Thursday, February 11, 2016

Procrastination At Its Finest

For this week, I looked into a New Yorker article written by James Surowiecki simply named Later. It was written back in October of 2010, but its message is, in a matter of speaking, timeless. That is, I can only imagine individuals, even those living thousands of years ago, fighting the same battle every day, over and over again, against procrastination. It’s a line of thinking that says “I don’t want to do this activity now. I’d rather put it off to a later time.” I’d find it hard to believe that there’s a person alive, free from coercion, that doesn’t struggle with procrastinating, to a varying amount, every so often at the very least. The article tells us that not even the likes of a Nobel prize winning economist George Akerlof is free from this human quirk, but that goes without saying. It’s not something that can be entirely cured by learning or by intelligence. The best you can do is find methods to control these urges to put off work. Some of us, myself especially, lose an outrageous amount of time in our daily lives putting things off unnecessarily.

Procrastination is a excellent counterargument  to rationality and instead points to the general irrationality of humankind; there are few things quite as prevalent and illogical. It’s prevalent because, as I said previously, I don’t think it’s something that can ever be avoided entirely. Contained or partially circumvented, yes, but avoided, no. It’s illogical because the net benefit of procrastination, at best, is zero, but realistically, it’s negative. If I don’t, for example, write a blog post now, I’ll be better off in the short-run since I free up time and energy in the immediate sense. However, I’ll be worse off in the long-run since I’ll lose an equal amount time when I’m finally forced to commit to completing the avoided action.

This is procrastination in the most basic scenario; one with an indifference between working now or working later. With a more realistically complex situation, procrastination leads not to a zero-sum game but rather a negative-sum game. Future loses can potentially be greater than current gains.

Irrationality comes into play because procrastination has side effects. These include nonessential stresses and unintended consequences. While currently, a person won’t know the extent of these side effects, there’s enough awareness to question the validity of procrastination. By knowingly putting something off that we recognize the importance of completing, we subjugate ourselves to a variety of negative emotions regarding the task. There’s fear or worry such as in the questions “Will I meet the deadline?” or “How will inactivity negatively affect me in the long-term?”, and there’s doubt such as “Will I be able to complete this in the future?” There’s a general feeling of anxiety and dread prevalent in a procrastinator’s life. Apprehension, over-analyzing the problem, and over-exaggerating or over-emphasizing on the size, difficulty, and duration of the work are common in the waiting period. Then there’s the more tangible consequences of procrastination when there’s a set deadline; less time means less quality work or the potential of running out of time entirely. More extreme emotions like panic can take hold just before deadlines . Regret can occur if the time and quality standards had not been met.

Just to be more specific, I want to differentiate between (a) putting off a project because current time is deemed more valuable than a later time and (b) putting off a project because it’d be inefficient to take immediate steps toward completing the task. The former is a zero- or negative-sum game. The later can be rational under the right conditions. Maybe you lack the proper internal resources (such as energy or nourishment),  external resources (such as tools, materials, or even people), or perhaps there are higher or more urgent priorities to take into account.

Also, it’s worth pointing out that play sometimes does need to come before work. An imbalance between the two can be counterproductive. Stepping back from an activity gives the mind an opportunity to be creative and inspired as well as find enjoyment and relieve stress. To put it more eloquently, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

I found “Later” to be a substantially depressing read, though I don’t think it was meant to be. For some, like me, procrastination is one of the biggest of time wasters. Between this article, other books and sources, and personal experience, I’ve reached the reasonable conclusion that procrastination is largely inescapable;  motivation is short-lived and extremely situational. So, for me, this leads to one major question: “Can we ever reach our true potential?”, or to put it differently, “Is true, personal efficiency achievable at all?”. I have my doubts.

Even so, there are plenty of theories on how to manage procrastination. I’m inclined to believe some of them because I’ve seen results in my own life as well as in the lives of those more productive than myself. Generally, these theories include some form of habit-creation such as planning and structuring a daily routine or short- and long-term goal-setting. Removal of obstacles and distractions is another technique. These are my simple, shallow explanations of thoroughly-researched and nuanced strategies. The overwhelming amount of literature written on the subject just goes to show how big an issue procrastination creates.

It’s hard to imagine what the world would be like without procrastination. We, as a species, could have been years ahead both technologically and socially. How many years of time have been unintentionally squandered by this human quirk? I don’t have the answer, but whatever it is, I’m sure it’s a long way away from what rational models would predict.

1 comment:

  1. Let me take on a few different things. First on the economics you kept on hammering about irrationality, but it may be that preferences are the issue. They are not time consistent. By this I mean that in the morning when I make a plan for the evening activity, I'm in one frame of mind, but then when the evening actually comes I'm in a different frame of mind. (This morning I told my wife I'd make dinner. Now I regret having said that.) The time consistency thing gets further compounded by things that require exercising control, like not eating junk food. Willpower works - sometimes. Other times it fails. Caving in to our baser needs also is human, but not all of that is procrastination.

    I think there is a different issue with work involved. Some work you care about the quality of what you produce. In writing, that care can sometimes translate into writer's block. You feel dissatisfied with your initial thoughts on the matter so rather than confront those you do something else, hoping that a better idea will occur to you in the meantime. The writer's block sort of procrastination I think is different from other work.

    Then there are just some tasks that are tedious and give mild displeasure. There is no quality issue at all, it is just not liking doing the work. When my mom was alive I used to pay her bills. But sometimes, I'd not write the checks for weeks on end. I just found it unpleasant to do.

    One last thing about procrastination. If you have obligations at work, you probably do it less than. Your time usage is determined by the job, not by you. So sometimes external commitments are the answer.