Our nation has a sense of humor when it comes to procrastination. There is a national holiday called National Procrastination Week, which is in the first two weeks in March or later—whenever it’s convenient. In 2022, National Procrastination Week is March 6 through 12.
The national designation is meant to inspire people to stop putting off until tomorrow—or the day after that, or the day after that—what you can do today. It defines procrastination as the enemy of success, arguing that people should jump on their tasks right away. I know this is true in many cases, but have you ever considered that procrastination could be helpful? How can we distinguish whether our procrastination is hurting or helping us?
This Psychology Today article by Shahram Heshmat, Ph.D. listed the five main reasons people procrastinate:
- Absence of Structure – Without structure, people are more easily distracted by trivial things, making completion less likely.
- Unpleasant Tasks – No one likes to do unpleasant tasks; people will naturally look for other things to do.
- Timing – People often find it difficult to do something in the present if it doesn’t reap benefits for a long time.
- Anxiety – People experiencing anxiety often procrastinate due to a fear of failing, and people use avoidance to reduce that anxiety.
- Self-confidence – People with low self-confidence tend to procrastinate because they don’t think they will be successful.
These are all examples of when procrastination is our foe, keeping us chained to tasks and deadlines looming above our heads and robbing us of opportunities that could help us in the future.
But is there ever a time when procrastination can help? Yes, there is. I’d like to name a sixth reason people procrastinate: Creation of Eustress.
In 1908, Robert Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson proposed the Yerkes-Dodson law that states people reach their peak level of performance while experiencing an intermediate level of stress. This type of positive stress is called eustress, defined as moderate–to–normal psychological stress interpreted as beneficial for the experiencer. Too much stress, as well as too little stress, can negatively affect performance. Without a healthy level of stress, performance is hindered by boredom and inattention. With too much stress, performance is hindered by high levels of anxiety that can trigger the fight-flight-freeze response. In graphs, this concept is represented as an inverted bell curve.
Procrastination can be your friend when it takes you from no stress to mild stress. I know that when I’m working on content creation, I can’t seem to concentrate without a looming deadline. I might force myself to sit down at the computer and try to create that content, but I don’t get very far. It’s like my brain just isn’t engaging as I need it to. I will put it off until the deadline is closer. Then, because that deadline provides the moderate amount of stress I need to increase my performance, I can sit down and crank it out. When you use procrastination in this way, it can be quite helpful.
The challenge comes in not cutting things so close that you crest that upside–down U-curve into distress, that higher level of anxiety that leads you to fight-flight-freeze. So, during National Procrastination week, consider choosing different behaviors when procrastination causes you problems, but make a point to celebrate when procrastination helps you perform better.
Friend or foe? You decide.