Procrastination

Behind on Xmas preparations?  In addition to Friday’s last minute gift suggestion, we review procrastination.  From a recent New Scientist:

So does leaving things till the last minute ever pay off, or do procrastinators inevitably pay a price for their delay? One recent North American survey found that individuals who leave the preparation of tax returns to the last moment make errors costing them $400 per return on average. … Students who scored low on the procrastination questionnaire and who worked at a steady pace tended to fare well academically, with an average grade of 3.6 out of 4. Not so those who scored high on the questionnaire, whose grade average was just 2.9. …


Since the late 1990s [Piers] Steel has spent countless hours poring over the results of 553 studies. … So what did he find? First, some people are more at risk of procrastination than others. Men postpone things slightly more than women, and the young tend to loiter over tasks considerably more than seniors do. … Surprisingly, there was no evidence that rebelliousness, neuroticism or perfectionism caused people to put things off. … There were, however, four factors that stood out as the most strongly linked with procrastination: how confident a person is of completing a particular task successfully; how easily distracted an individual is; how boring or unpleasant the task is; and how immediate the reward for completion will be. The more uncertain of success or easily sidetracked you are, the more likely it is that you will put off an assignment or chore. Conversely, the more pleasant the task and the more immediate its payback, the greater the chance you will get on with it quickly. …

Strategies to help us do away with delay:

  • Make a firm commitment to your boss or partner to finish a task by a certain time. This will make delays more embarrassing and difficult to cover up
  • Strip your workspace of all distractions, from your iPhone to your Xbox. Then turn off the "ding" on your email. "We have all these temptations," says Steel. "We’ve made our world motivationally toxic."
  • Many people say that they put things off because they are too tired to deal with them, so get a good night’s sleep and try tackling the most unpleasant and difficult tasks early in the day.
  • Set a series of realistic goals. Some counsellors and therapists recommend drawing up weekly, daily or even hourly goals. The more readily sidetracked you are, the more you need to divide your main task into smaller chunks.
  • Promise yourself a reward for each goal that you meet.
  • Believe in yourself. "The old saying is true," says Steel. "Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you are probably right."
  • Outsource your motivation. Get someone else to regularly goad you into action.
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  • http://yudkowsky.net/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    I’ll get around to leaving a comment on this eventually.

  • alex

    The hard part is procrastinating less. The rest is easy!

  • Stuart

    Reading Overcoming Bias is a great way to put off having to do actual work…..

  • Doug S.

    My experience is that I procrastinated on things that I didn’t really want to do at all. For example, the only real motivation I had for doing my work in college was to get my parents off my back. (My parents were far more determined to see me graduate than I was, to the point where they would drive me to class in the morning to make sure that I went, even though I told them I always slept through it and never remembered a word the professor said.)

  • Martin

    I had a friend who was quite prompt in everything that he did, but he waited until the due date to pay his utility bills. His reasoning was that the longer the money stayed in his bank account, the more he made from it, plus inflation devalued it as time went on.

    Now the average time frame that utility companies give you to pay your bill is, let’s say, two weeks. So (2/52 weeks per year) x (4% inflation) is only .15% inflation within that time frame. That’s essentially your savings if you pay on the last day rather than the first day you get your bill. But if you compound that 12 times per year over your lifetime, the savings could be significant.

    So procrastination is useful in some situations.

  • Tom R.

    Hello, People of Reduced Bias. Rather than using animal training methods to get things done, why not arrange your life to work on problems that are intrinsically cool? It would then be a punishment _not_ to do them. If a task is too difficult, you may be too close to the problem. Paul Graham’s essay ‘Good and Bad Procrastination’ is excellent here.

  • http://www.satisfice.com/blog James Bach

    This is the kind of unhelpful propaganda that just makes good people loathe themselves.

    I’ve made my peace with procrastination, I’ve learned to see it as a positive thing, and now that energy I once used to punish myself I apply to a variety of creative pursuits.

    None of what the reading I’ve done here at Overcoming Bias has been an official part of any of the paying work I do. It’s all a side effect of procrastination. You would have me feel bad for that? For shame, sir. For shame.

    Set your minds free, good people.

  • Michael Sullivan

    I agree with James Bach. Procrastination is a way to say no to people with power who refuse to take an up front and direct “no” for an answer.

    The problem comes when procrastinating things that actually *are* important. But these tricks involving making it more embarrassing are silly. If a task is important, bringing the important to recognition is what’s important. If it isn’t, then there is little harm in procrastinating it. I found Paul Grahams article on Good and Bad Procrastination to be very interesting.

  • Unknown

    Piers Steel defines procrastination as “To voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse-off for the delay.”

    Given this definition, there is no point in giving it any praise.

    Much of the reading that I do on Overcoming Bias also falls under this definition, and although I get some profit from even such reading, not as much as I would from not procrastinating (according to my utility function.)

  • Julian Morrison

    My guess: procrastination is a mental bug where the toggle for “passively sabotaging oppression” gets wedged into the “on” state after a long period of bullying misrule.

    Can any of the commenters break my hypothesis? Were you happy and carefree in childhood, but became a procrastinator anyway?

  • http://achillesshrugged.blogspot.com Benquo

    That’s the case with me, Mr. Morrison.