We’ve all been there: it’s 1 a.m. the night before you have to give a major work presentation, yet you can’t tear yourself away from Netflix to prepare. Maybe you waited until the last possible minute to pick up a birthday gift and decide to show up to the party empty handed or you've been putting off calling your grandmother for a year straight. Almost all of us can say that procrastination has leeched its way into our lives at some point, and nine times out of 10, it has turned out badly.
But with so many myths swirling around about how some people work best under pressure (sorry to break it you, but they don’t) or how procrastination may spur creativity (scientific research to back that up is nowhere to be found — sorry again), it’s hard to know what is what. To help get you on track, we dissected the biggest misconceptions about procrastination, with the help of experts who have been studying it for years.
Experts clarify that pausing or waiting doesn’t necessarily always fall into the category of procrastination. “All procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination,” says Tim Pychyl, PhD, director of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University (Ottawa) and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change. “That’s just such an important distinction.”
There are multiple types of delay. A common one is purposeful delay: you ask to schedule a work phone call for later in the week so you have time to prepare or you put off lifting something heavy until a friend can come over and help you. Inevitable delay is when an unavoidable situation pops up: think when a plane is delayed due to bad weather or a child is ill and that diverts your attention from the task you’re attempting to complete. “The truth is we’re engaged in many other things and things will get delayed because of that,” Pychyl says.
Twenty percent of Americans are true procrastinators: they put something off despite knowing a negative consequence is likely.
The consensus among experts, though, is that true procrastination is putting something off despite knowing a negative consequence is likely. “It’s pretty much an irrational delay, or putting something off in spite of expecting to be worse off,” says Professor Piers Steel, PhD, author of The Procrastination Equation. (Researcher Joel Anderson defines it succinctly as “culpably unwarranted delay.”)
Bottom line: taking a second to collect your thoughts isn’t a bad thing. Knowing putting something off will lead to a negative result and doing it anyway? That’s a no-no.
There have been recent buzzwords floating around that are trying to reframe procrastination as a positive thing, but researchers note these are largely inaccurate descriptions.
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Pychyl’s latest research (a finished paper is currently under review) points to the fact that active procrastination, which suggests that waiting until the last minute can be beneficial, is a misnomer. “Conceptually, it’s an oxymoron and in terms of the data, we don’t get any of the same results [as the original study],” he says. “It’s actually purposeful delay. ‘Active procrastinators’ work at the last minute because they know they can pull it off. That’s not procrastination. [Procrastination] is knowing you should work today but saying ‘I don’t feel like it, I’m going to do something else instead.’”
Joseph R. Ferrari, PhD, St Vincent DePaul Professor of Psychology at DePaul University in Chicago and author of "Still Procrastinating?..." takes issue with the term structured procrastination as well — it’s really just prioritizing, he says. “If I have a dozen things to do, obviously 10, 11 and 12 have to wait because I’m doing the first one,” he says. “But a real procrastinator isn’t just prioritizing. They’ll do one, maybe two [things] and then rewrite the list and shuffle things around [without getting anything else done]. To prioritize is not the same as procrastination.”
On another note, Steel says there are ways to minimize the effects of procrastination. Here’s one example: let’s say you’re working on writing up a report due tomorrow. What you really should be doing is shaping the content of the document, but you’re checking grammar and adjusting the formatting. “That’s not ideal, but it’s still part of the project and ... you’re going to have to do that anyway,” he says. “But when you get to the task you’re supposed to be doing you’ve cleaned off that part of your plate at least. That’s low-cost procrastination, some people call it productive procrastination.”
Beware, though: research shows that people that think they do best under pressure are actually wrong, according to Ferrari. “They do worse than non-procrastinators, but they think they do better,” he says. “So there’s this misperception that by waiting they do better.”
Experts agree that time management is not the problem for true procrastinators, which make up 20 percent of the U.S. population, Ferrari says. (This figure holds true for many areas outside the U.S. as well, he notes.)
“[People] think that procrastinators are just lazy,” Ferrari says. “And that’s not what’s going on. It’s an avoidance strategy. It’s a way of never demonstrating to yourself or to others your abilities or your capabilities.”
"It is not a time management problem, it’s an emotion management problem."
Pychyl has done research proving that those that forgave themselves for procrastinating didn’t procrastinate as much the second time around. “Self forgiveness is very important because if we don’t forgive ourselves we’ll continue to avoid,” he says. “It hinges on the notion that procrastination is not a time management problem, it’s an emotion management problem.”
In fact, like most genetic conversations, it’s a bit more complicated than that. According to Dr. Sharad P. Paul, M.D., author of The Genetics of Health and professor at Auckland University of Technology, “Most things are a combination of nature (our inherent genetic profile) and nurture (the environment we are born into and grow up in, including external factors like toxins we are exposed to).”
“The main reason that we procrastinate is that we feel our chances of success are slim at the current time — and the causes could be lack of confidence or preparation,” Paul says.
Ferrari’s research also indicates that nurture may have a lot to do with it. His work has shown that fathers who are “cold, demanding, stern and distancing” produce children who are procrastinators as a reaction. (If a father isn’t around, it’s the same story if the mother or primary caretaker exhibits the same characteristics.)
If you’re someone who chronically puts things off, don’t think you’ll find support with those with similar tendencies. In fact, Ferrari puts it this way: “If you’re looking for sympathy from other procrastinators, you’re not going to get it.” He collected some data in the workplace on people who are procrastinators. When told a story of a person who exhibited some procrastination tendencies, the results were intriguing. “What we found is that procrastinators more than non-procrastinators wanted to fire this person,” he says. “If you’re an employee and you think your boss is going to be sympathetic [because] she’s also a procrastinator, the answer is no, they’re going to be harder on you.”
Now don’t get too excited: most of the time true procrastination works out it’s a fluke. “There are times procrastination pays,” Pychyl says. “[Maybe you delay] and someone else does the work and it goes away. You didn’t delay for the right reasons, it really was self-defeating and it was full of a lot of wishful thinking. It’s kind of like when you’re a kid and you hope the teacher is going to be sick and you’re not going to have the test. Every once in a while that happens ... And you hang on to those points in your life like gold to defend all the other times that you’re quite irrational. There’s no doubt that there’s time when real procrastination has paid for people, but ... it’s never helpful. Sometimes it’s harmless, but it’s never helpful.”