Tuesday, October 5, 2010

More on Procrastination

When last I wrote of procrastination, about a week ago, I suggested that psychologists had not done a very good job helping us to understand it. Link here.

There we were examining why people have so much trouble making decisions. Here we are examining what happens when people make a decision and then, when the time comes to act on it, procrastinate.

So, what would happen if we put two Nobel prize winning economists in a room, one of whom is an authority of behavioral economics, would they be able to discover a better theory of procrastination?

In a manner of speaking, that is what James Surowiecki does in his recent New Yorker article on procrastination. Link here.

Years ago Stiglitz was visiting Akerlof in India. Absent-mindedly, Stiglitz left town without taking some of his clothing. Akerlof generously offered to put it all in a box and mail it to Stiglitz in the United States.

And then the dread procrastination entered the picture. Akerlof kept telling himself that he had to mail the box, but he kept postponing the action. Again and again and again he put off the inevitable moment when he would do what he said he would do.

Reflecting on this experience, Akerlof decided that it could teach him something about procrastination.

It's also possible that it shows us what happens when two certifiable geniuses try to conduct the simplest human transaction. It is not interesting enough on its own terms; they need to mess it up in order to find something to research.

One must mention, that for all one knows,  Stiglitz didn't notice that the box of shirts never arrived.

But let's postpone our discussion of the psychological and behavioral mechanics of procrastination and begin with a more salient point: sad to say, but Akerlof is not a very good friend.

By promising to send the clothing back to Stiglitz he incurred an ethical duty to do so. By failing to send it, he was showing that he had a character flaw.

In a way, that should be the end of the story. Whatever we learn about what happens in the mind when an economist goes back on his word, the solution to the problem is to send the package.

One wonders whether the extensive research into the mind of the procrastinator might, in some hands, serve as a perfect rationalization, even a motive to procrastinate.

If Akerlof had been a man of his word, behavioral economics would have produced far less work on the topic of procrastination.

Of course, our goal should not really be to produce more studies of procrastination. Our goal should be to help people to stop procrastinating.

But if one does, purposefully or inadvertently, fall into the trap of procrastinating, the proper solution to the problem is to apologize to Stiglitz and to offer him, as a gesture denoting sincerity, a new shirt.

Whatever Akerlof's intentions, whatever tricks his mind was playing on him, he was committing a hostile action. And hostile actions require apologies, lest they be taken as intentional.

I am not saying that the research on procrastination has not yielded interesting observations. It has. Take this one, by Thomas Schelling, which resembles a point that I have occasionally made myself: when you promise to do one thing and do something else, you are effectively splitting yourself into two separate selves.

If you want to have an identity, to know who you are, to be recognized as a single person by other people, the best and only way to achieve this is to do what you say you are going to do.

Once you deviate from what you promised, you cannot really know whether which person is you. Then the two separate identities will compete with each other or even bargain for power and control.

Of course, you can also go back on your word when you only tell yourself. When you vow to yourself that you are going to do it tomorrow, and then, you get sidetracked and do not do it, you are procrastinating, but you are also going back on your word.

Those who research procrastination emphasize your not doing what you think you should be doing. In the example cited above, it's not about thinking, but about promising, about an ethical obligation.

The question then becomes: how much do you feel bound by your word? How much do you feel bound by your vow when no one else knows that you have made it?

Let's posit that you have freely offered to put your friend's clothing in a box. If you are honor bound to do what you said, are you therefore compromising some of your freedom.

In Surowiecki's words: "It's hard to ignore the fact that all these tools are at root about imposing limits and narrowing options-- in other words, about a voluntary abnegation of freedom."

Of course, once you make a commitment, you have freely circumscribed your freedom. If you dishonor your commitment, and become two separate identities, whose freedom have you thereby abnegated?

Studies on procrastination have also established that we are usually more rational when we commit to an action in the future than when we are facing a series of options in the present.

Present time involves the possibility of immediate pleasure. Future action factors out the immediacy of "visceral rewards" and allows us to make a more rational decision.

When the future becomes the present, you might know, our resolve is often tested. Because the good deed that we had planned to do in the future, the right thing that we had promised, is now competing with more pleasurable alternatives.

Thus are we tempted, and thus do we often yield to temptation, thereby achieving self-satisfaction while becoming a bad friend.

How should one cure tendencies to procrastinate? By my analysis, you need but make a point of keeping your word, whether you want to or not, whether it still seems like a good idea, whether you have a more pleasurable option.

If you say you are going to call, call. If you say you are going to show up, show up. If you say you are going to send the package, send the package.

Not when you feel like it. Not when the time is right. But, at the time when you said you would do it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

stop procrastinating following this simple exercise of self conditioning: http://improvingwonderfully.com/2010/10/17/conditioning/