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.

Hello, World!

I think I should explain myself.

I am a graduate student at a university in the United States. It doesn’t really matter where, and since I’m trying to keep this pretty impersonal and hard to identify, I’ll leave out some critical information. But here’s what I can tell you: I’ve been studying political science for the last three years in the hopes of obtaining a Ph.D. eventually. And I’m thinking of leaving the program and changing my career field altogether.

I’ll probably save what brought me to the point of dropping out of graduate school for another blog post – since I’m supposed to be doing 500 words per day on some subject, it seems like I should be very careful not to use up two subjects in one post. Instead, this post is for what comes next.

I’m taking a leave of absence for the next academic year. That gives me a little more than 12 months to go to work for some firm, outside of academia, and figure out whether I like the work enough to part ways with academia more permanently.

Therein lies the rub. One of the main reasons I’ve chosen to take the leave of absence is that I actually have no idea what I want to write my dissertation on. But the uncertainty doesn’t stop with the dissertation topic – as I’ve been crawling through the muck of, clicking drowsily on entry-level job titles and checking myself against their required qualifications, I’ve found myself equally moved by most causes.

Providing data education for college students in Virginia? Sign me up! Protecting our nation from foreign threats? Why the hell not! Advertising an automated machine learning platform? Wow. Wow, wow, wow.  There are some jobs that sound truly horrific – working for Uber or *shudder* Comcast, for instance – but for the most part the jobs I’ve found sit on this bubble of “yeah, I’d be willing to do that.”

In theory, this should be good news to me. I should be able to genuinely claim interest in a wide variety of causes, making me more flexible in what kind of work I take. But there’s this niggling little voice in the back of my head saying, “Don’t you think it’s time you figured out what you stand for?”

If passing interest were sufficient for choosing something to work on for the next 5 to 10 years, then I could just continue working on my Ph.D. It just seems to me like the threshold for the activity that is going to occupy most of my waking hours should be higher.

Since more than one of my colleagues has remarked to me that passion can grow from doing work, I’m going to use this blog to try and grow some passion by forcing myself to think about different things. My hope is that at the end of a year where I’ve written a single blog post each day, I’ll have a better sense of what I’d like to continue working on and what I’m content to leave behind.

I don’t expect that anyone is going to read this, but if you do – please, leave me prompts in the “Contact” form. 500 words is about one page, and so I expect to write around 365 pages by the end. It’s certain that at some point I’m going to run out of ideas.