Some research says the best way to spark creativity is to walk away and that the best ideas come from those least-expected "aha!" moments. So maybe procrastination isn't such a bad thing after all. Or is time spent on those cat memes taking its toll? Can procrastinating ever be a source of productivity?
Here's the complete guide to procrastinating at work:
Clever People Procrastinate Smartly
The Creativity Research Journal studied the working habits of a particularly intelligent group of people, winners of the Intel Science Talent competition. They found the group procrastinated productively. Some used procrastination as a trigger for a helpful amount of stress needed to ignite positive action. Others saw it as a "thought incubator". They put off making a decision because they wanted to fully process it before finding a solution.
Procrastinate Using Your To-Do List
The same study also found that the tasks the science competition winners were doing while avoiding work were helping in other areas of their life. They were procrastinating efficiently and taking care of other responsibilities. So don't feel too guilty the next time you pause from that spreadsheet to pay your gas bill online.
Procrastination Isn't Just Poor Time Management
Professor Joseph R. Ferrari of DePaul University writes extensively on procrastination and has found that procrastinators aren't simply managing their time poorly. It's a tactic deployed by those with vulnerable self-esteem and has a lot to do with perceived notions of time.
There are Two Types of Procrastinators Out There
There are those who delay making decisions, and those who delay taking action. Ferrari found that the decision-avoiders are dependent on others, relying on them to make their minds up for them. They're more submissive and prefer to pass the buck to someone else whom they can blame them if it all goes wrong.
The task-avoiders, on the other hand, are generally characterised by low self-esteem; they make a decision but don't follow up on it. Of course a lot of people fall into both categories, but the findings go some way in explaining the different ways people procrastinate.
Nature Versus Nurture
Though procrastination might seem merely a personality quirk, scientific opinion is divided as to whether it can be put down to nature, or is the product of a person's environment.
According to Ferrari and further research from Oklahoma State University, factors like "time perspective" affect someone's likelihood to procrastinate. Time perspective is how people understand and interpret their past, present and future. For example, someone who focuses on the bad things in his past is more prone to bitterness and resentment. Although it's possible to modify your time perspective, it's thought to be rooted in personality and linked to procrastination.
Other research, though, has found that environment is also a contributing factor in procrastination. The American Psychological Association, for example, found that procrastination often starts at school, where a lack of rigour in curricula and not being punished for missed deadlines can breed time-wasting habits.
Procrastinators Hate Procrastinators
In one of his many studies into the behavioural habits of procrastinators, Ferrari found that they are hyper-critical of their fellow procrastinators. This is especially true of women. When asked to the evaluate the poor performance of a co-worker who has the same procrastinating tendencies and habits as themselves, workers were harsher on them than their non-procrastinating co-workers.
Those Cat Memes Could Be Pretty Bad For You
That trance you can go into when finding yourself scrolling through cat memes or chatting an afternoon away has a name. It's called "flow". The concept was coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and was originally considered a good thing because it's a state of deep engagement and absorption, as he abstractly explains in a Wired interview.
Andrew Thatcher and his colleagues at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa wanted to understand more about flow in relation to two other online behaviours: procrastination and problematic internet use. They were trying figure out to what extent too much time online was psychologically and socially harmful.
Unsurprisingly, they found a strong link between procrastination and problematic internet use, as they wrote in the Journal of Computers in Human Behavior. But they also found that when someone was in a state of flow while engaged in a non-work related activity, she was more likely to end up with problematic internet use.
In a way, then, this frames procrastination not as a time-wasting phenomenon, but more as a disconnect between intent and action. Flow is a desirable state to be in when you're working, but you misdirect it at something else, like avoiding a boring task or the pressure of an assessment, you fall down a rabbit hole.
Don't Hire Procrastinators
A study by Ritu Gupta and colleagues in the journal Current Psychology suggests a way for employers to screen applicants for their procrastination tendencies. People who believe in some form of fate or pre-destination — in a hopeless, "it's out of my hands" kind of way — are more prone to procrastination, because such people tend to be more neurotic and anxious.
But more surprising, perhaps, is that the other main characteristic of the typical procrastinator is a relatively healthy life outlook. According to the study, people who have a glowing, nostalgic view of their past have a high tendency towards procrastination. This new finding (the study was conducted in 2012) runs opposite to previous research in the field, and scientists don't yet have a concrete explanation for what seems rather counter-intutive.
Right, back to those cat memes.
This article has been updated since its original publication.
Andrea Codrea-Rado covers management and design for Quartz. She is Columbia University's Tow centre digital media fellow. Follow her on Twitter @annacod.