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Procrastination Can Make You Happy?

Procrastination makes us happy?

This post is in response to
Procrastination can make you happy!

Does procrastination make us happy? Does it improve performance? The short answer from the accumulated research literature is "no" on both accounts. So, why does this myth persist?

I read Jessica Pryce-Jones' most recent post with gut-wrenching interest. You could say that it bothered me, but that would be an understatement. Why? Because she depicts a common myth about procrastination and blurs the distinction between procrastination and other forms of delay.

First, the most recent research about "arousal" procrastination (Simpson & Pychyl, 2009; Steel, 2010) clearly shows that there is no evidence for the notion that people actually need this pressure to get them to work. These are not sensation seekers fulfilling this need in their last-minute efforts. They certainly tell themselves that they need this pressure, but our best bet is that this is a strategy to reduce the cognitive dissonance they feel about not acting when they know they probably should.

I think it's important to note the research results that are quoted in Jessica's post, "Active procrastinators believe that working like this results in better incubation of ideas, more efficiency, better use of time (Schraw et al, 2007) and more intense and fulfilling work as a result." They may believe these things, but there is no empirical evidence that these beliefs are valid; Just the opposite in fact.

In addition to the myth of the arousal procrastinator, the most recent meta-analytic study by Steel (2007) also showed that procrastination predicted poorer performance overall and lower levels of well-being. Certainly procrastination is not a route to happiness. Our own research shows that procrastination even undermines health.

Second, if I do delay an action because I would prefer to work later, under more pressure as the case may be, this is not procrastination. I am consciously choosing to delay for a purpose. It is not the voluntary, needless delay that serves as self-sabotage in our lives. The notion of an active procrastinator is a hotly contested notion among researchers. I think it's a poorly chosen, oxymoronic construct. They are other types of delay that we need to acknowledge and study.

I think what struck me most were the closing comments of the post.

"In short, some people find working under pressure much more enjoyable. In fact they can't manage their working life any other way, finding that if they approach tasks in a more orthodox manner the adrenalin thrill disappears."

To the extent that we really are talking about procrastination, that is, a form of self-regulation failure, I would want to re-write this sentence to reflect other types of self-regulatory failure in our lives. Doing this reveals a problem with the logic.

"In short, some people find working while intoxicated more enjoyable. In fact they can't manage their working life any other way, . . ." Of course we do know people like this. Quite a few, in fact. However, I don't see the same attitude towards supporting it in the workplace.

Can procrastination make us happy? No. Delay can at times because it serves our goal pursuit. It is the pursuit of our goals in life that contributes to happiness, not excuse making for an inability to self-motivate when the need be.

Finally, Jessica wrote, "Not all procrastination is bad for everyone."

I want to rephrase this too. All procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination. Not all delay is bad. Procrastination rarely pays. Knowing the difference is important.

Concluding thought
I'm loathe to celebrate the notion of procrastination. I want to celebrate it about as much as I want to celebrate multi-tasking in the form of text messaging while driving down the highway. It's done everyday. I'll bet that in an interview you might even hear someone who does this say, ". . . .working like this results in better incubation of ideas, more efficiency, better use of time and more intense and fulfilling work as a result."

I don't want to share the road with one of these multi-taskers or an office with someone who wants to believe that they have to wait until the last minute to get some work done. I do know that this would make me very unhappy.

Simpson, W.K., & Pychyl, T.A. (2009). In search of the arousal procrastinator: An investigation of the relation between procrastination, arousal-based personality traits and beliefs about procrastination motivations. Personality and Individual Differences, 47, 906-911.

Steel, P. (2010). Arousal, avoidant and decisional procrastinators: Do they exist? Personality and Individual Differences. 48, 926-934

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

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