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.

Procrastination
“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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Is Specialization the Point of Life?

(Note: this post might not make a ton of sense – I am ravenously hungry and struggling to make my thoughts connect in a coherent-ish way.)

When I was deciding to take a leave of absence, one of the professors I spoke to said, in the course of our conversation, that the point of life is to specialize. My gut response, then and now, is that this isn’t true. But I haven’t really pinned down why I don’t think this is true.

I guess we need to define some things to determine whether this claim is all the time true, sometimes true, or never true. I’ll define “the point of life” as “an action without which a life is ‘worse.’” This is a lower bar than we could set – I think “the point of life” sounds strong enough that we could define it as “an action without which a life may as well have never been lived.” But if specialization doesn’t pass the threshold set by the first definition, it certainly won’t pass the second.

Then, what do we mean by “specialization,” here? In the context of the conversation, “specialization” meant content expertise. But I think we can be more general with it – you’ve specialized if you have one subject that you know more about than others. Translated: your life will be less worth living if you do not have some subject that you favor over others.

I can’t evaluate this, because there’s no practical way to know exactly the same amount about everything – you’re always “specializing” in something, if only by choosing not to know something else. That is, the only way to not specialize at all is by either knowing everything or knowing nothing.

So, I clearly screwed up on defining specialization. Specialization definitely means knowing more about one thing than others, so let’s say that there’s some threshold. For instance, if you know twice as much about cheese as you know about the next thing you know a lot about, then you are specialized in cheese. But then, we’re saying that if you increased your knowledge of the next category (the thing you know the second most about), all of a sudden you will not be specialized, and your life will be “worse.”

This definition of specialization also leads to crazy outcomes. It should not be the case that learning more makes my life “worse” than it was if I’d known just a little less. Clearly thresholds won’t work. But we’re close – we could say that you’re worse off spending that additional hour working on something that isn’t cheese than you would’ve been if you’d spent that hour learning more about cheese. I think this is probably what my professor was referring to (not about cheese, obvs, but about the marginal benefit of an hour doing something you’re expert in versus something you’re not).

I’ll need to think about this about more, but my feeling is that this would imply kind of weird preferences. You certainly wouldn’t have Cobb-Douglas preferences about your knowledge – you’d prefer to invest in one thing, rather than a mix. You’d also need to see increasing returns to knowledge. We’d be able to recreate it with a utility that’s equal to the maximum of time spent across every possible field. So, I guess technically there’s some preference for which this claim is true, but it certainly isn’t all the time true. And this is all assuming that personal utility is the best way to assess whether a life is better or worse.

Jobs I Can’t Have: Data Journalist

I have a confession to make. I actually really hate finagling with visualizations on various data analysis platforms.

I reached this conclusion about 10 minutes ago, and I think that it’s already changing my life. Up until 10 minutes ago, if you’d asked me whether I’d like to spend time learning how to more effectively visualize data, I would’ve said hell yes.

And who could blame me for not knowing myself! Just look at statisticians of any public acclaim whatsoever. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight is chockablock with effective visualizations. The data folks at the New York Times create works of such staggering beauty and simplicity that you can just look at the graph without reading the article and know what they’re saying. And then there’s whatever the hell this sorcery is:

Crazy Scatterplot
Here’s the original link, if you’d like to spend the next five hours trying to assemble this bad boy.

Since I’m trained as a statistician, there’s always going to be a part of me that whispers, “You should be able to make this graph too.”

But I think at a certain point, maybe part of growing up is admitting that there are some things you would like to be able to do that you are just never, ever going to be able to do. I’m a firm believer in the idea that just about anyone can learn just about anything, but I think we also have to recognize how much it’ll cost you to get to an expert level.

Case in point: I just spent about an hour making this dumb scatterplot1:

ugly scatterplot
Honestly? What even is this?

It probably would take another two hours to get it to a point where it makes any sense. And in the meantime, though fiddling with graphics does make time pass quickly, it’s a little alarming to look up and see that an entire evening has passed you by and all you have to show for it is some crappy scatterplot.

This is a life-changing revelation because, in my mind, I was holding the door of data visualization expert open. If that door is firmly shut, I’m probably not going to become a data journalist. I could still work with data, but I’m always going need help from someone with better artistic sense and ggplot2 skills than I have.

This is a relaxing kind of realization. I can stop castigating myself for being such shit at graphics.


1. In my defense though, I did create this in Python, which I am only just learning. But it would still need a lot of work to be intelligible. Back

Is It Wrong to Do a Half-Assed Job? (Part 2)

A few days ago, I asked, “Is It Wrong To Do a Half-Assed Job?” I concluded that “if you have the enormous privilege of being a professional writer… you also have the obligation to actually write original material,” and founded this conclusion on the fact that you’re crowding out other writers if you sign a book deal. Wasting an opportunity that someone else would not have wasted is wrong.

There’s a lot that I didn’t pin down in here – what does it mean to “waste” an opportunity? Is it alright to put in a lower amount of effort if you know that your competitors, even at full effort, still wouldn’t produce something as good as you did? What if you’re not crowding anyone else out with your work – do you still have an obligation to put in full effort then?

I’ve been thinking about this whole idea more because, as you might know from reading the “About” page of this blog or the first post, I am a PhD student at Harvard who is considering leaving without my PhD. If I’m going to condemn Kroese for doing a shit job that someone else might’ve done better, then I could just as easily condemn myself. There was almost certainly someone I displaced by taking this slot in the PhD program – am I thus obligated to finish my PhD?

My guess is that this relates back to another question that I’ve been bouncing around for a while. (Warning, spoilers ahead for “Saving Private Ryan.”)

At the end of “Saving Private Ryan,” as Tom Hanks’ character, Captain Miller, is dying, he tells Private Ryan to “earn this.” When I was watching this film for the first time a few years ago, I was immediately irritated with Captain Miller’s injunction. It seemed to me like the character of Private Ryan was already set up to be sensitive enough to the sacrifices people were making for him. Would the additional weight of a dying man’s orders make his life any better?

I guess it just seems to me that, if you’re going to save someone, you’d probably prefer that they live their best possible life. And I think telling someone that they have an obligation to do more with their life because people sacrificed for them is counterproductive to that end. Even the movie suggests that this order weighed heavily on Ryan: when he’s an old man, he asks his wife to tell him that he’s led a good life and that he is a good man.

In any case, for me it raised the question: what do we owe to the dead? What promises to the dead are we required to keep? (Thankfully, I’m not the only one who was bothered by this – this article in the Atlantic by John Biguenet has a pretty similar reaction.)

This idea of obligation is further complicated by the fact that Captain Miller’s health is failing – he has a tremor throughout the movie. We can’t be sure that he would’ve made it home to his wife even if he hadn’t been sent to rescue Private Ryan. If he was going to die either way, is Private Ryan still obligated by his death?

(Do Ryan’s grandchildren owe something to Captain Miller, for their lives?)

This series of questions is the most extreme version of “is it wrong to do a half-assed job?” I don’t have an answer to it yet, but my feeling is that:

  1. There’s some kind of statute of limitations on obligation that’s proportional to the size of the sacrifice and the certainty that the sacrifice could’ve been avoided – if someone gives me half of their lunch, I’m obligated to them for a much shorter period of time than I would be if they sacrificed their life. If I knew that that half of their lunch would’ve been wasted if I didn’t eat it, I have an even shorter obligation.
  2. You probably aren’t obligated to put your best effort into exactly what was sacrificed – you aren’t required to “have the best life” because someone sacrificed their life or to really savor a meal that someone else gave you or to write your best book because you’ve taken someone else’s spot.
  3. You probably are required to put that obligated effort in somewhere – if you aren’t going to enjoy the meal you’ve been given, then you’d better take the energy from that meal and do something useful with it. If you aren’t going to have a “good life,” maybe you’re required to help someone else have a good life?

So, in the case of Kroese, maybe it is alright that he copy-and-pasted those three pages, as long as he spent the time he saved well. Maybe it is alright if I leave without a PhD, as long as I leave to do something meaningful?

Is It Wrong To Do a Half-Assed Job?

Earlier this week, I read “The Big Sheep” by Robert Kroese, a funny detective novel set in future L.A. after some kind of economic apocalypse. It was good enough that when I saw that there was a second book out and in the library with the same characters, I eagerly snatched it up.

I was settling down to read this book, “The Last Iota,” yesterday. The first few pages were engaging, but then I hit a chunk of background that sounded very familiar. In fact, identical. I still had “The Big Sheep” checked out from the library, and a quick comparison showed that Kroese literally copied and pasted three pages worth of background from the first book into the second.

My gut reaction was that this is clearly wrong. But upon thinking about it, it’s not obvious that it is. Clearly this self-plagiarism passed editorial muster, so it can’t be that Kroese is violating his publisher’s rights to that material.1 It isn’t possible that he’s violating his own copyright by plagiarizing.

Still – something about copy-and-pasting material from one book into another seems deeply, deeply wrong to me. I would never copy and paste a paragraph from one blog post into another – and this isn’t even my job. I’m just writing for fun.

I asked my Facebook friends what they thought, and the most that we could agree on is that it’s lazy.

Which brings me to the question posed in the title: do you have a moral obligation to put in your best effort at your job?

The Internet hasn’t been very helpful in answering this question for me, probably because in order to answer the first question, you’d need to answer a lower-level question about what we’re morally obligated to do in general.

Here’s what I’m thinking so far: it might be less than a “moral obligation,” but we should put in our best effort at work. [I’m imagining that “should” indicates less serious consequences for not doing this than “moral obligation” would imply.] My thinking is that, one of the main points of being alive is to know yourself, and one of the ways you get to know yourself is by your work. If you put in a half-assed effort at work, you will not know what your capacity is – you’re effectively choosing not to know yourself.

This can’t be a complete account though, because it still doesn’t explain why I feel so angry about “The Last Iota.” Maybe part of it is that, if you’re choosing not to exercise your full capacity, you are occupying a space that someone else who is willing to exercise their full capacity would be happy to have. If you’re shuffling through your work day, checking Facebook and Instagram every time the coast is clear, that’s a job that someone else cannot have.

If you have the enormous privilege of being a professional writer, don’t you also have the obligation to actually write original material?


1. Of course, this is assuming that his editor did see that he copied. Either way, it seems like the editor is sort of implicated, since you’d hope that someone would’ve realized this would turn readers off. Back

The Ask

This morning, I settled down with my cat, Padfoot, and finished reading Mary Roach’s fantastic new book, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War.

It is, like much of her work, laugh-out-loud funny. My favorite part was the chapter about scents where someone declared a scent titled “U.S. Standard Bathroom Malodor” to be “wearable.” My second favorite part was a chapter where Roach plays on the concept of a “missile defense luncheon” by altering the phrase to describe other unpleasant kinds of luncheons. I didn’t know what was happening until the second time I saw it, but once I caught on, I loved it. I would adopt it for everyday life, if I thought anyone would get was I was referring to.

(Side note, and similar to this: in the book Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson, one of Henderson’s characters uses “Wyoming” as a verb to substitute for sobbing. This made such an impression on me that I remembered that turn of phrase but couldn’t remember the details of the story it came from. I only found it by searching “Best Books of 2015” and “Best Books of 2014” until I saw something that looked like it might be the right book.)

In the acknowledgments section of the book, Roach highlights something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. She recounts her many asks that allowed this book to happen. “Hey… could you work me into combat simulations where I don’t belong?” and “Could you find someone to approve my spending a few days at sea…?” among others. She expresses gratitude that time after time, people said yes.

This stuck out to me because, as I’ve been working on blog posts for the past ten days, there have already been a few times where it would’ve been handy to ask someone else a question. I’ve thought about surveying political science professors on Facebook to get their sense of when it’s appropriate to schedule appointments. I have some future posts rattling around in my head that would clearly be made stronger and more interesting if I talked to someone first.

I’ve been noticing that all of the media I consume, at one point or another, requires its author to reach out and ask a stranger for a favor. And then to ask them questions!

To be fair, I’ve reached out and asked random people questions before – and when I did, I hid behind the badge of Harvard University. If you can lead an email by saying, “I am a graduate student at Harvard and I’m researching…” then you’ve bought yourself a badge of credibility. I assume the same is true for the folks at NPR and Mary Roach; they never really need to explain why they’re asking a question. They only need to show that it’s part of their job to ask questions.

All this to say: if I’m going to keep working on this for another 354 days, I’d better start getting comfortable with asking questions. The posts are worse for not interacting with anything.

(My second thought is that if you start asking questions, you have to producing a product that you’d be willing to share with the person who donated their time. I’m not sure that I’d be willing to share this blog with anyone as it currently stands. I can’t tell whether I’m being extra thoughtful here or just being cowardly.)

Trees in Grids: A Mystery

About a year and a half ago, I was working on a project that used West African data. We wanted to geocode some of the locations mentioned in our dataset, and so my coworker and I took to Google Maps to search for the cities and villages mentioned.
One evening, a couple of hours past when I really wanted to be at the computer lab, I was looking at satellite imagery of Cote d’Ivoire and saw this:

Zoomed_out
That caught my eye. There was something very uniform about these trees. I zoomed in.

Zoomed_in
This definitely isn’t an act of nature.

“So, what? It’s some kind of grove.” you say to yourself, getting ready to click back over to Facebook and check your notifications for the 537th time today. She still hasn’t liked your witty status. She isn’t going to like your witty status.

But hold on a sec, before you go down that rabbit hole of existential despair. This isn’t just one grove. Almost the whole coastline of Cote d’Ivoire is covered in these groves, and they keep going on into Ghana. I found this one in Benin.1

Benin

Originally, when I saw this, I thought I was seeing some kind of giant government program. However, that doesn’t seem likely given:

  1. It seems unlikely that Cote d’Ivoire has high enough state capacity to pull off a program of massive tree-planting, just knowing that it recently had a civil war. This wouldn’t necessarily disqualify it, since trees do take a lot of time to grow, but…
  2.  If we look at the border of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, there doesn’t seem to be a significant change in the pattern of groves. There’s no obvious sudden reversion to a natural tree pattern.

So, we’re probably looking at groves that are privately owned. They seem pretty damn large to me, though. And most don’t seem to have road access. (By “road” here, I’m including anything that just looks like some kind of worn trail.)

My guess, just from looking at pictures of trees of crops that are common in Cote d’Ivoire, is that these are cassava groves.

Cassava
I literally just spent the last three hours of my life looking at Google Maps and rubber trees on the Internet, when I knew cassava was a big part of the agriculture in West Africa. Why?

Cassava makes a starchy tuber that can be turned into tapioca flour, and it’s a key component of the diet in Cote d’Ivoire.

artichoke heart
Unless we’re looking at the heart of an artichoke after removing the choke. There is a passing resemblance.

1. I’m not 100% certain that these are the same types of trees. The resolution makes it a little difficult to see the shape of the trees in Cote d’Ivoire. Side note to this footnote: if you look at any city in the United States, you can get down to the point where you can see the stripes that a lawnmower leaves behind on a yard. I wonder how Google Maps decides where to put its high resolution. Are they allowed to use it in China? Cape Town, in South Africa, has resolution equivalent to the US. Belarus does not. Back