Why procrastination might be good for you

Behaviour Change Adviser at Bupa UK
17 January 2017

What does procrastination mean to you? Laziness? Lack of motivation? Being unproductive? According to one study, the average office worker is productive for less than three hours a day, in between reading the news, browsing social media, looking for another job ...

But procrastinating may not always mean time wasted. As Stanford philosopher John Perry argues, “procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing.” The key may be what you choose to put off and what you choose to do instead.

Man sitting at desk

Active vs passive procrastination

New research suggests there are two types of procrastination: active and passive. Passive procrastination is what we typically think of – putting things off, even though we know we should do them. In the short term, you may feel relieved at not having to start a daunting task. But longer term this can backfire, making you feel stressed, guilty and even depressed as the deadline draws closer. Compared to those who don’t procrastinate, passive procrastinators are far more likely to miss deadlines or perform poorly.

In contrast to the negative feelings that go with passive procrastination, active procrastination increases wellbeing. Active procrastinators use their time flexibly. So they may consciously delay working on a task until closer to a deadline, particularly if they can tick another few boxes in the meantime. Because of this flexibility, they are well suited to fast-paced, demanding and unpredictable workplaces. They usually work best under pressure, motivated by the challenge of tight timelines. In turn, this motivation improves their results.

How to be an active procrastinator

So how can you make sure you’re procrastinating actively, not passively? Passive procrastination is often a result of anxiety about not doing something well enough. Do you feel unprepared? Are you feeling under pressure from too much work? Are you simply in the wrong job? Seeking help for any of these could help to stop chronic procrastination.

Passive procrastinators tend to rely more on external motivation – in other words, they are motivated by external rewards, rather than internal satisfaction. A tactic called ‘temptation bundling’ can help with this. Combining something you’d rather not do (going to the gym?) with a pleasant treat (listening to your favourite podcast?) can make boring tasks more enjoyable and increase motivation. Why not treat yourself to coffee only after starting that report?

Active procrastinators are not good at sticking to a structured time plan. They constantly re-prioritise depending on what else comes along. But they still tend to meet deadlines, showing an understanding of the time and effort each task involves. So leave it late, but not too late.

It also helps to set suitable deadlines for separate tasks. One study found that students given evenly-spaced deadlines over the course of a term performed better than those allowed to hand in everything at the end, who inevitably left everything to the last minute.

We’re often happy to work on boring tasks, if they’re not the one with the deadline hanging over us. Need to write that financial report by the end of the week? Great, now you can get on with organising that meeting. Expenses due? Perfect time to finish that appraisal. Choose carefully and you’re still being productive!

If you’re still struggling to get motivated, try rewriting your to-do list. Put one or two small, easy tasks at the top (like sending an email) to do right away. The satisfaction of completing anything, no matter how small, releases dopamine in the brain, which gives us more motivation to carry on with bigger tasks afterwards.

So try our five point plan:

  • Understand why you’re procrastinating
  • Find other ways to feel motivated
  • Plan deadlines carefully
  • Procrastinate with other productive tasks
  • Write your to-do list wisely

Happy procrastinating!

Juliet Hodges
Behaviour Change Adviser at Bupa UK

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