Procrastination is closely related to impatience. Their kinship is based on our bias toward the present over the future. Both are examples of the human tendency to overdiscount future events. In both impatience and procrastination, we overweight the immediate. The main difference between the two is whether the immediate thing we are overweighting is a benefit or a cost. When what is immediate is a benefit, we are impatient gluttons, overindulging and consuming more than we should. But when what is immediate is a cost, we are procrastinators, putting off activities we should get done today.
Given what we now know about procrastination, what might we do about its evils? There are no simple fixes, but as with other areas of decision-making, simply being aware of our tendencies is a good place to start. Some rules also can help, though we need the willpower to follow them. We might tell ourselves that before we can put off a task, we must have a unique reason for why we aren’t doing it today and we must commit to completing the task in the future by putting it on our calendar for a specified future date. Web-based tools such as RescueTime.com can help us plan by keeping track of precisely how we fritter away time. Just as the best diet aids involve keeping track of what we eat, the best time management aids involve keeping track of what we do.
Borrowers can reduce their present biases by thinking more carefully about future costs, comparing the cost of a payday loan to the effective interest rate of a credit card, or looking at the estimated cost or savings for a year. Employers can help us avoid our high short-term discount rates by automatically enrolling us in a savings plan unless we opt out. For many straightforward tasks, it helps to impose strict deadlines.
On the other hand, there can be real benefits from putting tasks off, and we should recognize those as well. Not every email requires an immediate response. Not every closet has to be cleaned every day. Two of the skills that many students develop in college are the ability to manage their time throughout a semester, and the ability to cram for an exam or quickly finish a term paper at the semester’s end. Students who are required to finish an assignment every week might not develop these skills.
George Ainslie, the impatience scholar, has said procrastination is harder to quit than many other impatience-related problems, such as alcohol or drug addiction. One of the reasons roughly half of all alcoholics manage to quit drinking and a similar number of smokers eventually quit is that they can imagine a future world in which they no longer drink or smoke. There is an end in sight. But there’s no such absolute condition for procrastination: we cannot do away with it altogether. It’s inconceivable.
As Ainslie explains, we cannot imagine quitting doing stuff any more than we can imagine no longer eating. That is why quitting procrastination is so hard, more like sustaining a long-term diet than going without alcohol or cigarettes. Only 5 percent of overweight dieters achieve long-term weight reduction. Of course, it is hard to quit drinking or smoking. But it is even harder to permanently lose weight. One reason is that it is more difficult to imagine a future world with a lesser amount of eating—and it is impossible to imagine stopping eating entirely.
Procrastination is fundamental, like eating: when we look ahead to the future, we know we will have plenty of tasks that we won’t be able to finish, just as we know we must eat. That is simply how life works. As Ainslie explains, the number of things we might do is potentially infinite: “It is literally impossible not to put off most of what you actually can do.” Ainslie suggests that procrastination problems are simply part of the human condition: “While conspicuous temptations can be identified and subjected to personal rules, a preference for deferring effort, discomfort, or boredom can never be entirely controlled. It is as fundamental as the shape of time, and could well be called the basic impulse.”
In February 1996, John Perry, a philosophy professor at Stanford University, finally got around to writing an essay about procrastination for the Chronicle of Higher Education. He had been planning to do it for months, and he started writing, not because he had uncommitted time on his hands, but because he was looking for a way of not doing all the things he was supposed to be doing: grading papers, reviewing a grant proposal, and reading dissertation drafts. It is an avoidance strategy he calls “structured procrastination.”
By structured procrastination Perry means that we should structure, or plan, which items on our to-do list are the best candidates for being put off. He says structured procrastination can “convert procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time.”
Perry’s advice is, first, to make a list of the things you have to do. Put a few important tasks at the top—these are the ones you will procrastinate. Then, below them, list some tasks that aren’t as important but that you nevertheless need to do. According to Perry, doing these less important tasks “becomes a way of not doing the things higher on the list.”
They try to minimize their commitments, assuming that if they have only a few things to do, they will quit procrastinating and get them done. But this approach ignores the basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source of motivation. The few tasks on his list will be, by definition, the most important. And the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing. This is the way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being.
Perry admits there is a potential problem with the important tasks at the top of the list, because we aren’t going to do them. So we have to fool ourselves—first by inflating the importance of the top items, and then by pretending that the lower-down items aren’t as important. Perry puts finishing an essay for a volume on the philosophy of language at the top, along with the book-order forms for his next semester’s classes. He finished his essay on procrastination long before the one on the philosophy of language, and before he had completed the book orders.
[Image: Flickr user Cory Templeton]