Education resources › Blog › Why we shouldn’t (always) demonise procrastination

Why we shouldn’t always demonise procrastination

Why we shouldn’t (always) demonise procrastination

6 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

Procrastination is usually seen in a negative light, and within education it is often associated with poorer student outcomes. Many of the blogs published at InnerDrive looked at these negative effects and how we might avoid them, for example why students procrastinate, the negative effects of procrastination and how we can support students to overcome procrastination.

However, there is also a body of research that has found positive effects of procrastination on creativity, a skill it is increasingly important to develop in our young people. In this post written by Claire Badger, co-author of an upcoming book on Creativity (register your interest here to be the first to know when it comes out) in the Teacher CPD Academy series, we will look at:

  • The dangers of pre-crastination
  • When procrastination can be a good thing
  • What this might look like in the classroom

Efficiency vs Creativity

In his book Originals, Adam Grant suggests that the modern obsession with efficiency stems from the Industrial Revolution and protestant work ethic and is partly to blame for our demonisation of procrastination. Ancient civilizations recognised the value of procrastination – in Ancient Egypt, there were two different verbs for procrastination: one denoted laziness; and the other meant waiting for the right time.

If our focus is on producing a more creative output – something which is both new and useful – then procrastination can be a good thing. Procrastination leaves time for novel insights to appear and allows time for conscious and subconscious processing to occur, which can lead to problem restructuring or the activation of new knowledge. The importance of incubation for creativity has long been recognised; it can be associated with diffuse thinking (as opposed to focused thinking) popularised by Barbara Oakley.

Grant has coined the word “pre-crastination” to denote the opposite of this positive procrastination. This is where starting and finishing a task too quickly can mean that we persist with the same approach whether or not that approach is effective. However, this doesn’t mean we should put off tasks forever – at some stage, too much procrastination can be detrimental to creativity as people rush to produce something (anything!) for a tight deadline. The more creative outputs are seen with some, but not too much, procrastination.

Procrastination-vs-creativity graph

When putting work off pays off

Shin and Grant investigated the effects on procrastination in two experiments and a field study and found a curvilinear relationship between procrastination and creativity – moderate procrastination produced the more creative outputs in all three cases. However, in the field study, they also noted that procrastination had a negative relationship with task efficiency and moderate procrastination was only associated with increased creativity as long as there was high intrinsic motivation and high creative requirements. Similar results have been found in another field study looking at Chinese factory workers.

Researchers have also looked specifically at how procrastination affects academic performance. A recent meta-analysis concluded that although there was an overall negative correlation between procrastination and academic performance, the type of procrastination affected the strength of this correlation. They defined two types of procrastination: active and passive. Passive procrastination is characterised by the inability to act whereas active procrastination is marked by a preference and deliberate decision to work under pressure. Passive procrastination had a small negative effect correlation with academic performance whereas active procrastination had a small positive correlation with academic performance.

High-impact CPD made easy. Develop evidence-informed CPD at your school, using our exclusive online collection of courses and resources.

Implications for classroom practice

Students often associate those who are quick to answer questions in class with higher intelligence. This is particularly true for younger students but is prevalent in secondary classes as well. We all know students who blurt out the first thing that comes into their heads but would be better off waiting for their ideas to percolate for longer. A simple way round this problem is to increase wait times, purposefully saying to students that they need to take time to think through possible answers before putting up their hand.

More complex problems which involve synthesising information from a variety of different places could be set towards the end of a lesson when students will not have sufficient time to solve the problem. The problem can then be returned to at the start of the next lesson when students have had a chance to mull over possible solutions outside of class.

When setting longer essay tasks, we should encourage planning and redrafting. Rather than giving students three weeks to write an essay, intermediate deadlines can be set for a plan and a first draft, ideally with time in between for feedback. Celebrating those students whose ideas change and evolve during this process is a way to shift students’ thinking from first always equals best. Reflecting on process is a key part of the Extended Project Qualification and students are actively encouraged to explain how and why their thinking changed during the project in their project log; we could consider doing something similar with shorter projects.

Group work involving creative problem solving can be dominated by the first idea that someone comes up with; often this is a more confident or dominant student in the group, and it can therefore be difficult for other ideas to get a look in. A way to overcome this is to insist that everyone in a group, independently, comes up with two or three possible ideas first before coming together as a group. The group can then be given clear criteria on which to evaluate the effectiveness of each idea. In this way, the structure of the group work enforces some procrastination onto the group to encourage more divergent thinking.

Limitations

The research suggests that including an element of procrastination can be helpful for tasks that require some form of creativity. For more routine tasks, for example learning vocabulary in languages, procrastination is likely to lead to less efficient learning. For tasks such as these, students should be encouraged to undertake spaced Retrieval Practice.

The research also suggests that in order for procrastination to be effective, there needs to be some intrinsic motivation towards the task as the benefits seem to be due to the fact that you are mulling over ideas in the background. If the task holds no intrinsic motivation, then these background processes are unlikely to be occurring; one is simply putting off a task that holds no value until the last possible moment. Motivation in the context of education is challenging as many of the tasks that students need to engage with may not be intrinsically motivating.

However, Self-Determination Theory suggests that we can mitigate against some of these effects by moving towards more integrated forms of extrinsic motivation, for example a student who is completing an assignment because they want to produce a good piece of work as they know that will help them in their goal to achieve a good grade in that subject rather than because they are fearful of punishment from the teacher for not completing the assignment.

Final thoughts

As ever in education, there are no simple answers or magic bullets. Whether you wish to encourage or discourage procrastination in your students will depend on the students’ personal traits, their motivation and the task they are facing. However, hopefully this article has prompted you to think differently about automatically demonising procrastination and be more forgiving of your students (and yourself!) when you engage in procrastination. Maybe that procrastination is actually helping you to become more creative!

Thank you again to Claire Badger, Assistant Head at Godolphin and Latymer School, for writing this blog. If you want to register your interest for her upcoming book on Creativity, please fill out your details here.

Previous blogs written by Claire Badger for InnerDrive:


About the author

Claire Badger

Claire Badger

Claire Badger is the Assistant Head, Teaching and Learning at The Godolphin and Latymer School in London, a position she has held since 2015. She holds a Masters in Teaching and Learning from UCL’s Institute of Education and is fascinated by how research from cognitive science can help us all become better teachers and learners. She is a founding fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching and a regular contributor to their termly journal, Impact.

Follow on XConnect on LinkedIn