Is Productive Procrastination Possible?


Paxton Scott, Head Online Editor

Procrastination has traditionally been portrayed as an unsatisfactory behavior —   an excuse for those looking to avoid work. A quick web search finds thousands of videos and webpages dedicated to helping students and adults be more productive by procrastinating less. But what if productive procrastination isn’t a contradiction?

That is the position of a number of recent studies and books that cite recognized scientific studies to claim that productive procrastination is not necessarily an oxymoron. If done right, these studies contend, procrastination can increase both creativity and productivity.

The argument for positive procrastination traces back to John Perry, a philosophy professor at Stanford and author of The Art of Procrastination. In his book, Perry looks at the positive aspects of what he coins “structured procrastination” .

“The key idea is that procrastination does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, such as gardening or sharpening pencils,” writes Perry.

Although Perry forgot Netflix in the list of marginally useful things, his point remains the same: we will do any unpleasant task as long as the alternative is less attractive. In order to exploit this aspect of human nature, Perry suggest that you create a list of things ordered by importance.

“Tasks that seem to have clear deadlines (but really don’t) and seem to be important (but really aren’t) should be on top. But there should also be worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list” writes Perry.

While this statement may at first sound contradictory, consider some assignments students receive regularly. Polished essays, group projects, and end-of-unit tests all have long term times deadlines and are difficult to start. Place these at the top of your list.

If you merely create a short list with a few items of extreme importance, the only way to avoid the difficult task would be to do nothing. Or watch Netflix. Neither of which lead to effective procrastination. By adding lower priority, less difficult tasks at the bottom of your priority list, you give yourself a way to avoiding the most difficult work while still remaining productive.

“With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen” writes Perry.

Another expert who believes in the positive power of procrastination is Jihae Shin, a professor at the University of Wisconsin. Instead of productivity, Shin focused on the effects procrastination has on creativity and originality.

Instead of simply theorizing, Shin designed an experiment. She asked a large sample group to come up with a business plan. Some were asked to start immediately while others were encouraged to play five minutes of solitaire first. Independent raters scored the ideas for creativity and originally. The group that had been encouraged to procrastinate was 28% more creative.

The science behind the experiment it relatively simple. First ideas are often the most conventional. By forcing the sample group to procrastinate, the study encouraged divergent thinking and the creation of more ideas. When the procrastinators finished procrastinating and started writing, their base ideas were superior.

Comparatively, the non-procrastinators often started immediately and simply built on top of their original idea. In most cases, this was a poor foundation. The only way to rebuild the foundation was to start over —  a task too daunting for the majority of non-procrastinators.

It is important to keep in mind that while structure procrastination has benefits, putting off work to binge-watch Netflix does not. In order to avoiding falling into this trap of wasting time, it is important to keep your to do list long and review it often. Then, as you procrastinate, your mind is likely to wander —  subconsciously searching for solutions.

Next time you began writing a long essay, put it off. Consider working on an item lower down your priority list. Or learn how to garden. Whatever you do, do not start the essay immediately.