Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. This common phenomenon, which chronically affects approximately 20% of adults and 50% of college students, is generally viewed negatively, since it’s associated with various issues, such as worse financial status and increased stress.
Despite this, procrastination may sometimes have some potential benefits. This has led to claims that procrastination could, at least sometimes, be an adaptive behavior, in the sense that it’s more helpful than harmful (as opposed to a maladaptive behavior, which is the opposite). However, there is uncertainty regarding some of these benefits, and procrastination generally leads to worse outcomes overall than non-procrastination.
Nevertheless, to fully understand the impact of procrastination, and to determine whether it’s beneficial or harmful in any particular situation, it can help to understand its potential benefits, in addition to its expected downsides. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the potential benefits of procrastination, see the caveats about them (including the downsides of procrastination), and understand what this all means for you in practice.
Potential benefits of procrastination
Potential benefits of procrastination include the following:
- Giving you more time to think, which can help in various ways, such as allowing you to gather and process more relevant information before making a decision.
- Conserving your resources, for example when procrastination leads you to postpone a task that ends up being canceled. This is associated with the evolutionary concept of a fast life-history strategy, which prioritizes immediate benefits over potential long-term ones, especially in the face of issues like uncertainty.
- Helping you prioritize your work, for example when procrastination forces you to choose which tasks to complete when you’re under strict time constraints due to upcoming deadlines.
- Helping you work more efficiently, for example when it forces you to complete tasks under intense time pressure. This is associated with Parkinson’s law, which denotes that “work expands so as to fill the time which is available for its completion”.
- Helping you focus on your work, for example by helping you get into a flow state. This is associated with achieving peak experience, especially when you concentrate better while working under intense time pressure.
- Increasing your creativity, for example by improving your ability to solve problems in a creative way.
- Increasing your motivation, for example if it makes an otherwise boring task feel exciting or interesting due to an “adrenaline factor”, because it leads you to work under intense time pressure.
- Increasing your feelings of autonomy and control, for example if it gives you a way to rebel against schedules that were imposed on you by others.
- Reducing your stress, for example if you’re currently worried about a task for which the deadline is still far away.
These potential benefits are most strongly associated with positive types of procrastination, which involve procrastinating in more beneficial ways than traditional procrastination, though even traditional procrastination can potentially lead to some benefits in some cases.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that there are many serious caveats about these potential benefits of procrastination, and that there are also many downsides to procrastination, so it tends to lead to negative outcomes overall. These caveats and downsides are presented in detail in the sections below.
Caveats about the benefits of procrastination
There are many caveats about the potential benefits of procrastination. Specifically:
- Some of the benefits of procrastination are mixed. For example, when students are given a project, procrastination can reduce the stress that they experience early on, but increase the stress that they experience as the deadline approaches, which can lead them to experience more stress overall. Essentially, in this case, procrastination is beneficial in the short term, but its benefits are generally outweighed by its costs in the long term.
- These benefits aren’t guaranteed, and people sometimes experience the opposite. For example, while procrastination might give some people a feeling of control, it can do the opposite for others, such as when it makes someone feel helpless because they can’t bring themself to get started despite wanting and intending to do so. Similarly, while procrastination might help some people work more efficiently, it can cause others to work in a highly inefficient manner, such as when someone wastes hours avoiding a task that would only take them a few minutes to complete.
- People sometimes think that their procrastination is beneficial, even if it isn’t. For example, some procrastinators say that starting tasks at the last minute helps them, because they work better under pressure, even though doing this actually worsens their performance, and they’re just trying to justify their unnecessary delay.
- There is criticism and contradictory evidence regarding some of the potential benefits. For example, many of the findings on the benefits of procrastination have been criticized for methodological flaws or had their findings contradicted by other research. Similarly, studies that show potential benefits of procrastination often show only a correlation between procrastination and certain positive outcomes, which means that procrastination may not actually be the thing that leads to those outcomes.
- People often mistake purposeful delay for procrastination. Specifically, when people claim that procrastination is beneficial, they’re often actually talking about purposeful delay, which involves rational and strategic postponement of tasks, and which is distinct from procrastination. For example, if someone deliberately delays getting started on a task because they know that there is a lot of time until the deadline and the task might be canceled by then, and if they also know that this delay won’t lead to any negative outcomes, then they’re engaging in purposeful delay rather than procrastination, so it’s wrong to say that they’re procrastinating in a beneficial manner in this case.
- Even the more positive types of procrastination generally lead to worse outcomes than not procrastination. For example, productive procrastination, which involves doing beneficial things while delaying doing more important things, can help people get more done than traditional procrastination, but still tends to lead to worse outcomes than not procrastinating at all.
Finally, another important caveat about the benefits of procrastination is that there are also many clear downsides to procrastination, as shown in the next section.
Downsides of procrastination
The many downsides to procrastination include the following:
- Procrastination is associated with various academic issues, such as worse exam scores, worse grades, increased course failures, increased course withdrawals, and an increased likelihood of dropping out.
- Procrastination is associated with various employment and financial issues, such as earning a lower salary, having shorter durations of employment, and having a higher likelihood of being unemployed or under-employed (as opposed to working full‐time).
- Procrastination is associated with worse wellbeing, for example due to increased negative emotions, such as frustration, guilt, and shame.
- Procrastination is associated with various mental and physical health issues, such as increased stress and an increased rate of illness.
- Procrastination is also associated with various other issues, such as a delay in getting treatment for one’s problems.
Some of the caveats that apply to the benefits of procrastination also apply to its downsides, such as the use of correlational evidence. However, the body of research on the downsides of procrastination is much more robust as a whole, and overall, procrastination is much more likely to lead to negative outcomes than positive ones, which is important to keep in mind when considering its potential benefits.
Figuring if procrastination is good for you
Overall, as shown above, there are some potential benefits to procrastination, but there are also many caveats about these benefits, as well as many potential downsides to procrastination.
As such, if you’re a procrastinator, you shouldn’t assume that your procrastination is beneficial for you, especially compared to non-procrastination. Rather, if you believe that your procrastination is beneficial, then you should properly assess your situation, by considering the following:
- In what way does procrastination benefit you? For example, does it help you focus on tasks and prioritize your work?
- In what way does procrastination harm you? For example, does it cause you to miss deadlines and experience stress?
You should try to be as honest with yourself and as reflective as possible when doing this, to make sure that your assessment of the situation is accurate. Furthermore, you can try to improve this assessment in various ways, such as by writing things down all the pros and cons of procrastination for you (rather than keeping all the information in your head), or by soliciting feedback on the topic from people you trust.
This assessment will help you understand how your procrastination is impacting you, and will therefore help you decide what to do about it.
If you realize that your procrastination is more harmful than not, then you should try to reduce it or eliminate it entirely. To do this, 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 successfully solve your procrastination problem.