Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Procrastinating 101: 12-year-olds Get It, So Can We

A little over a year ago, I took my first crack at decoding Dr. Piers Steel's "procrastination equation," in a blog post entitled "Procrastinating 101:  Greek to Me."  As you can probably gather from its moniker, my piece laid bare the heavy lifting required by me to penetrate Dr. Steel's formula, in the format in which it had most often been presented to the lay audience prior to the recent publication of his book on the subject. 

In Chapter 2 of The Procrastination Equation:  How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, Dr. Steel takes another stab at outlining the procrastination model embodied in his equation.  The chapter--"The Procrastination Equation:  The Result of Eight Hundred Studies Plus One"--is kind of like the title cut on an album, the guts of our Tuesday Procrastinating 101 grapplings with this major contribution to the procrastination literature.  

This eponymous section opens with scenarios describing three procrastinators, Eddie, Valerie and Tom, followed by a quiz to help us determine which of the three we most resemble.  Eddie, it turns out, is plagued by low "Expectancy;" Valerie, by low "Value;" and Tom, by issues of sensitivity to "Time."  (By Dr. Steel's reckoning, at least as captured in this quiz, I am closest in character to Tom, with his time issues, though my scores in all three areas fall shy of the numbers needed to identify me as a particular type of procrastinator.)

And guess what, kids?  Expectancy, Value and Time just happen to be the central components of, yup, the Procrastination Equation.  In order to see "how each of these pieces fits together with the others to form the overall formula," Dr. Steel admits, "there will be math."  But, he admonishes the math-phobes among us (I'm not one) not to 
balk. . . .[because a] version of this principle was illustrated within just two glossy pages of Yes!  The Science Magazine for Kids.  If twelve-year-olds can get it, so will you. 

The gauntlet thus laid down, Dr. Steel goes on to present the particulars of his procrastination explanation.  He begins with an explication of the basic expected utility theory of economics--Expectancy x Value--which is held to predict decision-making.  That is to say, when we are confronted with a choice, we take into account the relative certainty of reward associated with each alternative, as well as the value of each.  But, Dr. Steel adds, this theory is inadequate to explain our responses to all choices.
For starters, the theory is considered an expression of rational decision making, meaning that it doesn't leave room for any form of irrational behavior.  No matter what you do, from eating an ice cream cone to getting hooked on heroin, it is all reasonable from an economist's perspective.  Consequently, their theory also excludes the possibility of procrastination--irrational delays--and since I am currently writing a book on the topic and you are currently reading one, let's consider this a weakness.  The economic model of human nature isn't so much incorrect as just incomplete.  Consistently, we do respond to incentives (i.e., value) to the extent we believe (i.e., expect) that they are obtainable, but that isn't the entire picture.  There is a third factor--time.
Dr. Steel shows us how behavioral economists have borrowed from behaviorism in psychology, tweaking the general formula to take time into account.


Since the product of Expectancy x Value is divided by Delay, the greater the delay [until the reward is received], the less your motivation.

But, he goes on, some of us are more sensitive to delay than others--i.e., more impulsive.  The formula is therefore enhanced by the addition of impulsiveness, in this way:


According to Dr. Steel, who, as we learned last week, has applied meta analysis to the examination of results of hundreds of procrastination studies ("eight hundred studies plus one," says the chapter's title), the resulting "Procrastination Equation accounts for every major finding for procrastion."  

As the deadline for any task gets pushed further into the future, Delay increases and our motivation to tackle the task decreases.  Impulsiveness multiplies the effects of Delay, and so impulsive peope feel the effects of time far less acutely, at least at first.  Consequences have to be on their doorstep before they start paying attention to them--unless they are particularly large.  And what makes consequences large?  Expectancy and Value.  The bigger the payoff and the greater the likelihood of receiving it, the sooner it will capture your attention.

In order to show the reader how the procrastination equation plays out in the real world, Dr. Steel describes the actions of college students, whom he labels "prototypical procrastinator[s]."  Colleges are full of procrastinators, he says, because most students are young, and therefore more impulsive; and because

colleges have created a perfect storm of delay by merging two separate systems that contribute to procrastination, each devastating in its own right. 

These systems include the essay--a task of low value because of its nearly universal unpleasantness--and "the capriciousness of grading"--which results in low expectancy.  Add to this the due date, often nearly a semester away, and you have high delay. 

The second procrastination-promoting system is the setting where the essay must be produced--the college dorm.   Steel refers to dorms as "infernos of procrastination because the enticements--the alternatives to studying--are white hot."

Dr. Steel shares results of his own studies of procrastinating students in a self-paced computerized course at the University of Minnesota's General College.  There he found that procrastinators "tended to be the lowest performers in the course and were more likely to drop out, confirming that they were worse off for putting off."  These delayers were not "intrinsically lazy;" nor was anxiety causing their difficulty in starting work in the course.  
The real reasons for inaction were . . . impulsiveness, hating the work, proximity to temptation, and failing to plan.  And most significantly [for Dr. Steel and his readers, if not for the procrastinators], each of these findings directly follows from the Procrastination Equation.

A couple of things trouble me as I leave this chapter.  Perhaps they will be resolved over the course of the next several weeks, which I will be spending digesting Dr. Steel's eminently readable volume.

The first is the extent to which procrastination research appears to rely on studies of college students.  If, as Dr. Steel asserts,
college students . . . spend, on average, a third of their days putting work off. . . . [and  p]rocrastination is by far students' top problem, with over 70 percent reporting that it causes frequent disruption and fewer than 4 percent indicating that it is rarely a problem 
might it be that procrastination under those conditions is a different kind of animal from that which plagues adults at other points in our lives?  Maybe procrastination in college could be seen as developmental, like other behaviors that most of us mature out of.  (Binge drinking?  Shyness?  Unfocused career goals?)  Maybe procrastination later in life represents a kind of arrested development?

The other thing I am wrestling with is the question of what it means when we put off some items on a list which is so large as to defy completion by normal human means.  Clearly, such conditions are problematic, but are they properly labeled procrastination?  When is what looks like procrastination really a kind of prioritization?  And to what extent are individuals in control of what gets added to these "impossible dreams" of lists?  

This begins to sound like the kinds of questions that ended each episode of the parody show Soap--like "Will Jessica discover Chester's affair...? Will Benson discover Chester's affair? Will Benson care?" The Soap narrator concluded with the trademark line, "These questions—and many others—will be answered in the next episode of Soap."  I trust that Dr. Steel will enlighten us further as we go along--if not about Chester's love life, then about these niggling concerns with respect to procrastination.

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