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The Captain's Log

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Academic productive procrastination is not the problem

Researchers suggest that not all forms of procrastination are harmful

Everyone can remember a time when they chose to hang out with a friend or watch TV instead of working on their 20-page reading for class. Or perhaps, you recall scrolling through your phone to avoid completing the discussion board due at midnight.

Procrastination plagues many and often prevents people from being productive in an efficient and timely manner – especially college students with busy schedules and an active social life.

“From my perspective, like being a core advisor [to students], I think it is a problem – especially for freshmen,” says Christopher Newport University professor Dr. Timothy Pressley.

Pressley, who specializes in educational psychology, notes that many students go through an adjustment period when first transitioning from high school to college.

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“They probably did not have to work that hard in high school. So, when they make that transition to having to actually study for quizzes and tests and not just go into class and listen to the material, [it] is often hard,” he says.

Although most students are guilty of procrastination at one point or another, not every student procrastinates in the same manner.

Dr. Erin C. Westgate, an assistant professor at the University of Florida who received her PhD in social psychology from the University of Virginia, led a study that sought to redefine how people view procrastination as a solely maladaptive behavior by introducing the concept of productive procrastination. Such a term might sound like an oxymoron – after all, how can one be productive if they’re, by definition, avoiding the task at hand?

Westgate and her team, in a study of 1,104 undergraduates who self-reported their study habits, started by analyzing the different forms of procrastination.

Study participants filled out a questionnaire containing scenarios such as, “It is Sunday afternoon and you recall that you have a paper due soon in your hardest class” and were prompted to choose answers that reflected the form of procrastination that they would most likely engage in: non-procrastination, academic productive procrastination, non-academic productive procrastination and classic procrastination.


Most people are likely familiar with non-procrastination and classic procrastination– working on a set task right away versus engaging in an unproductive activity (ie. partying with friends) to avoid doing the set task immediately.

However, people may be less familiar with the concept of productive procrastination, which Westgate breaks down into academic and non-academic. Both are productive but differ in the activity that individuals choose to do in place of their set task.

One individual might scroll through TikTok when they’re supposed to be studying for their biology exam – what Westgate and her team refer to as unproductive procrastination.

Another individual might do the dishes instead of completing their English essay. In this case, the individual is replacing one productive task with another and engaging in productive procrastination.

Westgate and her fellow researchers then analyzed how specific styles of procrastination correlated to hazardous drinking and academic performance by looking at participants’ GPAs and examining the data results from questionnaires on alcohol use.

While Westgate’s study produced some expected results, such as non-academic procrastination’s association with increased alcohol problems, it also revealed some unexpected relationships between procrastination and drinking and academic performance.

Westgate and her team’s research concluded that academic productive procrastinators and non-procrastinators yielded similar results in terms of drinking problems and academic performance. In other words, someone who procrastinates on one academic assignment by completing another is not necessarily any worse off than someone who doesn’t procrastinate at all.

“It’s kind of like easing yourself into the pool,” Pressley, who was not part of the study, says when describing how academic productive procrastination can be viewed as a “stepping stone” that helps students get into the right mindset to tackle bigger assignments.

In addition, the study yielded another surprise: productive non-academic procrastinators fared worse than classic procrastinators – those who engage in unproductive and non-academic procrastination (ie. Social media or watching TV).

One reason that Westgate offers is that students use the accomplishment of non-academic productive tasks, such as household chores, to justify not starting their academic assignments. The completion of this productive activity gives the individual “moral licensing” to reward themselves with maladaptive behaviors, such as drinking and partying.


Students may not even actively realize that they are procrastinating, but Pressley emphasizes the value of “being aware of and being very truthful about why you’re not having success, rather than blaming others,”

He suggests that it’s helpful to be reflective and conscious of one’s own habits.

“That kind of goes into what we call some self-regulation or metacognition – where people are able to monitor their own learning and their own thinking and be able to reflect back,” Pressley says.

Westgate’s research shows that students use a combination of different procrastination methods – not just one isolated method. A student might do a brief textbook reading instead of writing their paper (academic productive procrastination), but on another occasion, they might do laundry instead of working on a school project (non-academic productive). Depending on the situation and the type of academic task being avoided, students will resort to different procrastinatory habits.

 “[That reflection] is going to influence their planning the next time that they have a big paper or have to study for a big test,” Pressley adds.  

Eventually, students tend to find motivators that discourage procrastination, he explains, such as the desire to maintain a good GPA or increased interest in upper-level courses, as opposed to general education courses that don’t interest the student.

However, procrastination habits aren’t the only factors that contribute to one’s academic success. Once students stop procrastinating and are ready to study, they still need to learn how to do so effectively – something Pressley admits that he didn’t know how to do until his junior year.

From exploring different methods of studying to finding the perfect study spot, he explains that determining one’s learning process is a matter of “trial and error.”

“Ultimately, it’s up to [the individual student] to figure out what’s going to work best for them,” says Pressley.


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