Sunday, October 24, 2010

Why We Procrastinate (by guest blogger G. Randolph Mayes)

James Surowiecki recently wrote a nice full-length review of The Thief of Time for The New Yorker magazine. It sounds like a fantasy novel by Terry Pratchett, but is actually a collection of mostly pointy-headed philosophical essays about procrastination edited by Chrisoula Andreou and Mark White. Procrastination is a great topic if you are interested in the nature of irrationality, as philosophers and psychologists tend to think of procrastination as something that is irrational by definition. For example, in the lead article of this volume George Ainslie defines procrastination as “generally meaning to put off something burdensome or unpleasant, and to do so in a way that leaves you worse off.”

I recently published an article about cruelty in which I argued that it is a mistake for scientists to characterize the phenomenon of cruelty in a way that respects our basic sense that it is inherently evil. I find myself wondering whether the same sort of point might be raised against the scientific study of procrastination.

Most researchers appear to accept Ainslie’s characterization of procrastination as an instance of "hyperbolic discounting," which is an exaggeration of an otherwise defensible tendency to value temporally proximate goods over more distant ones. Everyone understands that there are situations (like a time-sensitive debt or investment opportunity) when it is rational to prefer to receive 100 dollars today rather than 110 dollars next week. But Ainslie and many others have demonstrated that we typically exhibit this preference even when it makes far more sense to wait for the larger sum.

Hyperbolic discounting subsumes procrastination in a straightforward way. According to Ainslie, whenever we procrastinate we are choosing a more immediately gratifying activity over one whose value can only be appreciated in the long run. When making plans a week in advance, few would choose to schedule the evening before a big exam catching up on neglected correspondence or deleting old computer files. But when the decision is left until then, that’s exactly the sort of thing we find ourselves doing.

One interesting result of defining procrastination as Ainslie does is that whether we are procrastinating at any given time depends on what happens later, not how we feel about it now. For example, reading this blog is something you might describe as procrastinating on cleaning your filthy apartment. But, according to Ainslie’s definition, you are only procrastinating now if you subsequently fail to get the apartment clean before your guests arrive for dinner (because otherwise you aren’t “worse off”). There is nothing absurd about this, and science certainly has no obligation to be faithful to ordinary usage. But this disparity does highlight an interesting possibility, namely that what Ainslie and his colleagues call procrastination is really just the downside of a generally rational tendency to avoid beginning onerous tasks much before they really, really need to be done.

Why would this be rational? Well, you could start cleaning your apartment right now. But- wait! -there is a good chance that if you do you will become the victim of Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Putting it off until the last minute can be beneficial because you work much more energetically and efficiently when you are under the gun. (And if you don’t, then you will learn to, which is an important life skill.) Of course, this strategy occasionally backfires. We sometimes underestimate the time we need to meet our goals; unanticipated events, like a computer crashing or guests arriving early, can torpedo the deadlining strategy. But these exceptions, which are often uncritically taken as proof of the irrationality of procrastination, may simply be a reasonable price to pay for the value it delivers when it works.

Most of us think of procrastination as a bad thing and we tell researchers that we do it too much. But should this kind of self-reporting be trusted? Do we just know intuitively that we would be generally better off if we generally procrastinated less? Scientists can define procrastination as harmful if they want to, but they also might want to reconsider the wisdom of a definition that makes beneficial procrastination a logical absurdity. In doing so, they may discover that the powerful notion of hyperbolic discounting has made them too quick to accept a universal human tendency as a fundamentally irrational one.


Kentaro said...

Interesting question!

One thing about procrastination is that evidence for its value is one-sided. We always know when we procrastinate and hotel rooms run out. We rarely notice when we reserve early and the hotel drops its price afterwards.

If procrastination were so bad, you'd think it would have evolved out of the gene pool long ago. Likely, different conditions require a wait-and-see approach, and others are better with advance action. The critical skill is not to avoid procrastination altogether, but to have the capacity to do both, and then to choose the best action depending on the condition.

The real question then is, why do most people have the capacity to procrastinate, while many people appear to lack the ability to refrain from it? Why does it seem more difficult not to procrastinate?

G. Randolph Mayes said...

Kentaro, very well put. I particularly like that the way you frame this question makes it clear that it isn't especially useful to simply define procrastination as harmful. Though there may be some value to defining procrastination in a way that distinguishes it from good planning ability in general. I think your approach is amenable to that, by simply retaining the idea that a procrastinator is countering the feeling that s/he should be acting on the procrastinated act now. Surowiecki's review mentions the civil war general McClellan as someone who procrastinated with disastrous effects. But there is Tolstoy's Mikhail Kutuzov, whose ability to resist the impulse to take a stand allowed him to defeat Napoleon's army.