Active Procrastination: Thoughts on Oxymorons

My favorite oxymoron - Active procrastination

Posted Jul 03, 2009

Oxymoron – a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction. We are all familiar with common oxymorons: jumbo shrimp, boneless ribs, deafening silence or sweet sorrow, for example. Here’s my favorite, “active procrastination.” These terms are not just apparently contradictory, the term reveals a problem in understanding the difference between procrastination and delay.

Oxymorons can take a number of forms including inadvertent errors in our speech where we might say things like “extremely average” or “objective opinion.” They can be used deliberately as puns, for example “controlled chaos” or “organized mess.” Finally, they can be used to reveal a paradox or to bring deliberate attention to a contradiction:  The soldiers’ faces were “grimly gay”; or There was a “cruel kindness” to her departure; or He withstood the difficulty as always, the “mournful optimist.”

I can understand when we confuse the terms procrastination and delay in everyday language. I would see this as an inadvertent error in our speech. We’re often not precise in our use of terms. However, in two recent publications, researchers are now confusing the terms. In fact, they argue that there can be positive aspects to procrastination. I think that their work does reveal a paradox about delay (delay can be good or bad), but ultimately their own work is flawed with a mistake in language use and a misunderstanding about procrastination.

Angela Hsin Chun Chu (Columbia University) & Jin Nam Choi (formerly McGill University, now Seoul National University), and later Jun Nam Choi & Sarah V. Moran (McGill University) collaborated on two papers defining what they think is the positive side of procrastination. In the first paper, Chu and Choi define the term “active procrastination.” In the second, Choi and Moran developed a scale to measure it. The problem is, this notion of active procrastination hinges on a semantic issue; one which they don’t address specifically. This unexamined assumption about the meaning of words is a problem.

Why should this interest you? I think understanding the difference between procrastination and other forms of delay is essential to really understanding procrastination itself. As I’ve written before, all procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination. Knowing the difference makes all the difference in our lives.

For my posting today, I will simply address the semantic problem that Chu and Choi fail to address. I will follow up with a little more about their research later.

As the authors introduce the notion that procrastination might have a positive side, they write the following:

“. . . Knaus (2000) argued that not all delays lead to negative outcomes. For example, delays resulting from time that was spent planning and gathering vital preparatory information can be beneficial (Knaus). Many people claim that even when they start to work at the last minute, they can still finish on time and they tend to work better and faster or generate more creative ideas under time pressure. This line of thought on procrastination suggests that there might be more than one kind of procrastinator and that in some cases procrastination behavior might lead to positive outcomes” (2005, p. 246; emphasis added).

Not withstanding our recent research that seriously challenges the notion of an arousal procrastinator who works better under pressure, the key issue here is how they move from Knaus arguing that not all DELAYS lead to negative outcomes with examples of types of delay, to the clause - “this line of thought on procrastination suggests . . . “.  With a simple transition from one sentence to another, we moved from delay that can be advantageous to procrastination. This is the problem with their notion of “active procrastination.” They're really writing about delay, not procrastination.

Delay and procrastination are not the same thing.
It is true as Knaus was quoted as saying, delay is not necessarily negative. In contrast, procrastination is. Procrastination, as defined in the psychological literature, is a problem with self-regulation. Chu & Choi  clearly acknowledge this in their writing as well.

Other examples of self-regulatory failure include problem drinking, compulsive gambling or shopping, and over-eating. Can you imagine putting the adverb “active” in front of these words to describe some positive aspect of this behavior? I don’t think so.

Procrastination, like these other forms of self-regulatory failure, is negative. It’s really that simple. As summarized in the most recent meta-analysis of the literature, procrastination is the voluntary delay of an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay (Steel, 2007). It’s not the kind of sagacious delay in the examples provided such as  “time that was spent planning and gathering vital preparatory information.”

Delay is a necessary and daily part of our lives as we manage goal pursuit across a variety of roles and contexts. Please, let’s not confuse deliberate, thoughtful delay of action with the lack of self-regulatory ability known as procrastination.

Chu A. H.C., & Choi, J.N. (2005). Rethinking procrastination: Positive effects of “active” procrastination behavior on attitudes and performance. The Journal of Social Psychology, 145, 245-263.

Choi, J.N., & Moran, S.V. (2009). Why not procrastinate? Development and validation of a new active procrastination scale. The Journal of Social Psychology, 149, 195-211.

Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133, 65-94.