The Productivity Paradox: Exploring the Positive Effects of Procrastination

Juin 13, 2024 | Employee Engagement, Professional Development

Every manager knows that procrastinating at work lowers productivity. Or does it? 

In reality, being a procrastinator may have some hidden benefits, like delivering motivation boosts just when they’re needed. In this article, we’ll explore what causes procrastination—and when it can actually prove helpful. Along the way, we’ll unpack common misconceptions and strategies for using procrastination effectively.

Table of Contents

1. Understanding Procrastination

2. Unveiling the Benefits

3. Harnessing Procrastination for Productivity

4. Embracing Breaks and Rest

5. Overcoming Procrastination Pitfalls

6. Tracking the Effects of Procrastination

Understanding Procrastination

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Credit: Christina Morillo /Pexels

As a widespread psychological phenomenon, procrastination affects all of us. Why do we procrastinate? Rather than unfairly chalking it up to laziness, let’s explore what causes procrastination:

  • Prioritizing present rewards over hypothetical future ones. “Psychologically, we perceive the impact of an event—or the value of a reward—as dampened if it is further away in the future,” writes Pragya Agarwal in Berkeley Greater Good. “This means we perceive a desired result in the future as less valuable than one in the present.” We seek the more immediate reward of avoiding a difficult task (temporarily), or getting to do something more enjoyable, rather than the future satisfaction of completing a tough task.
  • Self-doubt or difficulty with mood regulation. We may feel overwhelmed by anxiety when we think about a task on our plate. We may question our ability to complete it successfully. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as we delay its execution. Similarly, we may wait for the “perfect” moment to begin the task, as Charlotte Lieberman says in The New York Times. If we have a negative outlook on the task, we may aim to wait until our mindset shifts. But in reality, starting on the task is the best way to build motivation and improve our mindset toward it, she explains.
  • Over-planning and over-focusing on time-management. “Falling into the trap of over-planning can become a subtle form of procrastination,” writes Tanya Dalton on Forbes. “We find ourselves obsessively perfecting our plans, making them overly complex and time-consuming, ultimately delaying the actual execution of tasks that demand our attention.” According to Parkinson’s Law, work will expand to fit the amount of time we allow for it—often through this obsession with over-planning.
  • Fear of making the wrong choice. This can lead us to postpone making choices, as Agarwal says. In essence, we uphold the status quo due to anxiety about taking a risk.
  • Being immersed in other daily tasks. We may be genuinely swamped with a long to-do list, trying to cross off “urgent” tasks before we start an important project.
  • Thriving on deadline pressure. Some of us feel a motivation boost right when a deadline begins to loom, and we wait until this inspiration strikes.

By understanding the underlying causes and motivations behind procrastination behaviours, we can assess whether we need to shift our attitude toward it.

Unveiling the Benefits

In business literature, procrastination is typically associated with low productivity. However, evidence shows that moderate procrastination can bring surprising advantages:

  • Enhancing creativity and problem-solving. With more unfocused time for the brain to explore options, surprising connections and solutions may emerge. 
  • Allowing for reflection. Procrastination lets you mull over an idea, learning more about it, before taking action.
  • Enabling better decisions. All this reflection time supports deeper understanding and stronger takeaways.
  • Boosting productivity. Procrastination can lead to periods of more intense focus on a task or problem, using time more efficiently.

In research published in the Academy of Management Journal, Jihae Shin and Adam M. Grant highlight some unexpected benefits of being a procrastinator. In some cases, procrastinating until a deadline looms can spark creativity

“Although it is widely assumed that procrastination is counterproductive, delaying task progress may have hidden benefits for creativity,” they write. “Drawing on theories of incubation, we propose that moderate procrastination can foster creativity when employees have the intrinsic motivation and opportunity to generate new ideas.”

In the study, moderate procrastination proved more beneficial than high or low levels of procrastination. “Employees who procrastinated moderately received higher creativity ratings from their supervisors than employees who procrastinated more or less, provided that intrinsic motivation or creative requirement was high,” the researchers explain. 

Keep in mind that the tendency to procrastinate may relate to personality type, too. Highly self-disciplined people may not naturally procrastinate as much as others—and that’s okay!

Harnessing Procrastination for Productivity

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Credit: Yan Krukau/ Pexels

Strive to create a balanced approach to task management and time allocation. Here are some key strategies for leveraging the benefits of procrastination.

  • DO create external accountability processes. Plan when you’ll check in with a coworker about that important project. This will create a midpoint deadline, boosting motivation to get started.
  • DO reflect on why you’re procrastinating. Often procrastination results from fear of not being able to complete a project effectively. Work to diminish this fear by reminding yourself how you’ve excelled in similar endeavours. 
  • DO create a schedule. Break the project into bite-sized chunks with deadlines. That way, you won’t leave yourself with an impossible task load at the end.
  • DO follow a moderate approach to procrastination, rather than taking it to an extreme (or never procrastinating).
  • DON’T let yourself be controlled by an urgency mindset. Try to weed out your to-do list and set boundaries if other tasks continuously derail your focus from big projects.
  • DON’T avoid structure. Instead, challenge yourself to complete a project within a set timeframe. Gauge how long a task should take, so you don’t fall prey to Parkinson’s Law. 
  • DON’T procrastinate just because a task is mundane or boring. As the researchers in the above-mentioned study found, procrastination works best with tasks we feel motivated to do—or that require creativity. 

Using these strategies will help you become a more effective procrastinator, especially if you make time to relax, as we’ll discuss next.

Embracing Breaks and Rest

Many famous artists and musicians, from Mozart to Agatha Christie, have said their best ideas come during “down time.” Procrastination makes space for these creative ideas to emerge, as Loizos Heracleous and David Robson write on the BBC. In fact, focusing on less demanding tasks while procrastinating can lead to a 40% rise in creative thinking, they assert. As we engage in other daily activities, the brain continues working behind the scenes on these higher-priority tasks. Through the power of free association, new ideas arise. 

Use breaks and downtime strategically to combat burnout and foster innovation. Making time for rest and relaxation will help you maintain peak mental well-being. Breaks improve concentration and help you show up with more creativity and enthusiasm. Taking time out for self-care can serve as a form of procrastination that gives you the energy to complete a project!

Find your own best rhythm for the cycles of daily work. One person may thrive on the pressure of deadlines, while another may grow overly stressed by frequent procrastination. If you work well under that type of pressure, block out time to complete an important project closer to the deadline. Likewise, schedule time to complete other tasks prior to this intensive period of work, so you can devote your full attention to the project.

Practicing mindfulness or meditation can also reduce stress and boost confidence, so you can tackle key responsibilities as the deadline grows closer. And engaging in passions outside of work can help you feel mentally refreshed, as Corporate Wellness Magazine says.

Overcoming Procrastination Pitfalls

Consider whether procrastination has become detrimental to your (or your employees’) performance and goals. Use goal-tracking software to assess whether your performance shows an upward or downward trend. Then, implement smart strategies for overcoming—or moderating—your procrastination and improving time management.

Saving Too Much Work for the End

With big projects, don’t wait until the deadline looms to get started. In many cases, that simply isn’t feasible. If you were writing a dissertation, you wouldn’t begin conducting your research a week before it’s due—even if you prefer to procrastinate. Instead, outline the project stages from start to finish. Create mini deadlines for different milestones. Then, you can procrastinate on particular project chunks—and you’ll get a burst of motivation from completing each step along the way.

When you think in smaller units of time, different stages of a project will feel more immediate. So, you’ll get that motivation boost to complete them earlier on. You might procrastinate on this week’s deadline, but you’ll still complete it by Friday—instead of pushing the entire project to the end of the month.

You’ll also gain the full benefits of procrastination by diving into certain aspects of the project earlier on. Gaining familiarity with the project will allow you to mull over ideas and engage in creative problem-solving. Then, you’ll be ready to take it through the home stretch.

Not Collaborating Smoothly

Many projects depend on collaboration between various people. If you’re holding up project workflow or communication by procrastinating, consider modifying your habits to meet team members’ needs. Set shorter turnaround times for your contributions, if needed. Talk with team members about target dates for project check-ins.

Also talk with your manager about your working preferences. This will demonstrate self-awareness and convey dependability.

Engaging in Self-Blame

Sometimes we get stuck in an unproductive cycle of procrastination because of negative self-talk. We feel shame about procrastinating, which lowers our confidence and causes more extreme procrastination. If you’re procrastinating for these reasons, interrupt the cycle with self-compassion. Remind yourself that virtually everyone goes through this, and reflect on your key strengths.

Tracking the Effects of Procrastination

Managers and HR can also use analytics to determine if an employee’s procrastination is helpful or harmful to team performance. Quality software will reveal how efficiently they use their time. Look at patterns of engagement to see if productivity ramps up as deadlines approach—and if they’re meeting their targets. Share feedback and advice with employees based on your findings. For instance, if they’re engaging in more extreme forms of procrastination, help them adapt their approach.

Now that you understand what causes procrastination, and how it can actually prove helpful, you’ll be poised to leverage it to your advantage. By embracing the benefits of procrastination, you’ll improve your ability to manage your own time. You’ll also become a more effective coach who helps each person optimize their own performance by leveraging their personal preferences. The key is not necessarily to move beyond procrastination, but to embrace a balanced approach to task management and productivity.

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