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Rethinking Procrastination: Positive Effects of “Active” Procrastination Behavior on Attitudes and Performance

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Researchers and practitioners have long regarded procrastination as a self- handicapping and dysfunctional behavior. In the present study, the authors proposed that not all procrastination behaviors either are harmful or lead to negative consequences. Specifically, the authors differentiated two types of procrastinators: passive procrastinators versus active procrastinators. Passive procrastinators are procrastinators in the traditional sense. They are paralyzed by their indecision to act and fail to complete tasks on time. In contrast, active procrastinators are a “positive” type of procrastinator. They prefer to work under pressure, and they make deliberate decisions to procrastinate. The present results showed that although active procrastinators procrastinate to the same degree as passive pro- crastinators, they are more similar to nonprocrastinators than to passive procrastinators in terms of purposive use of time, control of time, self-efficacy belief, coping styles, and out- comes including academic performance. The present findings offer a more sophisticated understanding of procrastination behavior and indicate a need to reevaluate its implications for outcomes of individuals.
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The Journal of Social Psychology, 2005, 145(3), 245–264
Rethinking Procrastination: Positive Effects
of “Active” Procrastination Behavior on
Attitudes and Performance
ANGELA HSIN CHUN CHU
Department of Organizational Psychology
Columbia University
New York, New York
JIN NAM CHOI
Faculty of Management
McGill University
Montreal, Quebec, Canada
ABSTRACT. Researchers and practitioners have long regarded procrastination as a self-
handicapping and dysfunctional behavior. In the present study, the authors proposed that
not all procrastination behaviors either are harmful or lead to negative consequences.
Specifically, the authors differentiated two types of procrastinators: passive procrastinators
versus active procrastinators. Passive procrastinators are procrastinators in the traditional
sense. They are paralyzed by their indecision to act and fail to complete tasks on time. In
contrast, active procrastinators are a “positive” type of procrastinator. They prefer to work
under pressure, and they make deliberate decisions to procrastinate. The present results
showed that although active procrastinators procrastinate to the same degree as passive pro-
crastinators, they are more similar to nonprocrastinators than to passive procrastinators in
terms of purposive use of time, control of time, self-efficacy belief, coping styles, and out-
comes including academic performance. The present findings offer a more sophisticated
understanding of procrastination behavior and indicate a need to reevaluate its implications
for outcomes of individuals.
Key words: coping strategies, procrastination, self-efficacy, time management
INVESTIGATORS HAVE DEFINED PROCRASTINATION as the lack or
absence of self-regulated performance and the behavioral tendency to postpone
what is necessary to reach a goal (Ellis & Knaus, 1977; Knaus, 2000). The grow-
ing body of literature has demonstrated that procrastination is not just a problem
of time management. It is a complex process that involves affective, cognitive,
and behavioral components (Fee & Tangney, 2000). Blunt and Pychyl (1998) and
245

246
The Journal of Social Psychology
Harriott and Ferrari (1996) have found procrastination to be a prevalent phe-
nomenon in the general population, chronically affecting a substantial portion of
adults as well as university students. Procrastination may have particularly seri-
ous consequences for university students, whose lives are characterized by fre-
quent deadlines. For example, Tice and Baumeister (1997) reported that univer-
sity students who rated high on procrastination not only received low grades but
also reported a high level of stress along with poor self-rated health.
Most of the existing literature on procrastination has contrasted procrasti-
nators with nonprocrastinators. Procrastination has been considered a self-
handicapping behavior that leads to wasted time, poor performance, and
increased stress. Investigators such as Ferrari (2001) have often depicted pro-
crastinators as lazy or self-indulgent individuals who are unable to self-regu-
late. In contrast, nonprocrastination has been associated with high efficiency,
productivity, and superior performance, and nonprocrastinators are often
described as organized and highly motivated individuals (e.g., Bond & Feath-
er, 1988; Ellis & Knaus, 1977).
Although both the practical literature and the academic literature have asso-
ciated negative connotations to procrastination, investigators have found that pro-
crastination can induce some short-term benefits. For example, Tice and
Baumeister (1997) reported that compared with nonprocrastinators, procrastina-
tors experience less stress and have better physical health when deadlines are far
off. In this sense, procrastination can be seen as a strategy that they use to regu-
late negative emotions, thereby making the individual feel better, at least tem-
porarily (Baumeister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994). Moreover, in principle, whether
a person does a task far ahead of a deadline or only slightly ahead of it does not
necessarily affect the quality of the work (Tice & Baumeister). Therefore, prac-
tically speaking, procrastination does not necessarily have a negative impact on
the effectiveness of the task performance.
In a similar vein, Knaus (2000) argued that not all delays lead to negative out-
comes. For example, delays resulting from time that was spent planning and gath-
ering vital preparatory information can be beneficial (Knaus). Many people claim
that even when they start to work at the last minute, they can still finish on time
and that they tend to work better and faster or generate more creative ideas under
time pressure. This line of thought on procrastination suggests that there might be
more than one kind of procrastinator and that in some cases procrastination behav-
ior might lead to positive outcomes. In the present study, we identify two types of
procrastinators and examine whether they have distinct characteristics in terms of
the use and perception of time, their self-efficacy beliefs, their motivational ori-
entation, their stress-coping strategies, and their personal outcomes.
Address correspondence to Jin Nam Choi, McGill University, Faculty of Management,
1001 Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 1G5; jinnam.choi@
mcgill.ca (e-mail).


Chu & Choi
247
Passive and Active Procrastination
Addressing the possibility that not all procrastination behaviors have nega-
tive effects, we conceptually distinguished two different types of procrastinators:
passive versus active procrastinators. Passive procrastinators are procrastinators
in the traditional sense. Cognitively, passive procrastinators do not intend to pro-
crastinate, but they often end up postponing tasks because of their inability to
make decisions quickly and to thereby act on them quickly. Active procrastina-
tors,
in contrast, are capable of acting on their decisions in a timely manner. How-
ever, they suspend their actions deliberately and focus their attention on other
important tasks at hand. Therefore, passive procrastinators differ from active pro-
crastinators on cognitive, affective, and behavioral dimensions.
Affectively, when a deadline approaches, passive procrastinators feel pres-
sured and become pessimistic in their outlook, especially about their ability to
achieve satisfactory results (Ferrari, Parker, & Ware, 1992). Their thoughts of
self-doubt and inadequacy increase the chance of failure and induce feelings of
guilt and depression (Steel, Brothen, & Wambach, 2001). Active procrastinators,
on the other hand, like to work under pressure. When faced with last-minute
tasks, they feel challenged and motivated, and that feeling immunizes them
against the kind of suffering common in passive procrastinators. Different cog-
nitive pathways and affective responses interact to produce different behavioral
patterns: Active procrastinators are persistent and able to complete tasks at the
last minute. Passive procrastinators, on the other hand, are more likely to give up
and fail to complete tasks.
On the basis of the above circumstances, we proposed that active pro-
crastination is a multifaceted phenomenon that includes cognitive (decision
to procrastinate), affective (preference for time pressure), and behavioral
(task completion by the deadline) components as well as the physical results
and satisfaction with them. Because of these fundamental differences (cog-
nitive, affective, and behavioral), we expected active and passive procrasti-
nators to have distinct psychological characteristics and to achieve different
outcomes.
Time Use and Perception
One of the most common recommendations for effective management of
time is to properly structure one’s use of time in combination with a clear sense
of purpose. For example, Dipboye and Phillips (1990) showed that university stu-
dents who had more sense of purpose and structure in their use of time reported
greater psychological well-being and more efficient habits of study. Also,
Vodanovich and Seib (1997) illustrated that procrastinators tend to have weak, if
any, structure in their time use. Therefore, we expected nonprocrastinators, who
tend to plan their activities on a day-to-day basis, to have time use that is more

248
The Journal of Social Psychology
structured and to perceive their use of time to be more purposive. Traditional (pas-
sive) procrastinators, who incorporate less structure in their time use, may drift
aimlessly from one activity to another (Bond & Feather, 1988). Active procrasti-
nators, in contrast, are expected to be different from passive procrastinators in
having more time structure and a better sense of purpose in their time use because
they are able to make deliberate decisions regarding their time use on the basis
of urgency or priority. In this sense, active procrastinators are similar to nonpro-
crastinators in terms of engagement in time-structuring behaviors and purposive
use of time.
Despite the fact that we can measure time, our perception of time is a truly
subjective experience (Macan, 1994). Lay (1990) found passive procrastinators
to underestimate the overall time that was required to complete tasks. Conse-
quently, they often failed to complete tasks on time, triggering the perception of
reduced control of time (Lay & Schouwenburg, 1993). In contrast, nonprocrasti-
nators, who constantly engage in planning and organizing, tend to have more real-
istic perceptions of time and to perceive more control over their time (Macan).
Active procrastinators may be similar to nonprocrastinators in that they take
charge of their time and try to maximize the efficiency of their time use. Conse-
quently, they would develop an awareness of their time use and a perception of
time control.
Hypothesis 1: Both nonprocrastinators and active procrastinators will report more
time structure, more purposive use of time, and greater perception of control of time
than will passive procrastinators. Nonprocrastinators and active procrastinators are
not different on these dimensions.
Self-Efficacy
The association between self-efficacy and procrastination was first introduced
by Bandura (1986). Self-efficacy refers to the belief that one can reliably perform the
tasks that are required for successful goal achievement (Bandura, 1977). Bandura
(1986) hypothesized that when adequate levels of ability and motivation exist, self-
efficacy belief will affect a person’s task initiation and persistence. Several investi-
gators have examined the relationship between self-efficacy and procrastination. For
example, Ferrari et al. (1992) and Tuckman (1991) have found an inverse relation-
ship between self-efficacy belief and academic procrastination among college stu-
dents. In line with the belief that self-efficacy plays a role in task initiation and task
persistence, in the present study we expected that nonprocrastinators will have a
stronger self-efficacy belief than passive procrastinators. As with nonprocrastinators,
we expected active procrastinators to have a stronger self-efficacy belief than do pas-
sive procrastinators. Active procrastinators postpone tasks and direct their attention
toward more urgent issues because they feel that they have control over their time
use (Hypothesis 1) and are confident in their ability to finish tasks on time.

Chu & Choi
249
Hypothesis 2: Both nonprocrastinators and active procrastinators will report stronger
self-efficacy beliefs than will passive procrastinators. Nonprocrastinators and active
procrastinators are not different on this dimension.
Motivational Orientation
Motivation is a force that drives a person to engage in a particular activity.
Investigators have identified two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.
According to Deci and Ryan (1985), intrinsic motivation refers to motivation that
results from an internal drive. Extrinsic motivation, in contrast, refers to motiva-
tion that results from either positive or negative external contingencies. Brown-
low and Reasinger (2000) found that both intrinsic motivation and extrinsic moti-
vation were negatively related to academic procrastination. Conti (2000)
suggested that although extrinsic motivation was necessary to prevent task delay,
participants with intrinsic motivation devoted more time to their projects than did
participants with extrinsic motivation.
On the basis of these findings (Brownlow & Reasinger, 2000; Conti, 2000),
we hypothesized that nonprocrastinators are motivated by both extrinsic motiva-
tion and intrinsic motivation because nonprocrastinators tend to not delay task
performance and to perhaps spend more time on the task. In contrast, because of
their frequent task delay and task incompletion, passive procrastinators seem to
have low intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Finally, we speculated that
active procrastinators have relatively high levels of extrinsic motivation but low
levels of intrinsic motivation. Active procrastinators are able to finish tasks at the
last minute, but they do not devote more time than necessary to each task. Their
orientation toward work and life may be to achieve as much as possible in the
least possible time, manifesting a value that is more closely aligned with extrin-
sic motivation than with intrinsic motivation.
Hypothesis 3a: Both nonprocrastinators and active procrastinators will report a high-
er level of extrinsic motivation than that which passive procrastinators will report.
Nonprocrastinators and active procrastinators are not different on this dimension.
Hypothesis 3b: Nonprocrastinators will report a higher level of intrinsic motivation
than those that active procrastinators and passive procrastinators will report.
Stress-Coping Strategy
When dealing with stress, individuals try to remove the threat from the stres-
sor or to reduce the discomfort caused by the stressor (Latack & Havlovic, 1992).
The three most frequently mentioned coping strategies include task-oriented strate-
gies, emotion-oriented strategies, and avoidance-oriented strategies (Carver,
Scheier, & Weintraub, 1989; Endler & Parker, 1990, 1994; Kosic, 2004). Task-ori-
ented coping strategies
reduce stress by focusing on immediate problems. Emotion-

250
The Journal of Social Psychology
oriented coping strategies involve diminishing the emotional distress that is induced
by the stressors. And avoidance-oriented coping strategies involve ignoring a prob-
lem or distracting oneself from it. Although most stressors elicit a mixture of cop-
ing strategies, task-oriented strategies predominate when individuals feel that they
can do something constructive in regard to the situation, and emotion- and avoid-
ance-oriented strategies emerge when people feel that they do not have much con-
trol over the stressors (Folkman & Lazarus, 1980). Therefore, a person’s self-effi-
cacy level partially determines which coping strategy he or she will use.
Expanding this line of thought, we expected that nonprocrastinators will use
task-oriented coping strategies to alleviate stress by considering realistic alterna-
tives in response to problems they face. Nonprocrastinators may have a higher
level of self-efficacy belief (Hypothesis 2) and thus believe that they have some
control over the stressors and are capable of improving their situation. As a result,
instead of engaging in irrelevant tasks or self-handicapping behaviors, they will
choose to work on solving the problems at hand. Similarly, active procrastinators
will use task-oriented coping, because their high level of self-efficacy belief
makes them feel competent to overcome stressful circumstances.
In contrast, we expected passive procrastinators to use either emotion- or
avoidance-oriented coping strategies when encountering stressful events. Ferrari
and Tice (2000) found that procrastinators were more concerned about their self-
image than were nonprocrastinators, offering another explanation for the coping
strategy that was used. Low self-efficacy belief and concern for poor self-image
together make passive procrastinators feel powerless and cause them to actively
avoid negative situations. As a result, they may cry, complain, or whine to express
their frustration and fears; they may engage in trivial, irrelevant tasks to distract
themselves; or they may ignore tasks completely.
Hypothesis 4: In stressful situations, nonprocrastinators and active procrastinators
will use task-oriented coping strategies, and passive procrastinators will use either
emotion- or avoidance-oriented coping strategies.
Personal Outcomes
Investigators have reported that procrastination leads to low academic
achievement, elevated levels of anxiety, stress, feelings of hopelessness, depres-
sion, and poor physical health; the opposite patterns have been observed among
nonprocrastinators (Beswick, Rothblum, & Mann, 1988; Bond & Feather, 1988;
Dipboye & Phillips, 1990; Ellis & Knaus, 1977; Owens & Newbegin, 1997; Tice
& Baumeister, 1997). In the present study, we examined four outcome variables:
stress, depression, life satisfaction, and performance level as indicated by grade
point average (GPA). Because previous studies have revealed opposite outcome
patterns between passive procrastination and nonprocrastination with the four
outcome variables, we expected to obtain similar results in the present study.

Chu & Choi
251
On the basis of our conceptualization of active procrastinators, we expected
them to achieve positive outcomes rather than negative outcomes. As discussed
earlier in the present article, active procrastinators are more likely to engage in
behaviors of time management, perceive their use of time to be more purposive,
and feel more control over their use of time than do passive procrastinators. Based
on the existing findings of the positive association between patterns of time use
or perception and individual well-being (Bond & Feather, 1988; Macan, 1994;
Macan, Shahani, Dipboye, & Phillips, 1990), constructive time-related percep-
tion and behavior among active procrastinators will reduce their stress and
depression, inducing increased life satisfaction and academic performance.
The positive outcomes of active procrastinators may also derive from their
self-efficacy belief, motivation, and stress-coping strategies that we hypothesized
in the preceding sections. Compared with passive procrastinators, active procras-
tinators have greater confidence in their own abilities in overcoming obstacles. As
task-oriented individuals, active procrastinators direct their attention and actions
toward pressing problems, offering themselves a greater chance of solving them
in a satisfactory manner. Active procrastinators are extrinsically motivated and
attempt to maximize their time utility, possibly leading to more successful task
completion. Because successful task completion among nonprocrastinators
reduces stress and feelings of depression and increases life satisfaction and aca-
demic performance (e.g., Dipboye & Phillips, 1990; Tice & Baumeister, 1997),
in the present study we expected the same positive outcomes among active pro-
crastinators.
Hypothesis 5: Both nonprocrastinators and active procrastinators will report a lower
level of stress and depression, greater life satisfaction, and a higher GPA than pas-
sive procrastinators. Nonprocrastinators and active procrastinators are not different
on these dimensions.
Method
Participants and Procedure
Participants were 230 undergraduate students (166 women [72.2%], 64 men
[27.8%]) from three Canadian universities. The mean age of the sample was
21.49 years (SD = 2.23 years). The distribution of participants’ racial background
was as follows: 53.7% Asian, 33.3% White, 6.5% Hispanic, 1.5% African Amer-
ican, and 5.0% other. Regarding first language, 47.8% of the participants report-
ed English, 32% reported Chinese, 7.9% reported French, and 12.3% reported
other. The majority (96.5%) of participants were full-time students, and the aver-
age year at university was 2.67 years. We invited participants to take part in the
study by filling out a questionnaire entitled “Survey of University Students’ Time
Use.” Participation was entirely voluntary, and participants completed the ques-
tionnaire at their own convenience.

252
The Journal of Social Psychology
Measures
To measure the study variables, we used multi-item scales with acceptable
internal consistencies. Whenever possible, we adopted existing measures with
demonstrated validity and reliability. A 7-point Likert-type scale (1 = not at all true,
7 = very true) was used as the response format for all items.
Academic procrastination. To measure the degree of procrastination, we adopted
six items (α = .82) from two existing measures of procrastination (L. Mann’s
[1982] Decisional Procrastinational Scale, as cited in Ferrari, Johnson, & McCown,
1995; H. C. Schouwenburg’s [1995] “Academic Procrastination: Theoretical
Notions, Measurement, and Research,” as cited in Ferrari et al.; e.g., “I tend to
leave things until the last minute”).
Active procrastination. Based on our conceptualization, we developed a 12-item
scale (α = .67) to distinguish active procrastinators from passive procrastinators.
The scale was designed to measure four defining characteristics of active procras-
tinators: (a) preference for pressure (e.g., “I tend to work better under pressure”),
(b) intentional procrastination (e.g., “I intentionally put off work to maximize my
motivation”), (c) ability to meet deadlines (e.g., “Since I often start working on
things at the last moment, I have trouble finishing assigned tasks most of the time”
[reverse coded]), and (d) outcome satisfaction (e.g., “I feel that putting work off
until the last minute does not do me any good” [reverse coded]). We tested the fac-
tor structure of the 12 items measuring active procrastination using principal-com-
ponent extraction with varimax rotation. This exploratory analysis generated four
factors that confirm the hypothesized factor structure, with high factor loadings on
the corresponding factors (all greater than .50) and low cross-loadings (all less than
.24). (Complete results of factor analysis and items are available from Jin Nam Choi
on request.) We used a composite measure of these four subscales to assess the over-
all level of the tendency of individuals toward active procrastination.
Patterns of time use. Adopting items from the Time Structure Questionnaire
(Bond & Feather, 1988), we assessed two aspects of time use. One was the struc-
ture of time use (3 items, α = .70, e.g., “I have a daily routine, which I follow”),
and the other was purposive use of time (3 items, α = .73, e.g., “I often feel that
my life is aimless, with no definite purpose”).
Perception of time control. To measure participants’ perceptions of control of their
time, we used two items (α = .66) developed by Macan et al. (1990; e.g., “I feel
in control of my time” and “I can use my time the way I want to use it”).
Self-efficacy belief. The self-efficacy belief scale included four items (α = .76)
drawn from the Generalized Self-Efficacy Scale (Schwarzer & Jerusalem,

Chu & Choi
253
1995) to measure individuals’ beliefs about their ability to successfully per-
form desired tasks (e.g., “I believe that I can solve most problems if I invest
enough effort”).
Motivational orientation. The motivation scale contained seven items from Shia’s
(1998) Academic Motivation Questionnaire. We measured both extrinsic motiva-
tion (3 items, α = .70, e.g., “Getting a good grade in my classes is the most sat-
isfying thing for me right now”) and intrinsic motivation (4 items, α = .75, e.g.,
“I like courses that arouse my curiosity, even if they are difficult”) for school
activities.
Stress-coping strategy. To assess how participants respond to stressful situations,
we adopted items from the Proactive Coping Inventory (Greenglass, Schwarzer,
& Taubert, 1999): (a) task-oriented coping behavior (3 items, α = .71, e.g., “I just
focus on the task to get what I want”), (b) emotion-oriented coping behavior (3
items, α = .82, e.g., “I get out and talk to others to deal with stress”), and (c)
avoidance-oriented coping behavior (3 items, α = .67, e.g., “I try to turn my atten-
tion away from the problem”).
Stress. We used a four-item scale (α = .77) to measure the level of stress that indi-
viduals had experienced in the previous month (MacArthur & MacArthur, 2001;
e.g., “In the past one month, how often did you feel difficulties were piling up so
high that you could not overcome them?”). Each statement was rated on a 7-point
Likert-type scale (1 = never, 7 = very often).
Depression. We used a four-item scale (α = .73) to measure the level of depres-
sion (Sheikh & Yesavage, 1982; e.g., “I often feel downhearted and blue”).
Life satisfaction. This scale consisted of four items (α = .82) that assess stu-
dents’ general satisfaction with life (e.g., “In general, I am satisfied with my
life”).
Academic performance. For a measure of academic performance, participants
reported their GPA.
Results
Table 1 presents means, standard deviations, and correlation coefficients
among the scales used in the present study. The correlation between the academ-
ic procrastination scale and the active procrastination scale was .03 (p > .60), indi-
cating that these two scales were independent and that they measured nonover-
lapping conceptual domains. Virtually all correlations involving academic
procrastination and active procrastination were in the hypothesized directions.

254
The Journal of Social Psychology
7

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(table continues)

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MS
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ime structure
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BLE 1. Means,
Academic
procrastination
Acti
procrastination
T
Purposi
of time
Percei
control
Self-ef
Extrinsic
moti
Intrinsic
moti
T
Emotion
coping
A
coping
Stress 4.17
Depression
Life satisf
GP
A
a
riable
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
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9.
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V
10.
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Rethinking Procrastination: Positive Effects of “Active” Procrastination Behavior on Attitudes and Performance

 

 

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