary about using it. Rather, in most cases, you will benefit more from focusing on figuring out why you procrastinate in the first place, and then using relevant anti-procrastination techniques to reduce your procrastination or avoid it entirely.