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Posted 06/07/2022 in Category 1

Are we all productive procrastinators? And how do we get back to work on the right things?

Are we all productive procrastinators? And how do we get back to work on the right things?

What is productive procrastination? It is replacing one adaptive behaviour with another adaptive (but less important) behaviour. An example here is organising our motes for an exam instead of studying for an exam. Before we go on, we need to understand procrastination because it is a decision. When we procrastinate, we decide to delay a course of action despite expecting to be worse off because of the delay. Research continually shows that procrastinators struggle with poor health, poor work performance, stress and financial instability. But if these are the outcomes, what leads to these outcomes? A failure to regulate oneself and motivate oneself appropriately seems to bring these outcomes to pass. We see procrastination everywhere, but at university; it is commonplace to see between 80% and 95% of students regularly procrastinating in their courses (Westgate, 2017). 

Some procrastination is adaptive. What we mean here is that a golfer, for example, might practise one skill while avoiding practising another. Practising that one skill is productive, but at what cost? Productive procrastinators, therefore, are replacing one adaptive behaviour with another adaptive (but less important) behaviour. We need to understand what might happen here. So I’m working on my work, but am I working at avoiding things I know I should do? Maybe a golfer needs to stretch each day, but cleans her clubs and organises her bag instead. Perhaps both tasks are necessary, but are both tasks important? Practising one’s skills or completing stretching exercises will trump many, if not most, of the other requirements.

What is happening here? One critical element is a fear of failure. Fear of failure is a motivation to avoid failure that is stronger than a motivation to succeed. Failure often brings ridicule, embarrassment, anger and shame. We are often less conscious of this fear of failure and we might, unbeknownst to ourselves, sabotage of chances of success. When we think about failure, we might not realise what lies beneath. When we fail, we might feel frustrated, angry, upset, disappointed and a deep shame. Shame is quite a challenging emotion because it cuts to the core of who we are as people. With shame, we are experiencing a threat to our self-esteem and not separating who we are from what we do. Shame emerges from self-reflection or self-perception. We fear or expect (that we or our actions) will disgust others. When you think about it, you would not feel shame if you did not reflect on what happened or consider how people might experience you or your actions. Power, rank and status play their part and we feel we judged or flawed (real or imagined) by someone (higher in power, perhaps). We often feel shame because we have not lived up to our personal moral standards too. Now we can imagine how shame is everywhere and nowhere in sport. We don’t want to feel shame so we might, unbeknownst to ourselves, sabotage our chances of success. 

So what do we do? First, we need to understand, explore and accept our fear – whatever it may be. Without this understanding and acceptance, we cannot, or choose not, to see how our actions might sabotage our chances of success. Second, we need to focus on controllable aspects within the environment, which means working on those tasks that are important, adaptive and under our control. Finally, we need to recognise helpful processes (planning our practice sessions) and weave them into our lives to move towards handling those tasks that are to our benefit rather than peripheral like strength and conditioning work rather than cleaning our golf bag. 


Westgate, W. (2017). Productive procrastination: academic procrastination style predicts academic and alcohol outcomes. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 47(3), 124–135. https://doi.org/10.1111/jasp.12417

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

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