Friday, October 15, 2010

Procrastination, Self-Direction, and Identity

Yesterday I read an interesting article about procrastination which argues that we can learn a lot about people and identity by studying procrastination.

It was well written and researched, but, more importantly to me, it also struck home with me. This is probably because procrastination is the one thing which has probably caused the most problems in my life.

Procrastination may be a "basic human impulse" but it is also a terrible strain on our lives. As the article puts it, "The essence of procrastination lies in not doing what you think you should be doing, a mental contortion that surely accounts for the great psychic toll the habit takes on people."

It is true that I often procrastinate, even knowing that it won't make me happy, either in the future or even while I am doing it. I may be relaxing and enjoying that new book I wanted to read (rather than the work I need to be doing) but I won't enjoy the book as much than if I had done the work and then read the book guilt-free.

Strangely, I did disagree with two points made in the article (both on page 2). In one, the author points to a study that he says explains why in our Netflix queue we have a lot of great classics but in the short-term we are watching light comedies. He says it is because of “hyperbolic discounting," where the person's short-term considerations overwhelm their long-term goals (the light, fluffy movie presumably fulfilling the short-term goal of entertainment over the long-term goal of thinking it would be good to see the critically acclaimed but more difficult drama). I think this Netflix study, however, is tainted by the fact that people want to impress the questioner. People will tend to overreport their desire to watch "good" films (those they believe will impress others) in order to excuse their poor taste in watching the lower brow film now. This has little to do with time management and more to do with the desire to show off.

The second point which did not resonate as much with me was that procrastination was caused by “the planning fallacy.” This is where people underestimate how long a project will take so they think they have time to waste before starting. In fact, it is usually the opposite problem for me. I will be faced with a task (not terribly hard) but I will think it will take a long time and put it off ("I don't have time to deal with that now...."). I may keep delaying this important but dreaded task for quite awhile until I absolutely have to get started. Then I'll be surprised that the whole thing took less than a half hour. I could have done it when I first knew the task was on my plate and saved myself a great deal of stress and avoidance. I seldom believe things will take less time than they will (except perhaps on really big projects, like my novel, where I keep telling myself that I will be done in no time--but then I never get started and the next thing I know it is two years later and I am no further along).

Both of these reasons for procrastination end up being less compelling and persuasive than the other reasons shown (indeed, even to the author who believes that the planning fallacy relies too much on ignorance and not as much on "complex mixture of weakness, ambition, and inner conflict" which are better explanations for the problem).

Here is where the article really hit home for me:

Lack of confidence, sometimes alternating with unrealistic dreams of heroic success, often leads to procrastination, and many studies suggest that procrastinators are self-handicappers: rather than risk failure, they prefer to create conditions that make success impossible, a reflex that of course creates a vicious cycle. McClellan was also given to excessive planning, as if only the ideal battle plan were worth acting on. Procrastinators often succumb to this sort of perfectionism.

I have dreams of heroic success many times, but am well known to lack confidence in myself. I fear failure greatly and know that sometimes (with my dissertation, especially) I used procrastination as an excuse--"It was okay, but would have been better written if I had more time." I also love planning, something that has become increasingly clear to me as I write this blog. I will plan my attack on my problems but sometimes, like the past few weeks, I'll be all talk and no action. The planning alone seems to give me enough mental relief to allow me to put off the actual work I planned.

The article goes on to discuss a few solutions/ways of viewing the problem:

Divided self: if you see yourself as not a unified person but with an interior like a republic where each side of you fights for different goals, you can label one part of you the procrastinator (who wants immediate pleasure) who is debating with the part of you who wants the larger goal. Then you simply allow a negotiation to take place where both feel they win (usually by convincing the procrastinating part of you that you will enjoy the fun part more if you do the larger goal first). This sounds good, but I haven't had much luck with the idea.

Extended will: This refers to tools which force you to do things: like setting deadlines or having a program which cuts off your internet access to allow you to focus. Deadlines were the only thing that made me finally finish my dissertation, but I've learned that unless they are truly hard deadlines with real consequences, they don't help me. I tried setting deadlines with my husband but since I know there are no real consequences if I go to him and say that I don't have a chapter ready to show him, I never have a chapter ready by my deadline.

Reframing: This is something which has helped some and I want to do more. From GTD, we learn that many times we put off projects just because they seem big or vague (because we don't know what to do next). David Allen urges us to break the project down to smaller steps and concentrate on the Next Step instead of the larger picture. In the same way, narrowing our choices can sometimes make it easier to decide.

The article points out, interestingly, that all of these are a "voluntary abnegation of freedom" and I suppose that is true. Then again, much of our lives are giving up of freedom. We go to work or do things for others, giving up our freedom to do something else or do as we want all day, in order to get something (paycheck, gratitude from others, fame, etc.-- whatever it is we want). Freedom is only truly freedom when sandwiched between times when we are less free. None of us are truly free all of the time--there are always commitments to others or tasks we need to do but may not enjoy. The question is whether we can learn to give up our freedom effectively so we can do those tasks with less hassle and leave us more guilt-free time to do more enjoyable tasks and relaxation.

Can we learn to stop procrastinating as much and free our lives from its great burden? I certainly hope so. In many ways, this question defines my project for the year.


  1. I wonder who they measure hyperbolic discounting in people who don't have Netflix accounts.

  2. They also mentioned a study where they asked people to decide between:
    get some money today OR more money tomorrow
    get some money 30 days from now OR more money 31 days from now
    The results apparently showed hyperbolic discounting


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