Productive procrastination (also known as structured procrastination) involves doing beneficial things while delaying doing more important things. For example, a student engages in productive procrastination when they work on a school assignment as a way to postpone studying for a much more important upcoming exam.
Productive procrastination can be beneficial in some cases, though it can also lead to various issues, especially when used incorrectly. As such, in the following article you will learn more about productive procrastination, and see how you can use it yourself as effectively as possible.
Examples of productive procrastination
An example of productive procrastination is someone who procrastinates on an important task, such as writing a report, by working on secondary tasks, such as answering emails. In this case, the procrastinator may structure their workday so that they complete the main task that they’re procrastinating on at the end of the day, after they finished all their secondary tasks through productive procrastination.
Another example of productive procrastination has been described by philosopher John Perry, who popularized this concept and coined its other name (“structured procrastination”):
“I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee, dissertation drafts to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things.”
In addition, note that when people engage in productive procrastination, they can either work on tasks within the same domain as the main task that they’re currently procrastinating on, or they can work on tasks in a different domain. For example, a student who should be writing a school paper may engage in productive procrastination by working on other academic tasks (especially ones that are perceived as less unpleasant), such as organizing their notes, or they may work on non-academic tasks, such as washing the dishes.
However, for procrastination to be considered productive, the thing that the person does while procrastinating has to be beneficial. For example, if someone should be studying for a test, then doing their homework for another class can count as productive procrastination, because it’s something that they needed to do anyway. Conversely, baking cookies generally wouldn’t count as productive procrastination, since it’s not helpful or necessary, and as such, it would simply be considered a form of regular, unproductive procrastination.
The potential benefits of productive procrastination
There are two main potential benefits to productive procrastination.
First, productive procrastination can help people get more done than procrastinating in an unproductive manner. Specifically, when the alternative to productive procrastination is unproductive procrastination, which involves wasting time on pointless things, productive procrastination serves as a way to at least get something useful done and make some progress 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 likely more beneficial that they work on an assignment for another class while procrastinating, rather than waste time browsing social media.
Second, productive procrastination can motivate people to work on tasks that they would avoid otherwise. For example, if someone is likely to procrastinate on a 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, which they weren’t able to work on earlier.
As philosopher John Perry said:
“All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you.
The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.”
— From “Structured Procrastination” (2006)
And as put more succinctly and humorously by Robert Benchley:
“Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”
— From “Chips off the old Benchley” (1949)
In this sense, productive procrastination can serve as a way of scheduling and switching tasks in a strategic manner. This can be particularly beneficial in some cases, such as when it helps people account for natural fluctuations in their ability to concentrate and work on specific tasks at specific times. For example, if you’re an evening person who finds it difficult to focus in the mornings, you might benefit from engaging in productive procrastination by scheduling important but difficult tasks for later in the day, and spend the earlier parts of the day working on secondary tasks instead.
Overall, the potential benefits of productive procrastination are that it can help you get more done than procrastinating in an unproductive manner, and that it can motivate you to work on tasks that you would avoid otherwise. However, as shown below, this type of procrastination is also associated with various potential issues, which may outweigh its potential benefits, so you should be cautious when deciding if and how to use it.
The dangers of productive procrastination
Though productive procrastination can be beneficial in some ways in certain situations, it can also lead to a number of issues. Specifically:
- Productive procrastination 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.
- Productive procrastination 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.
- Productive procrastination 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 self-licensing, whereby acting in a positive way in one regard makes people more likely to act in a negative way in another regard, as well as with inaction inertia, whereby skipping an initial opportunity to take action decreases the likelihood of taking action under similar future opportunities.
- Productive procrastination 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.
In this regard, it’s important to note that 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 productive procrastination can be beneficial, it’s associated with a number of potential issues, and so it’s generally worse than not procrastinating at all. As such, even though productive procrastination can be a useful technique in some cases, it’s important to be cautious when deciding whether and how to use it, and to make sure that you’re using it the right way and for the right reasons.
How to procrastinate productively
Before trying to engage in productive procrastination, you should first weigh its potential benefits against its potential dangers and costs in your particular situation, by considering the following:
- What can you gain by using productive procrastination? Specifically, consider how much more it can help you get done compared to regular procrastination, and whether it can help you work on tasks that you wouldn’t work on otherwise.
- What can you lose by using productive procrastination? Specifically, consider whether it can cause you to suffer from associated issues (e.g., stress), to procrastinate on important tasks for too long, to procrastinate more than you would otherwise, or to avoid dealing with your procrastination in the long term.
In general, you want to use productive procrastination only when its benefits outweigh its dangers and costs, such as 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. Otherwise, you should likely focus on overcoming your procrastination instead, as that will be more beneficial, especially in the long term.
If you do decide to use productive procrastination, for example while you’re still working on successfully overcoming your procrastination, there are several things that you can do to make this type of procrastination more beneficial:
- 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, and then make sure to avoid the meaningless ones.
- Structure your tasks in a way that helps you achieve your goals. For example, you can intentionally schedule tasks that feel urgent but aren’t really important to do, so you can use the motivation of procrastinating on them to push yourself to get other things done.
- Make sure that there’s a clear mechanism for ensuring that you finish important things on time. For example, if it’s crucial to actually get some task done by a certain deadline, you can ask someone who can hold you accountable to remind you of the deadline as it approaches.
- 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 this issue, such as increasing your mindfulness.
- Recognize that sometimes you might just need a break. For example, if you’re engaging in productive procrastinating because you’re too exhausted to work on your main task but still want to feel that you’re getting things done, consider that it might be better for you to simply take a break and go to sleep, rather than force yourself to try to be productive when it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to do so.
However, as noted above, you will likely benefit more from trying to reduce or eliminate your procrastination. To do this, you should generally start by figuring out why you procrastinate in the first place, and then pick the most appropriate anti-procrastination techniques to use in your particular situation.
Productive vs. structured procrastination
It’s possible to draw a distinction between productive and structured procrastination, by saying that productive procrastination refers to procrastination that’s more productive than traditional procrastination because it involves doing beneficial things, but is not necessarily intentionally structured to be that way, whereas structured procrastination is intentionally structured a certain way, but is not necessarily more productive than traditional procrastination. As such, procrastination can be productive, structured, both, or neither.
However, in practice the terms “productive procrastination” and “structured procrastination” are often used interchangeably, primarily to refer to the act of doing beneficial things while delaying doing more important things.
Productive vs. active procrastination
Productive procrastination is associated with the controversial concept of active procrastination, which involves deliberately postponing decisions or actions, in order to use the pressure of a near deadline as motivation to get things done.
The difference between the two types of procrastination is that active procrastination is about deliberately postponing tasks in order to benefit from working on them right before the deadline, whereas productive procrastination is about doing beneficial things while postponing doing more important things.
However, while the two types of procrastination are distinct from one another, they are not mutually exclusive, as people may engage in both at the same time. For example, someone might deliberately postpone working on an important task until right before it’s due because they feel that this will help them be motivated to work on it (which constitutes active procrastination), but while they’re delaying, they might also work on beneficial secondary tasks (which constitutes productive procrastination).
Finally, note that the concept of active procrastination has been heavily criticized. As such, as in the case of productive procrastination, it’s important to understand it and assess the situation before deciding whether to use it, and in most cases, you will benefit more from trying to overcome your procrastination instead.