What does procrastination tell us about ourselves? by James Surowiecki

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Published on: November 5, 2010

An interesting article by J. Surowieki (the author of Wisdom of Crowds) in the newyorker about procrastination – what does it tell us about ourselves. Few snippets here:

  • procrastination is the quintessential modern problem.
  • Philosophers are interested in procrastination for another reason. It’s a powerful example of what the Greeks called akrasia—doing something against one’s own better judgment.
  • this peculiar irrationality (procrastination) stems from our relationship to time—in particular, from a tendency that economists call “hyperbolic discounting.”
    • The lesson of these experiments is not that people are shortsighted or shallow but that their preferences aren’t consistent over time. We want to watch the Bergman masterpiece, to give ourselves enough time to write the report properly, to set aside money for retirement. But our desires shift as the long run becomes the short run.
  • One common answer is ignorance.
    • procrastinator as led astray by the “visceral” rewards of the present. As the nineteenth-century Scottish economist John Rae put it, “The prospects of future good, which future years may hold on us, seem at such a moment dull and dubious, and are apt to be slighted, for objects on which the daylight is falling strongly, and showing us in all their freshness just within our grasp.”
    • Ignorance might also affect procrastination through “the planning fallacy.” People underestimate the time “it will take them to complete a given task, partly because they fail to take account of how long it has taken them to complete similar projects in the past and partly because they rely on smooth scenarios in which accidents or unforeseen problems never occur.”
  • People do learn from experience: procrastinators know all too well the allures of the salient present, and they want to resist them. They just don’t.
    • “There is an immobility here that exceeds all that any man can conceive of. It requires the lever of Archimedes to move this inert mass.”
    • Lack of confidence, sometimes alternating with unrealistic dreams of heroic success, often leads to procrastination, and many studies suggest that procrastinators are self-handicappers: rather than risk failure, they prefer to create conditions that make success impossible, a reflex that of course creates a vicious cycle. McClellan was also given to excessive planning, as if only the ideal battle plan were worth acting on. Procrastinators often succumb to this sort of perfectionism.
  • Some of the philosophers in “The Thief of Time” have a more radical explanation for the gap between what we want to do and what we end up doing: the person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person: they’re different parts of what the game theorist Thomas Schelling called “the divided self.”

“Procrastination most often arises from a sense that there is too much to do, and hence no single aspect of the to-do worth doing. . . . Underneath this rather antic form of action-as-inaction is the much more unsettling question whether anything is worth doing at all.” In that sense, it might be useful to think about two kinds of procrastination: the kind that is genuinely akratic and the kind that’s telling you that what you’re supposed to be doing has, deep down, no real point. The procrastinator’s challenge, and perhaps the philosopher’s, too, is to figure out which is which.

More about this here: [The Link]

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