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 A pinkish parchment background with a pink Not 9 to 5 logo in the background. There is a black wave in the middle with 8 points alternating pink, yellow, purple, and blue to represent the back and forth connected nature of toxic productivity and procrastination. Black text at the top reads: Toxic productivity and procrastination. Each colored point has black text going from left to right: toxic productivity, Productive at all costs, Usually bring increased stress and anxiety, feelings of low self-esteem and self-blame, Usually produce results that aren't your best, A way to avoid boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt, Not a problem with time management, "amygdala hijack" - the threat center of the brain perceives the task as a threat, procrastination. A pink background with two rectangles outlined in white. One column labeled Active Procrastination: Can lead to desirable outcomes, May increase creativity, Choosing to delay work, Belief that you work better under pressure, Delay tasks till a different time but actually perform the task when the time comes, Use the time spent procrastinating to perform other tasks. One column labeled Passive Procrastination: Linked to lower emotional stability, Caused by an inability to regulate emotions related to a task; i.e. it's really boring, or you have anxiety about your performance, Use the time spent procrastinating to focus on mood elevating activities.

Writers: Lisa Quigley & Rachael Leng

It has taken me over a week to start writing this article. I have read over a collection of the same papers multiple times and listened to many podcasts on procrastination, easily justified as productive research to really grasp the topic before putting pen to paper. The pen eventually did meet paper, in fact, three different times, for three different brainstorming maps, all of which turned out almost identical.

Pen and paper met again when I rewrote the same to-do list multiple times, potentially one of the most common procrastination tactics. While these are important steps of due diligence and can play a significant part in the writing process, there are still ways in which these actions may have different results based on the intention behind them and if it actually contributes to the creative process or if it is just a way to delay the project. 

Procrastination is something most of us are probably familiar with. It gets a bad wrap, a lot of people think it’s a problem with attention span or self-control. We’re just not motivated enough, don’t have enough discipline to get our work done. But, that’s not true at all. It isn’t a question of self-control, it’s a question of our emotions regarding the task, and there are different kinds: active and passive[1]

Active procrastination is choosing to delay a task, while passive is more of that avoidance tactic we typically associate with the term. A key difference is that active procrastination leads to positive emotional and behavioural outcomes, while passive leads to negative emotional and behavioural outcomes [2]

Active can lead to desirable outcomes. This is common for people who “perform under pressure,” with the idea that working under pressure will increase creativity. The time spent delaying the task is also usually spent performing another productive task[3] It is essentially a self-regulation strategy to improve productivity, which superficially looks like procrastination, but differs in some of the core aspects. 

Active has four key components: outcome satisfaction, preference for pressure, intentional decisions and ability to meet deadlines [4] Outcome satisfaction represents the idea that the person is more pleased with their product despite being rushed, and is not satisfied with the outcome if they work through it over a longer period of time and finish ahead of the deadline. Intentionally deciding to delay a task actually increases their motivation and feeling of autonomy and agency [5]

Passive procrastination is based on how we feel about the task. If we consider it boring, or maybe have anxieties about our performance, we’re likely to delay the task in favor of something mood-elevating. We may replace it with eating, sleeping, hanging out with friends, playing games, etc [6]

While this may alleviate the stress or guilt in the moment, it actually just prolongs and intensifies it in the long term [7] Yet, it is a chronic habit and not a one-off behaviour because the immediate relief we feel in the moment we decide to delay tends to our reward system, causing us to do it again and create a vicious cycle [8] do this in spite of knowing that unnecessary delay of the task only adds to our guilt and anxiousness. This stress does not motivate us like it would for an active procrastinator. Conversely, it debilitates our ability to do the work that much more.

 It is important to acknowledge that not all delay is procrastination [9] For some, it seems like a good idea to increase creativity, but ultimately, we need to address our feelings around the task and regulate them to get a better handle on how our procrastination serves us [10]

Conscious delay typically becomes more negative when we lie or justify the ‘why’ behind it, thus it is important to gain awareness of these justifications [11] For example, for those that tell themselves they work better under pressure- is that really the case, or is it that you just only work under pressure? Do you actually know that you produce higher quality work in a pressure state?

On the seemingly opposite end of the spectrum is hyper-productivity. Hyper-productivity, or toxic productivity, is continued productivity done at the expense of our health and done out of a desire for control and to be valued. Unfortunately, we’re usually not as productive as we think we are; we’re really only burning out because we feel guilty about stopping. 

For many, toxic productivity is a response to anxiety or trauma. So is procrastination. Procrastination isn’t about a lack of self-control or poor time management. It’s an emotional response to the task at hand. Both bring about feelings of guilt, anxiety, and avoiding negative emotions. Toxic productivity can be used to avoid things and therefore can actually be considered a form of procrastination. Hyper-productivity and procrastination are opposite responses that actually function to avoid the same negative feelings. 

Both may also have basis in perfectionism [12] For the procrastinator, they may put off the task because they are so anxious about doing it perfectly that they feel debilitated to start. For the hyper-productive person, they do things quickly just to check it off the list, which can actually result in making more careless mistakes. This caters to their version of perfectionism because it satisfies their need to people-please and produce results as quickly as possible [13]

For those of us that cycle through these kinds of feelings, life can feel like a balancing act. The desire for control along with feeling guilty for not being productive motivates us into toxic productivity until we empty the tank. Then, we resort to delaying which brings on guilt and the desire for control again. Finding the balance between the two, and learning to pace ourselves, can help us avoid the perpetuating cycle. 

There are endless self-help books and podcasts out there that try to stop and fix procrastination. However, it took me a while to find ones that focused on the root cause and not just focus on time management strategy to overcome it. Unfortunately, this is one of the major misconceptions out there about procrastination in mainstream media and the wellness world [14]

No matter the amount of to-do lists you write, or calendars and reminders you have in your phone and hung up on walls around your house, you will not fix it. Procrastination is a response to the emotions that we feel toward a task. If we can gain awareness of these feelings, then we can better understand the ‘why’ behind our delay or hyper-productivity, and build more effective systems to address the root cause, in turn alleviating our procrastination.

Useful tools to unlearn procrastination/ toxic-productivity tactics will vary depending on the individual. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be a useful tool to manage it because it works by changing your thought patterns, beliefs and behavioural habits [15] For instance, once you understand the ‘why’ of an emotion associated with a certain task, it may help you to disassociate the two through behavioural and mindfulness techniques.

The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone and that there are major cognitive and emotional responses at play behind your procrastination; it is not due to laziness, self-control or a lack of drive and motivation [16] Just how these are learned behaviours in response to negative emotions over a prolonged period of time, they can also be unlearned. Sometimes, just understanding why we feel negative emotions toward a certain task and giving ourselves self-compassion around that may help alleviate some of our procrastination. 


For more information, check out our Instagram: Toxic Productivity and Procrastination and Active vs. Passive Procrastination

For more information on anxiety, read: Anxiety: The Master of Deceit