Can procrastination be a good habit?

09 October 2018 | Columns

Justicia Shipena

You are tilted towards your computer screen and punch out a few more words on the keyboard. You lost your ability to write lucidly a long time ago; now you’re just trying to reach the essay’s required word count and print it before your class starts in six hours or the due date for submission has ended.

As you limp through the concluding paragraph, you think of all the earlier times you could have written this paper. Did you really need to watch Netflix until 04:00 the other night? Why did you spend the entire afternoon at some place not called home, talking to your friends while staring at a blank Microsoft Word document?

When you finally emerge from the depths of that place and slowly trundle back to your dorm for a couple hours of sleep, you think, “Never again”.

Two weeks later, you find yourself in exactly the same place.

Most of us have been guilty of procrastination at some point; sometimes you are awake until 03:00 doing nothing productive for a reason you can’t explain. When we are rushing through a task that is due the following day, we may regret that we did not follow the well-known maxim ‘don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today’.

But is procrastination always a bad habit?

At first glance, procrastination appears detrimental. I came across a blog where it shows a study on the long-term effects of procrastination. It found that students who procrastinate on a task initially experience less stress and illness than those who complete the task immediately, but procrastinators suffer from more illness and stress over the course of the task.

So while putting off that essay paper may give you a few days to relax, scrambling to complete it right before the due date is more stressful than writing it earlier would have been.

Added stress resulting from procrastination does not lead to better results: The same study found that students who procrastinated received lower grades than those who did not. But what about people who work better under pressure? Can procrastination increase productivity?

Another study suggests that in addition to whether you procrastinate, the way in which you procrastinate determines your stress levels and performance. Students who procrastinate passively will indeed suffer from more stress and feelings of depression than students who do not procrastinate, because they do not intentionally put off tasks, but wind up doing so because they struggle to take action quickly and are pessimistic about their ability to complete them.

Intentional, or active, procrastination, however, can be productive. If you put off an task because you know you work better under the pressure of a deadline and are motivated to complete the task when the due date approaches, you will not experience more stress than your non-procrastinating peers and will perform just as well as they do. As long as you have the drive to complete the task immediately before it is due, take today to catch up with friends or do work for another class instead of finishing your ‘Corruption’ essay.

One author, Frank Partnoy, goes as far as to say that procrastination can be beneficial when it comes to decision-making. In his book ‘Wait, the art and science of delay’, Partnoy recommends that people put off decisions until the last moment to give themselves as much time as possible to subconsciously consider their choices. So by holding off on answering a tricky email or text message for a few hours, you might craft a better response.

Along the same line, another experiment was conducted that examined how subjects generated business ideas, found that those who procrastinated after being assigned the task had time to think of more creative ideas than their peers who began brainstorming right away.

It may be that reading over an essay prompt and then waiting a few hours or days to actually write the paper gives you space to come up with more innovative material than you would have created if you started immediately.

But a limit to the creative potential of procrastination exists; if you do not read the prompt or think about the task at all until the last minute, when you finally sit down to write, you will not have time to generate a creative response.

As long as we procrastinate intentionally and allow time to consider our ideas and decisions, late nights at a coffee shop need not sink our moods. If you know you work best under an impending deadline, go ahead and put off until tomorrow what you can do today.

I conclude by saying… do what works best for you!

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