In the Age of Anxiety

Panic, compulsions, phobias, and more

Can Procrastination Ever Be a Good Thing?

What makes this habit so hard to change?

If you're reading this, chances are that procrastination is not your friend. Most of the time, it seems like procrastination leads to nothing but anxiety, disappointment, and shame. So, if that's the case, then why is changing it so hard? One reason may be that, like anything, procrastination has its benefits. Some procrastinators actually delay tasks deliberately because they like to work under pressure or feel challenged by approaching deadlines. These active procrastinators feel in control of their time and use it purposefully. They are less avoidant, have lower stress levels, and higher self-efficacy than passive procrastinators (Chu and Choi 2005). So while they may put things off, unlike passive procrastinators, they are not paralyzed by worry and indecision-and they get things done.

If you're an active procrastinator, you choose to put things off because you like the adrenaline rush that comes with getting things done right at the wire. You enjoy the challenge and you don't really want to change. If you identify more with the passive procrastinator, however, you already know how procrastination interferes with your life-the missed opportunities, the damaged relationships, and the constant stress, anxiety, and guilt.

No doubt, you've tried before but let's face it: changing is hard. One of the main barriers to building the motivation to change your avoidance is that procrastination actually has a number of benefits. Most people don't think of procrastination in these terms, that there are a lot of good things about it. We typically just think of procrastination as a negative thing. But, while the benefits of procrastination are often hidden, they can sap your motivation to change nonetheless. Some examples of the benefits of procrastination include:
• You get to put off unpleasant tasks in favor of more enjoyable things.
• Problems may end up getting solved without any effort from you.
• You can avoid the possibility of failure-or success.
• You get to avoid the discomfort of doing something you dread.
• You can avoid the anxiety you feel about the task.
• Someone may come to your rescue and do it for you.
• The demands placed on you get lifted because you dragged your feet.

Whatever the benefits of procrastination are for you, it can help to be aware of them as you work to turn your procrastination habits around. To build true motivation to change, motivation that will see you through the hard work necessary to achieve your goals, it can be helpful to conduct a cost-benefit analysis and pit the costs and benefits of procrastination against each other to see which side wins out. To do so, simply divide a sheet of paper down the middle. On the left side, under "Costs" you can list all the drawbacks of avoiding unpleasant tasks. On the right side, under "Benefits" list all the benefits of putting things off. When you are done, take a close look at each side. Which wins? Is your procrastination working for you? Or against you?

The answer will be different for each person reading this. But, if you've decided that the benefits of procrastination are not worth it compared to the havoc it wreaks on your personal and professional life, now may be the time to make some changes. Look to future posts for tips on how to overcome procrastination, decrease stress and anxiety and improve productivity. You'll lose the safety net that procrastination can provide, but it will be well worth it.

For more information, see my recent book The Worrier's Guide to Overcoming Procrastination: Breaking Free from the Anxiety that Holds You Back.

Chu, A.H.C. and J.N. Choi. 2005. Rethinking procrastination: Positive effects of "active" procrastination behavior on attitudes and performance. Journal of Social Psychology 14: 245-264.

Pamela Wiegartz, Ph.D., is the Director of CBT Services and Training in the Department of Psychiatry at Brigham and Women's Hospital and on faculty at Harvard Medical School. more...

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