The ‘pro’ in procrastination

Despite the negative light traditionally cast on the habit of procrastination, can it elicit positive behaviour?

Although procrastination often gets a bad reputation amongst educators, new research shows there might be a case to be made for the ancient practice.
Although procrastination often gets a bad reputation amongst educators, new research shows there might be a case to be made for the ancient practice.

Over the four-year span, the average student will spend tens of thousands of dollars on a university education, hoping to be ushered towards a rewarding career path. Looking at university from this overarching perspective makes students’ lives seem structured and purposeful, but when they’re stuck in the middle of midterm period, obsessing over a seemingly pointless assignment, it’s sometimes difficult to focus on the end result.

Relax—you have exactly what you need to get you through those 5,000 word papers and the impossibly complicated equations your teacher assigned: procrastination.

Procrastination is traditionally frowned upon by advisors and guidance councilors. But that perception is changing, ushering in the idea that a television show a day keeps the nervous breakdowns away. To test this theory, I used myself as a guinea pig for the name of research. I worked on two assignments: I wrote the first in advance, using all the study tools and aids recommended by advisors and professors; the other assignment was written the night before its due date.

The first assignment was a seminar discussing the existential qualities of the children’s play The Arkansaw Bear for Drama 311, Theatre for Young Audiences. The second assignment was an essay for ENGL 283, Contemporary Canadian Literature.

When I went to visit the Queen’s Learning Development Centre to get the alternate view of how to handle assignments, I received a full lecture on academic habits. My orientation around the land of well-developed study habits was complete with a tour of the facility’s website, which pointed out all the resources at my fingertips, a 10-step list to completing assignments on time and various other study aids.

I spoke to Elspeth Christie, the Learning Strategies Development Outreach Co-ordinator, who told me the reason for procrastination’s detrimental effects on learning have to do with the learning process itself.

“Procrastination precludes real learning and it encourages cramming,” she said. “Cramming isn’t learning, it’s just putting material into your short-term memory which lasts less than 48 hours. So you’re paying all this money for your education, but you’re not retaining any of the information.”

Christie said procrastination can also lead to a general decrease in the quality of the assignment at hand.

“It builds anxiety,” she said. “There is so much research that found that real learning happens when your mind is at a state of calm. It’s like the students are essentially sabotaging themselves.”

Christie referred to the 1960s “Marshmallow Study,” a study conducted by Walter Mischel, where children of different ages were tested on their self control. A marshmallow was placed in front of them on a desk, and if they could resist eating it for a certain amount of time, they would get a reward. The study showed the children who could resist eating the marshmallows went on to be more successful in their adult lives than those who didn’t resist.

“It’s the notion of impulse control as a determinant of academic success,” Christie said. “If you can delay gratification, you’ll do better.”

Russell Bishop, a professional life coach and management consultant, called procrastinating a constructive act of intelligence in an article for the Huffington Post.

“If you are procrastinating at a high level, sort of ‘power procrastinating,’ you would be consciously thinking about what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and purposefully assigning certain tasks to a future date,” he wrote.

After learning about both sides of the coin, I felt I had adequate knowledge to begin my experiment. I began with the first assignment, a standard 1,000 word essay to be tackled immediately upon receiving the assignment; the second assignment, on the other hand, was a seminar presentation to be put off as long as I saw fit. Nervous as I was, I knew I was finally ready to watch my essay fail and my seminar soar.

Surprisingly enough, both assignments resulted in fairly similar marks—an A- and a B+, respectively. Although the last thing I expected was to succeed on a project that I did not wait to approach, my comfort level in the first project was low. I exhausted myself spending every day and night reading, writing and breathing this essay. My perfectionist tendencies forced me to keep working until the essay was submitted. Thank goodness for deadlines, without which I might still be writing 1,000 words on a thesis I could no longer stand thinking about.

The second project was much more to my liking. I had thorough notes, an organized PowerPoint presentation and was full of excitement for the content I was about to present. I didn’t have time to mull over every detail and found the subject to be fresh in my mind.

Brent Coker, a management and marketing professor at the University of Melbourne, recently conducted an experiment similar to mine, finding in his research that individuals who often engage in what he refers to as “Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing” (WILB) churn out more productive results than those who don’t procrastinate.

“Workers who WILBed were approximately 12 per cent more productive than those who didn’t (or couldn’t) WILB,” he wrote on his findings.

Coker explained that his motivation behind the experiment stems from a personal experience in the office environment—and a curiosity about WILB.

“Increasingly I noticed press reports of employees getting punished or even losing their jobs for surfing the Internet while at work,” he wrote. “I had been studying Internet consumer behavior for many years, and it somehow didn’t seem right that employers would assume that WILBing is akin to goofing off. In fact, based on some exploratory work I had strong reason to suspect that WILBing should have a positive effect on employee performance. My main aim is to educate employers on how they can maximise the performance of their employees.”

Coker attributed productivity to two main aspects: the need for breaks and the use of personal freedom.

“We need breaks in our day (much like we need to take breaks when driving a long distance),” Coker wrote. “Concentration levels in the tasks we perform begin to wane fairly quickly after about an hour or so … WILB is similarly an enjoyable activity, which enables efficient restoration of concentration. WILB tasks such as organizing financial matters online actually don’t affect productivity, but enjoyable WILB tasks such as watching YouTube or updating Facebook do.

“Management research [also] suggests that workers who feel they have a degree of freedom in the workplace perform better than those who feel they a stifled and not in control (for instance, Google is well known for giving space to workers so they can innovate). The internet is now so firmly ingrained in our lives, that if you block or restrict access to it, it makes us feel like we are not in control. The result is less motivation to give 100 per cent in the workplace, and less loyalty to employer.”

Considering how attached I am to my practices of procrastination, perhaps it seems a wonder that this article was ever published. I like to think of procrastination as a matter of time management: balancing work and play to produce the required work. Thank you to all the friends, TV shows, movies, pub nights and club meetings that aided in the completion of this article.

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