This article is a sub-topic of the ultimate guide, How to Stop Procrastinating (Even If You’re a Lazy Bastard). Check it out if you’re interested.
You see, procrastination is something always associated with inaction, or “failing to start”—probably because of some lingering fear of failure, indecisiveness, or most likely some biological reason for procrastinating. (Related: Why Do We Procrastinate So Much?)
We’ll call that Passive Procrastination.
But there is one type of procrastination that I think is not that smart, but is quite effective for most college students.
It’s called Active Procrastination.
Remember that time when you told yourself you were going to start that personal project of yours?
“Yeah, sure. I made a time table of work I must do every day.”
The days went by in a breeze. Next thing you know, it’s the deadliest deadline tomorrow.
Holy crap! That’s Passive Procrastination.
But hey, when you’re stressed or sleep-deprived, it’s normal to feel lethargic nor have zero willpower to do the hard things.
It’s easier to play video games instead.
It’s a lot easier and enjoyable to watch movies with your girlfriend than study for an exam, and you can’t deny it’s more fun, too.
It’s a whole lot easier and enjoyable to go out with your friends for the whole week.
Because we feel like we deserve it due to all of the stress we’re experiencing.
In short, our brains do like easy and enjoyable more than difficult shit like taking care of your body or developing skills for your career.
Now, maybe you think I’m justifying our shortcomings here…
But as I’ve discussed in a post discussing why we procrastinate a lot, it’s just how our brains are wired, and that it’s a totally solvable problem.
In that article, I talk a lot about the science behind why we put things off in the first place, and what we can do about it.
It turns out that you can’t just rely on your willpower, motivation, nor discipline alone to do the job.
Check it out if you want to learn more.
There’s one type of procrastination that bugs me the most, however.
That’s what we’re going to talk about next in greater detail.
In a 2010 study, researchers discovered that there are actually two types of procrastinators, and one is more “effective” than others.
As you can tell by the heading, they do what’s called Active Procrastination.
They use deadlines to their advantage—they like to work under pressure because they can finish tasks much faster and can think much faster when imposed with a real deadline.
In short, they switch to high gears automatically because there are huge stakes at risk.
The researchers even call it “positive procrastination”.
Back then, I believed that if you can’t finish something in 5 hours, then you should spend even more time doing it.
But it wasn’t true—how come other people can accomplish the same thing in 3 hours?
The missing link was increased intensity of focus. This is the secret behind the power of Active Procrastination.
It establishes the fundamental truth is that the time we spend on something does not equate to the amount of work accomplished.
Still, I don’t think this isn’t always the best option.
The case against Active Procrastination
What if there weren’t any deadlines?
What if the immediate stake of not doing something is so freaking low?
As we’ve discussed in my post on why people procrastinate, it’s the immediate rewards/risks that our brains take into account, not the long-term rewards.
Anyway, then by this logic, you can NOT use Active Procrastination to your advantage.
Also, I’d recommend you avoid doing it in the first place.
Reason #1. Active Procrastination is overly optimistic
Delaying something purposefully until it’s nearing the deadline is an overly optimistic and dangerous way to approach your work.
We’re naturally wired to see the future more optimistically, thanks to a cognitive bias called Planning Fallacy.
We don’t take into account how we feel on certain days, how much work we can actually do, or what events or interruptions might happen within the week.
Your original plan is like a 100-m sprint, but in reality, it would be a 3-km triathlon. With sharks.
Also, if there are no deadlines, it’s easier to NOT do the difficult things you need to do.
Why? Because we humans are naturally loss averse.
According to decision theory, our brains, by default, would prefer to prevent losses than pursue gains.
That’s precisely why these deadlines work for your motivation—because not meeting them would have stakes that our brains actually dislike.
In practice, Active Procrastination only causes even more stress, as many students experience.
If you pull an all-nighter, then you also risk becoming more prone to procrastinating the next day for reasons we’ve discussed in the previous post.
Luckily, we have a solution for this one.
Reason #2. You can use this instead
In 1955, Cyril Northcote Parkinson released an essay in The Economist that would change the realm of productivity forever. It’s called “The Parkinson’s Law” and it states that:
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
If you only allocate 30 minutes for the task, then you’re more likely to finish it in 30 minutes.
If you allocate 1 hour for the same task, however, then you’re more likely to finish it in 1 hour.
Take note, though: if you struggle with passive procrastination, then you might not be able to do this at all.
Otherwise, if you’re an active procrastinator yourself and love the feeling of working under pressure, then it’s highly likely that you will be able to leverage this productivity tool.
And the trick is to use what I call the Appointment Method.
Remember the loss aversion statement earlier? This puts it into action.
By setting appointments AFTER the task we need to do, we create artificial losses for not meeting a deadline.
You don’t want your friends to be angry with you for not showing up, would you?
Further, if you told them “Let’s meet at 6pm sharp at [PLACE] after I finish this [WORK]”, then you’re going to amplify your motivation even more.
It puts you into maximum motivation and maximum focus mode.
The Real Benefit of NOT Actively Procrastinating
Perhaps the true benefit of avoiding it is you become more in control of your own time.
You accomplish more in less time.
If you have a real deadliest deadline and then later realized some important opportunity in your life would pass just because you “actively procrastinated”, then you’re out of luck.
Set deadlines for yourself by setting up high-stake appointments.
It will automatically motivate you into doing things you need to do—fast.
And then you can give even more time doing what you love because you finished what you have to do in less time.