Why you procrastinate

by Pop on June 22, 2010

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Psychologists say it’s not a time management problem. So what’s going on?

My college memories rapidly faded after graduation, but one of my most vivid, enduring memories is of one of my former roommates, who was a chronic procrastinator. Sure, he waited until the last minute on take-home tests, 10-page papers and studying. But my absolute favorite was the night before move-out. It was around 1 AM, and we had to be out of our dorm by 12 PM the next day. The roommate had just popped open a bottle of some form of alcohol and hadn’t even begun packing. My other roommates and I looked at each other in disbelief and reminded him that we had to move out in mere hours. His response: “I figure I have 11 hours to pack. That’s plenty of time!” I’m pretty sure that, like most mortals, he fell asleep somewhere around 4, and no, he did not make it out of the room on time.

Turns out my old roommate suffered from one of the most common side-effects and/or causes of procrastination: optimism. That is, he underestimated how long it would take him to pack and overestimated his ability to stay awake all night after drinking.

There are lots of psychological hang-ups and side effects that lead us to procrastinate (and probably to put off all those things that would improve your financial situation a ton). Here are a few of them.

You know that exercise where you “picture” where you want to be? That’s B.S.

Or, at least, so says a study published a couple years ago in Psychological Science.

You’ve probably been told to do this exercise dozens of times in self-help books. Envision who you want to be. Put pictures of people at the right weight up on the bulletin board. See yourself scoring the goal at the big game. Imagine that letter informing you of your perfect GMAT score.

But thinking in abstractions like that apparently leads us to procrastinate from doing the actual exercises, practice, and studying needed to achieve those goals. To prove that, the scientists mailed subjects two questionnaires. In one version, they led the questions with a full picture of La Parade, by Georges-Pierre Seurat, and described the painting as “a good example of neo-impressionism in which the artist was using order and colour to invoke emotion and harmony.” The second group of respondents got a small detail of a portion of the painting, and were told “this demonstrated the pointillist technique of using contrasting points of colour to build up an image.” In other words, the first spoke to the emotions and abstraction of the piece, while the second spoke to the actual methods Seurat used to paint it.

The survey had a bunch of questions, but the researchers were really only interested in how long it took each set of respondents to return the survey (they were asked to give it back in three weeks). The results were definitive. Those given the whole painting and abstract description took 20.5 days to return the questionnaire, while those given the detail returned it in 12.5 days.

The message that the researchers concluded for procrastinators was simple: Focus on the details. Creating a list of little, specific tasks—like to complete one practice test on Wednesday and sign up for a Kaplan course on Thursday—is much more effective than simply putting a picture of Harvard Business School on your desk.

It helps to set a self-imposed deadline. It helps more if someone else sets it for you.

I go into and out of phases where I create lists of tasks that I plan to accomplish the next day. Invariably, the list is extremely effective for the first few days that I use it. Then one or two tasks will slip to subsequent days. And then the whole system will fall apart, and I’ll stop making lists for a few months.

It turns out that my pattern isn’t unique. Procrastinators do benefit from making self-imposed deadlines to accomplish certain items—at least, they do better than if they don’t set the deadlines at all, according to researchers. But, predictably, when it’s only ourselves we have to disappoint, we don’t perform as well.

I’ve thought about signing up for Stickk.com for a while, which was founded by a couple Yale professors. The website basically lets you set up a monstrous (or not-so-monstrous) incentive to stick to a goal. For me, it might be something like “Write two blog posts per week for PopEconomics.com”. If I hit it, nothing happens. If I don’t, some sizable monetary penalty hits my credit card and is donated to charity or to whatever third-party referee I designate. To motivate myself, I think I’d have to set a penalty of at least $1,000. Probably more. Dangerous? Yes. Possible to spur dangerously high productivity? I hope so.

The three basic types of procrastinators

This didn’t come from an economic study, but from a pair of psychologists writing for Psychology Today. It’s probably based on some study or another, but I can’t find it offhand. Still, its assertions are intriguing.

It turns out that we procrastinate for three, basic reasons: because we want the euphoric rush of performing on deadline, because we hate failure, and because we have trouble making decisions. If anything, I think I suffer from the second problem. No attempt, no possibility of failure. Though I notice I’ve become better at that as I’ve gotten older. I definitely don’t procrastinate because I “like” panicking and working like mad as a serious deadline approaches. And while I have trouble making decisions sometimes, often I think I don’t begin a task because I don’t understand or take the time to break down all of the steps needed to complete that task (see the second heading).

Anyway, you can thank that inability to make a decision for this morning’s post, which I am writing past midnight on a work day. And I am happy to say that I’ve just started making “To-Do” lists again. Let’s see how long this lasts.

I was remiss in not mentioning earlier that this post was featured in the Carnival of Personal Finance at Suburban Dollar. Thanks Kyle!

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