Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Procrastination is the thief of time. Procrastination means putting off until tomorrow what you should be doing today.

For many people procrastination is a nemesis, a demonic force that haunts their lives.

But that does not tell us very much about what it is to procrastinate, and how to overcome this self-defeating habit.

I have been wanting to write about procrastination for some time now. I won't say I have been waiting for the right occasion, and I certainly will not admit to procrastinating about the topic, but I will confess that I was waiting for a hook, a concept, something that could help us understand the problem.

Yesterday, when I saw Shirley Wang's article about people who delay decision-making, I thought I had found a cogent and coherent account of the current psychological research on the topic. Link here.

Alas, I was disappointed. Psychologists have not really clarified the issue; they have muddied it.

But I am not going to use that as an excuse to avoid the question, even if I cannot really tie it all up in a neat theoretical package. Sometime it is worth the trouble just to try to redefine the question.

Defining procrastination is very difficult. How do you know when you are procrastinating and when you are taking the right time to deliberate over a serious issue?

Wang  suggests that you are procrastinating when you spend hours trying to figure out whether to buy the argyle socks or the striped socks.

I would hesitate to call that procrastination; it sounds like you are in something of a trance, and perhaps in need of medical attention. Procrastination is a moral failing, not a psychiatric condition.

Similarly, if you are so impulsive that you jump to conclusions and make decisions without any consideration for your responsibility or the consequences of  your actions, then surely you have not really conquered procrastination.

Perhaps you  are pretending to be strong and decisive, but you will look like you're protesting too much and trying too hard. One might even say that you are afraid that other people will discover that  you are tempted to procrastinate.

You do not overcome your tendency to be gun-shy by becoming trigger happy. Both qualities show that you are disconnected from  reality.

Effective decision-making exists somewhere between indecision and impulsiveness.

Which leaves the question wide open.

Psychologists address the question by dividing the world into people who see everything in black and white terms and people who are generally ambivalent.

Those who see sharper contrasts, and who fail to consider opposing opinions, tend to make quicker decisions. According to the psychologists, their more ambivalent counterparts, people who see different sides to each issue, are more ambivalent, and thus, more likely to procrastinate.

As it happens, experiments have shown that ambivalent thinkers are generally more comfortable and less stressed than people who see the world in terms of sharp contrasts.

For my part I do not think that the word ambivalent helps very much here. The word itself suggests indecisiveness and even confusion. And it oversimplifies the problem, sometimes creating one where none exists.

Besides, what is the difference between ambivalent and deliberate? Ambivalent means you cannot make up your mind. Deliberate means that you are willing to take the time to make a reasoned and judicious decision.

Delaying a decision is not necessarily a sign of procrastination.

Some decisions are more difficult than others. Some involve more consequences for more people than others. In some cases you hesitate to decide because you are facing two bad options.

And then there is the question of experience. If you are experienced in a field you will find it much easier to make a quicker decision. Having seen similar situations before and having taken charge of them, you will feel more comfortable deciding what to do.

If you are inexperienced, you will need to take more time and give the matter more consideration. But if you are inexperienced and don't know it, you might well decide to imitate someone who has far more experience. That is a formula for impulsiveness.

And then, there's reality. Some people stand at the side of a pool for a long time wondering whether or not they should jump in. They may be wondering whether the water is too hot or too cold, whether they have allowed enough time to digest their lunch, and a multitude of other questions. They may be trying to overcome a phobia about water.

The solution is: to jump in.

And yet, someone else might be standing on the side of the pool and hesitating to jump in because the pool is empty.

Sometimes people hesitate to make the obvious choice because they intuit that there is something wrong, and refuse to proceed until they know what it is.

Finally, some people procrastinate because they are being pressured to make up their minds. If they succumb to pressure they will feel that their decision is not really theirs. That, in itself, might be a good reason to procrastinate. 

Other people have good reasons for delaying a decision. Perhaps they want to gather more evidence or consult more widely.

Other people delay a decision for bad reasons. They do not want to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, or better, they prefer to have the decision made by someone else.

Surely, there is a point at which deliberation becomes procrastination, where indecisiveness becomes a habit with a life of its own.

How do you know whether or not you have reached that point?

First, estimate the cost. How much is it costing you to procrastinate? Deliberation becomes delay when you start losing opportunities, when a situation starts careening out of your control, when everyone seems to be suspended, waiting for you to make up your mind.

At that point, you are under an ethical obligation to take a stand, to make a decision.

Second, you are procrastinating when you and your delay become something of a drama. When the world starts revolving around the will-he or won't-he aspect of your decision.

When you have succeeded in drawing attention to your own weak character and away from the problem at hand, then you are procrastinating.

The solution might be simply to flip a coin, as one psychologist suggested. The psychologist tries to see how he reacts to the coin's decision, and, if that works for you, well and good.

Finally, the real solution is to throw caution to the winds. You can and should know how to correct a bad decision. It is much more difficult to correct not having the courage to make any decision at all.


Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Schneidermman
RE: Eh...It's a Toss-Up

The solution might be simply to flip a coin, as one psychologist suggested. The psychologist tries to see how he reacts to the coin's decision, and, if that works for you, well and good. -- Stuart Schneiderman

If I'm having trouble making a decision on something like, 'Do I want a Coke or some lemonade?', I'll mentally flip a coin.

By the time the imaginary coin reaches the apex of its flight, I'll know what I want.


[In this universe...imagination is more important than knowledge. -- Einstein]

MajorSensible said...

Dr Schneiderman,

Almost every example above describes indecision, not procrastination.

A simple definition for procrastination is: Knowing what you should do, but instead, doing what you want to do.

If the "should" and the "want to" are the same, people definitely will not procrastinate. For example, if you know you should take your family to the lake, movies, or a sporting event, and you want to do any of those things, you will put forth effort to make it happen.

Conversely, if you know you should clean the garage, or write a term paper, but want to go to the bar, or watch television, or....

I think there is one reason people procrastinate: the value of the "want to" activity is higher than the value of the "should" activity.

Like any other ratio, it can be adjusted by changing the numerator or the denominator.

Sometimes, the "should" activity causes anxiety. (I believe you posted recently about when men don't believe they have a good chance of success, they won't even attempt.)

Sometimes, the "want to" activity fulfills some other need besides pleasure. Escapism, the thrill of rebellion, etc.

Procrastination is not always a matter of indecision, not is it always a matter of integrity (or lack thereof). It is frequently an emotional "economic" decision, where the costs and benefits of both activities are weighed.

David Foster said...

Making an important decision should involve seeing all the shades of gray...but then resolving them into a primary color which permits action.

An executive (pretty sure it was the CEO of John Deere, but can't find it) had a good metaphor, which involved going into the thicket of ambiguity but coming out the other side. Too many people either fail to enter the thicket in the first place, and hence make the decision in a knee-jerk fashion, while others never leave it.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, David, for the CEO's analogy. I like the idea of entering the thicket of ambiguity, thus of being willing to tolerate not knowing what to do, and then exiting into an area where the distinctions are clearly enough defined to allow a decision.

And thanks, too to Chuck and Major. The Journal piece was saying that indecision produces procrastination, not always, but surely a lot of the time.

There are lots of reasons why someone cannot make up his mind, as I posted, and they do not all comprise procrastination.

As for the conflict between should and want, for my part, it makes a great deal of sense. Of course, some people, whether by culture or upbringing, have a different sense of the importance of doing what they should do or doing what they want to do.

I am wondering whether procrastinators tend toward the "want" side of the equation, because it is so much more difficult to know what you really want. Most people do know what they should do in some circumstances, and if they have been brought up to do what is right they will probably not procrastinate.

The Ghost said...

I don't see procrastination as a decision issue ... I see it as an implementation issue ...
In almost every case in my life when I have been procrastinating it wasn't because I didn't know what to do and was still trying to decide, it was because I didn't want to DO what I had decided ...
No there are some folks who can't make a decision and then once they finally do can't implement that decision ... 2 different things ...

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks for clarifying it. We both know people in both camps, though sometimes I think that people who cannot make up their minds hesitate because they know that once they do they are going to have to act on their decision.

You describe another interesting situation: where you have made up your mind but still hesitate to do what you have decided. I believe you are suggesting that you procrastinate when you have decided on something that is not really what you want to do. That makes a lot of sense to me, but I would also imagine that some people who are weighing what they should do against what they want to do will hesitate to make up their minds, for that reason.