Is Procrastination Bad? Science Says “Maybe Not” and Here’s Why

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Procrastination is often viewed as a negative trait that can lead to missed deadlines, stress, and anxiety. However, recent research suggests that procrastination may not always be a bad thing. In fact, there are certain situations where procrastination can be beneficial and even lead to increased productivity.

Procrastination Has Its Uses

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According to a study by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, procrastination can be related to a number of cognitive biases.

The study also found that certain biases can be beneficial. Procrastination can occasionally provide us with the chance to reflect on uncertainties.  Research also demonstrates that it can assist us in navigating challenging emotions, potentially improving our work in the long run. Yet another study found that procrastination can lead to increased creativity and problem-solving abilities. 

Did You Know? According to research from the University of Southern California, the mere act of thinking about how you’re going to perform a task can help you to follow through on it. If you’re stuck in a cycle of procrastination, visualize yourself completing the task at hand. This process, called implementation intentions, could help you transition from the intention to action.

The Science Behind Procrastination

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Procrastination is a common phenomenon that many people experience in their daily lives. While it is often viewed as a negative trait, research has shown that procrastination can actually have some benefits. 

Fun Fact: Many famous individuals were known for their procrastination habits, including writers Mark Twain and Victor Hugo. Twain once said, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow,” while Hugo famously instructed his servant to hide his clothes so that he would be forced to stay indoors and write, leaving his procrastination habits no room to thrive.

The Limbic System and Procrastination

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The limbic system is a set of brain structures responsible for emotions, motivation, and memory. It includes the amygdala, hippocampus, and hypothalamus. (Big words used to explain different parts of the brain.)

When faced with a task, the limbic system is activated and can cause us to feel anxious or stressed. This can lead to procrastination as we try to avoid these negative emotions.

Fun Fact: Did you know that the limbic system is sometimes referred to as the “Lizard Brain”? This is because these structures are evolutionarily some of the oldest in the brain and are responsible for our most primal emotions and reactions!

But Wait! There’s More

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However, the limbic system can also be responsible for positive emotions such as excitement and anticipation. When we procrastinate, we may delay a task in order to experience these positive emotions. 

For example, a student may delay studying for a test until the last minute in order to feel the rush of adrenaline that comes with working under pressure.

The Prefrontal Cortex and Procrastination

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The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for decision-making, planning, and impulse control. It is also involved in working memory and attention. When we procrastinate, it is often because we are struggling with these cognitive processes.

Research has shown that people who struggle with procrastination may have a constant battle between their prefrontal cortex and their limbic system. This can make it difficult to regulate emotions and control impulses, leading to procrastination.

Sometimes, We’re the Problem

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However, it is important to note that procrastination can also be a result of poor time management or a lack of motivation. In these cases, the prefrontal cortex may not be the primary factor contributing to procrastination.

Did You Know? Procrastination isn’t just a human phenomenon. Some animal studies have suggested that animals like pigeons and rats can exhibit procrastination-like behavior, especially when a task doesn’t have immediate rewards!

There Are Actually Some Benefits of Procrastination

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Procrastination often gets a bad reputation in a fast-paced world where productivity and efficiency are highly valued. It’s viewed as the enemy of progress, a habit to be overcome or eradicated. 

However, what if we told you that procrastination could actually have some benefits? Yes, you read that right! While it may seem counterintuitive, there are surprising advantages to embracing procrastination in certain contexts.

Procrastination Can Boost Creativity

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While procrastination is often associated with delaying tasks, it can also lead to increased creativity. According to studies, delaying a task can allow the mind to wander and come up with new ideas and solutions. 

This is because the brain is more likely to make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas when it is not focused on a specific task.

Did You Know? The famous painter Salvador Dali used a form of procrastination to boost his creativity. He would sit in a chair holding a key over a plate and let himself fall asleep. When he’d start to dream and the key would fall and clatter onto the plate, waking him up, and he would paint the images from his dreams!

Procrastination Can Help Prioritize Tasks

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Procrastination can also help individuals prioritize tasks. When faced with a long to-do list, it can be overwhelming to know where to start. By delaying tasks, individuals can take the time to assess which tasks are most important and need to be done first. This can lead to better time management and more effective use of one’s schedule.

Here’s an example: Consider a busy executive who has to juggle various responsibilities – project deadlines, team meetings, strategy planning, and more. They may procrastinate on some tasks, using the delay to carefully assess their workload. This could help them understand which tasks are urgent and which ones can be deferred, leading to a more organized and efficient work schedule. (Obviously, this a risky delay since it could all fall apart in the end, leaving you with nothing to show for your work…or lack thereof!)

Procrastination Can Help Those That Work Well Under Pressure

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Procrastination, often seen as a hindrance to academic success, can surprisingly serve as a catalyst for enhanced performance among certain individuals. For those who work well under pressure, impending deadline acts as a motivator that fuels their focus and concentration. 

The adrenaline rush experienced when faced with limited time can sharpen their cognitive abilities, leading to heightened productivity and a remarkable ability to complete tasks efficiently. 

Harnessing the Power of Procrastination

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The intense burst of mental energy that accompanies the final push of having to meet a deadline can stimulate creative thinking and problem-solving skills, enabling procrastinators to approach academic challenges from unique perspectives. 

While it may not be a universally applicable strategy, for some individuals, harnessing the power of procrastination can unlock their full potential and result in exceptional academic achievements.

Fun Fact: Some research shows that moderate procrastinators are more likely to be leaders than non-procrastinators or chronic procrastinators. This is potentially because they’re good at prioritizing tasks and making decisions under pressure!

How to Overcome Procrastination

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The negative side of procrastination is that it’s a common problem that can lead to missed deadlines, low-quality work, and increased stress. However, it is possible to overcome procrastination with the right strategies. Here are four tips to help you overcome procrastination.

#1 Recognize the Root Cause of Procrastination

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To overcome procrastination, it is important to understand why you are procrastinating in the first place. Procrastination can be brought on by a variety of factors, such as a fear of failure, a lack of motivation, and a sense of overwhelm.

By identifying the root cause of your procrastination, you can address the underlying issue and take action to overcome it.

Pro Tip: Keep a ‘procrastination diary’. For a week or so, write down what you’re procrastinating on, when and where it happens, and how you’re feeling. This can help you identify patterns and understand the root causes of your procrastination.

#2 Break Down Tasks Into Smaller Steps

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One of the main reasons people procrastinate is because they feel overwhelmed by the size of the task at hand. Try breaking down the task into smaller, more manageable steps to overcome this. This can make the task feel less daunting and help you get started.

Pro Tip: Think of it like climbing a mountain – you wouldn’t try to leap to the top in a single bound. Instead, you take one step at a time, steadily making progress. The same principle applies to tasks. Breaking them into smaller steps can make them far less intimidating, allowing you to focus on one piece at a time.

#3 Create a Schedule and Stick To It

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Creating a schedule can help you manage your time more effectively and reduce the likelihood of procrastination. Start by setting clear goals and deadlines for each task, and then create a schedule that allows you to work towards these goals in a structured and manageable way. 

It is important to stick to your schedule as much as possible but also to be flexible and make adjustments as needed.

Did You Know: A study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that people who made a specific plan about when they were going to perform a particular activity (e.g., exercising) were more likely to follow through. This same principle can be applied to everyday tasks and projects, underlining the effectiveness of creating and sticking to a schedule.

#4 Practice Self-Compassion

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It is important to be kind to yourself when trying to overcome procrastination. Remember that procrastination is a common problem that many people struggle with. Be patient with yourself, and don’t beat yourself up if you slip up or make a mistake. Instead, focus on your progress and the steps you can take to continue moving forward.

Pro Tip: Consider incorporating mindfulness and meditation into your daily routine. These practices can help you stay focused on the present moment and reduce self-judgment, which can significantly lower the stress and anxiety that often leads to procrastination.

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