Oscar Wilde said “I never put off till tomorrow what I can possibly do—the day after.” Putting off work until the last possible moment is a problem many of us struggle with. But can we reconcile this behaviour with economic rationality, or are we behaving inconsistently?
Procrastination has been described by the psychologists Solomon and Rothblum, rather formally, as “the act of needlessly delaying tasks to the point of experiencing subjective discomfort.” Another way to define it could be, as the Urban dictionary puts it, “I’ll put a definition up later.” Various scientific, economic, and psychological theories have tried to determine why we put ourselves through this self-sabotage leading to the fevered late night coffee whilst desperately trying to prepare for an exam or meet a deadline. Some psychologists attribute procrastination to low confidence in the probability of success in the task that is being put off, whether we work or not. On a more sombre note, psychologists Blatt and Quilan (1987) claim that procrastination is an attempt to avoid “unconscious death anxiety (…). By being continually late, the procrastinator is expressing rebellion at the finality of his or her existence.” This is a widespread phenomenon among students. Most of us have procrastinated at some point; someone might even be procrastinating by reading this article. The psychologists Ellis and Knaus estimated that 95% of college students procrastinate.
The Rational Agent
Time-consistent preferences have been used to explain procrastination, in which people have a discount rate lower than one—consumption today is worth more than consumption tomorrow, a cost tomorrow is less than the same cost today. Putting off tasks based on this may be rational in the traditional sense—people are still “correctly” evaluating their payoffs. However, this implies that individuals will be satisfied if they maximised their expected utility at any time, based on their individual discount rate.
Enjoy now, regret later
The economists O’Donoghue and Rabin argued that “Casual observation, introspection, and psychological research all suggest that the assumption of time consistency is importantly wrong. It ignores the human tendency to grab immediate rewards and to avoid immediate costs in a way that our ‘long-run selves’ do not appreciate.” This had led to economic models based on time-inconsistent choices, and a representation of procrastination as a result of “present-biased” preferences. In fact, it shows failures of self-control, i.e. to put off unappealing tasks and to indulge in more fun activities, both due to placing more value on the here and now, and over discounting future costs. Starting to watch that exciting TV show a few days before exams instead of studying is a result of privileging the present you over the future you that is having his sixteenth cup of coffee, desperately trying to be ready for a final exam. This behaviour is time-inconsistent if it leads the future you to regret the actions of the past you, taking into account the benefit from procrastinating and the cost from having to work harder later. So procrastination is associated with future regret. But is it really that bad?
According to the economist George Loewenstein, “In everyday language, the term irrationality is typically applied to impulsive and self-destructive behaviour and to actions that violate generally accepted norms about the relative importance of different goals. The theoretical perspective proposed here views irrationality not as an objective and well-defined phenomenon, but as a subjective perception that occurs in the mid-range of the continuum defined by the influence of visceral factors.” This paper defines visceral factors as “drive” states, such as pain, emotions, thirst/hunger, or craving. The idea is that people are influenced by their state when they make decisions. Thus, a stressful situation may cause procrastination. This is therefore irrational when rationality is viewed as the time consistent decision that would have been made from a removed, dispassionate perspective.
In defence of the thief of time
In his recent Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) talk, the blogger Tim Urban described the brain of a procrastinator and a non-procrastinator as both containing a rational decision maker. However, the procrastinator brain also contains an “Instant Gratification Monkey” which disagrees with the rational decision maker on when work should be started, but has a strong inclination toward watching YouTube videos now rather than starting the task at hand. Then he goes on to describe the third part of a procrastinator’s brain that allows people to survive, the “Panic Monster”, who wakes up when a deadline is approaching, allowing people to pull all-nighters to avoid missing the deadline. Perhaps there is some virtue in procrastination, not just in terms of allowing people to focus and work extremely hard just before a deadline, but also to think more creatively. In the article “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate,” the professor, Adam Grant, claims to be a “pre-crastinator”: he prefers to start working right away. One of his students questioned this habit, saying that procrastinating made her more creative. To support her argument, she designed an experiment asking people to come up with new business ideas. Some of the people were told to start right away, others were given five minutes to play Minesweeper first. The latter’s ideas were rated as 28% more creative than those who started right away. The article claims that procrastination “encouraged divergent thinking” by letting the mind wander away from the task at hand.
The psychologist Angela Hsin Chun presents two types of procrastinators: passive and active. The former are the “traditional” procrastinators, who are paralysed by their indecision to act and thus fail to complete tasks on time. In this case, as Professor Timothy Pychyl from Carleton University puts it, “You know what you ought to do and you’re not able to bring yourself to do it. It’s that gap between intention and action.” However, active procrastinators can actually gain from procrastinating, as they prefer to work under pressure, and so deliberately put off work. In their research report, Procrastination and Performance (1997), the psychologists Tice and Baumeister claim that procrastinators experience less stress and have better physical health when deadlines are far off. Procrastination could, in this case, be a strategy to manage negative emotions to make the person feel better, at least in the short run. Their results show that “although active procrastinators procrastinate to the same degree as passive procrastinators, they are more similar to non-procrastinators than to passive procrastinators in terms of purposive use of time, control of time, self-efficacy belief, coping styles, and outcomes including academic performance.” Indeed, non-procrastinators and active procrastinators will have less stress, “greater life satisfaction”, and a better GPA than passive procrastinators. However, there does not seem to be a significant difference between active and non-procrastinators for these characteristics.
“Stickk” with it
One way to get around the present bias is to make delaying a task costlier for the individual. Deadlines are one way of doing this, but cannot be used for every task, and are not credible threats if set by the procrastinator himself. Another possible solution is punishment strategies, such as those proposed by Stickk, a company created by two Yale economists. The idea is to buy a commitment contract that will force you to do the task that was being put off. This contract involves paying a certain amount of money, and only receiving it back if you accomplish the task before the set deadline. However, the money does not go to Stickk if you fail—they make money via advertising—but to a random charity or to an organization that you really do not want to give money to. At the time of writing, there was $27,781,150 on the line, 332,504 commitment contracts, 844,995 workouts completed and 17,645,212 cigarettes not smoked.
“Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”
Procrastination is the scourge of every final exam for most students. The Economist wrote in 2009 about an experiment which gave to different test groups different forms of instructions. Some were given concrete tasks, and some were given tasks that required abstract thinking. The study found that almost all of those who had been “prompted to think in concrete terms” completed their task by the set deadline, whereas over half of the other group failed to answer at all. The way the task is presented may be the most efficient way of circumventing procrastination. But tomorrow will probably always be the busiest day of the week.
by Tristan Salmon
(“Academic Procrastination: Frequency and Cognitive Behavioural Correlates”, Journal of Counseling Psychology, 1984)
(Overcoming Procrastination, 1977)
(“Out of Control: Visceral Influences on Behaviour”, Organizational behaviour and human decision processes, 1996)
(“Procrastination and obedience”, American Economic Association, 1991)
(“Doing it now or later”, American Economic Association, 1999).
“Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate” (The New York Times, 2016)
Angela Hsin Chun: Rethinking Procrastination: Positive Effects of “Active” Procrastination Behavior on Attitudes and Performance (2005)
A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety (2011), Terrie E. Moffit
(“Motivating minds”, The Economist, 22.01.2009)