Procrastination: An Alternative Explanation

I’ve been neglecting this blog a little bit – certainly more than I originally intended, since I meant to do a 500 word entry every day for 365 days. A quick look will tell you that I have failed.

I think there are two factors that contribute to this failure:

  1. Once I missed the first entry, my thought process was, “Well, I’m not going to have 365 posts in 365 days now.” That made subsequent missed days less “expensive.” I’d already missed my goal – what was the point in trying to control the margin by which I missed it?
  2. Writing a post for public consumption is a lot more demanding than I thought it would be! I thought it’d be as easy as journaling, but it turns out that not everything I think is worth making public. Who knew?

There’s a third thing, which has happened to me several times in the past three years. The later I am with a piece of work, the higher I believe my supervisors’ expectations to be. If my work is lower quality that I believe their expectations are, then I will not turn it in – I’d prefer to keep working on it.

In terms of behavior, this looks exactly the same as procrastination. However, interestingly, this is a distinct mechanism from the one that’s been floating around in economics.

In behavioral econ, procrastination is sometimes represented as a battle between two selves, present and future – we call this battle the time-inconsistency problem. The future self wants the present self to be able to commit to working out, flossing more often, eating more wisely, or completing a reasonable amount of a large project every day. Instead, present self decides to live it up and not do any of these things, resulting in future self being saddled with bad teeth, bad health, and a full dissertation to write in one month. Yikes.

But what happens to me is distinct from this – you can imagine a world with behavior that looks time-inconsistency, but is actually driven by a beliefs about others’ expectations.

Suppose I’m working on a project. I receive utility greater than or equal to zero if I turn in a project by the due date and I believe that it meets expectations. If I turn it in and I believe that it does not meet expectations, I receive an extremely negative payoff. The diagram below shows just one case where this pairing of beliefs and preferences would lead me to never, ever turn in my paper. As you can probably see, there’s an infinite number of ways not to finish your work.

“I am literally never going to turn in my paper. Sorry.”

Given that my procrastination has a different mechanism, can we still fix it with commitment mechanisms? The above article gives the example of Stickk, which requires you to hand over money that you can only receive back upon completion of the task. This certainly could inspire me to turn in a “below expectations” paper, if I assessed that my utility lost from not getting my money back was greater than my utility lost by turning in something sub-par. However, it does put you in an awkward place of choosing between two negatives.

A better option for this type of procrastination would be to schedule an appointment with whoever you owe a project to before the due date is anywhere near and discuss expectations. This allows you to more correctly assess whether your work is actually falling short. Having a checklist for a minimally acceptable paper would pin the comparison down even more, removing the time-variant component.

Of course, if you can manage it, avoiding this kind of “expectations vs perceived work quality” comparison is the best option. It’s a little nutty to base your happiness on how you think someone else might feel about your work rather than how you feel about it. But this is the kind of mindset change that’s actually a nontrivial ask.

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