Understanding Procrastination

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Whether you find yourself bedeviled by your own tendency to procrastinate or by having to manage one or more procrastinators (or, perish the thought, putting off the latter), you might find this article from the Toronto Star useful. Although I am no psychologist, its basic conclusion makes lots of sense to me.

The harm caused by procrastination can be immense. [University of Calgary psychologist Piers] Steel points to a study by the tax-preparation firm H&R Block that says putting off doing their taxes costs U.S. citizens an average of $400 each because of errors due to the last-minute rush.


Fifty per cent of heart attack patients don't manage to make the lifestyle changes that could save their lives.


Over the years, psychologists have come up with a lot of ideas about what makes people procrastinate. In addition to anxiety and perfectionism, some suggested that procrastinators were self-sabotaging, hostile and rebellious, or depressed.

But for Steel, procrastination can be explained by an insight borrowed from behavioural economics called hyperbolic discounting. This is the tendency to value near-term rewards more than long-term ones. For instance, some people will choose a payoff of $50 today over $100 tomorrow.

Steel combined hyperbolic discounting with a theory of motivation called expectancy theory, and came up with something he calls temporal motivational theory (TMT).
The article then provides an equation which I would translate into the following terms: The likelihood of anyone procrastinating is higher when that person does not fully appreciate the value in accomplishing the task, is unconfident of his ability to see it through, or feels like the consequences of failure are comfortably distant in time.

This makes lots of sense to me, and immediately suggests a couple of ways to combat the tendency to put something off. Perhaps the easier of the two is to makes sure the procrastinator understands the benefits of the task. Slightly more problematic (especially for unfamilar tasks), but not insurmountable is to remind the procrastinator that he can do the task, especially if he isn't rushed by putting it off.

The approach suggested by the article is less funny than the above bumper sticker, but it strikes me as far more practical than such impatient, exasperated, and almost always futile commands.

As an interesting aside, an early part of the article mentions that part of the difficulty in studying procrastination lies in defining it. Indeed, when one considers that values are hierarchical and can vary from one individual to another, one can see how easily one might run into trouble studying procrastination. A task that is of crucial importance to one person may not be so to another, making the same kind of delay procrastination for the former, but a rational setting of priorities for the latter.

-- CAV

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