Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Procrastinating 101: Now for Some Good News

Poking around in the procrastination "literature" available on the web, I stumbled upon the intriguing term "positive procrastination."  Maybe it's in my stars--I'm a Libra--but I've always tended to be a balancer, one to advocate looking at things from an opposing perspective.  And not surprisingly, I am especially prone to such examination when the mainstream view is damning of me and my behaviors.  So I'm drawn to the notion that my years of procrastinating have not all been negative.

The most frequently cited work in this vein is a 2005 academic article by Angela Hsin Chun Chu and Jin Nam Choi.  Chu and Choi identified two types of procrastinators (again with the numbers, and the types!)--passive (in layman's terms, "bad"), and active ("good"). The way I read their findings and analysis, I have been both.

The passive procrastinator is the one we all know, and some of us love, from the many texts and columns and talk shows who would repair this individual.  Said passive procrastinator, in Chu and Choi's summary of the literature, is "lazy or self-indulgent" and "unable to self-regulate."  Procrastination of this type "has been considered a self-handicapping behavior that leads to wasted time, poor performance, and increased stress."

Chu and Choi's more nuanced inquiry seems to have grown from two main sources.  First is the work of Dianne Tice and Roy Baumeister, whose longitudinal study of procrastination, published in 1997, identified "costs and benefits of dawdling."  Tice and Baumeister's research concluded that "[p]rocrastinators may find that they feel better and are healthier when the deadline is far off and they postpone the task."  This benefit was short-term, however, and the usual chickens of stress and poor performance eventually came home to roost, in their study.  Chu and Choi also point to the argument of procrastination guru William Knaus.  Knaus hints at the possible functionality of some procrastination, pointing to time spent gathering information and preparing as being, in some cases, well spent.  He advances the position of many procrastinators, often deemed rationalization, that they "work better under pressure."  

Our friends Chu and Choi thus posited their two types of procrastinators.  Active procrastinators differ from their passive cousins in cognitive, affective and behavioral characteristics.  In plain English, these "good" procrastinators decide to put something off, they can live with time pressure, and they complete work by the deadline.  Chu and Choi conclude that 

although active procrastinators procrastinate to the same degree as passive procrastinators, they are more similar to nonprocrastinators than to passive procrastinators in terms of purposive use of time, control of time, self-efficacy belief, coping styles, and outcomes . . .
So what does this mean for us procrastinators, good and bad?  What I'm taking from it is that procrastination can be a tool, to be used selectively.  But it can't be our only approach, or the default position.  "If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail."  Today, I'm going to decide what to put off, deal with the pressure, and complete what I can. 

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