Academics, who work for long periods in a self-directed fashion, may be especially prone to putting things off: surveys suggest that the vast majority of college students procrastinate, and articles in the literature of procrastination often allude to the author’s own problems with finishing the piece. (This article will be no exception.) But the academic buzz around the subject isn’t just a case of eggheads rationalizing their slothfulness. As various scholars argue in “The Thief of Time,” edited by Chrisoula Andreou and Mark D. White (Oxford; $65)—a collection of essays on procrastination, ranging from the resolutely theoretical to the surprisingly practical—the tendency raises fundamental philosophical and psychological issues. You may have thought, the last time you blew off work on a presentation to watch “How I Met Your Mother,” that you were just slacking. But from another angle you were actually engaging in a practice that illuminates the fluidity of human identity and the complicated relationship human beings have to time. Indeed, one essay, by the economist George Ainslie, a central figure in the study of procrastination, argues that dragging our heels is “as fundamental as the shape of time and could well be called the basic impulse.”...
Most of the contributors to the new book agree that this peculiar irrationality stems from our relationship to time—in particular, from a tendency that economists call “hyperbolic discounting.” A two-stage experiment provides a classic illustration: In the first stage, people are offered the choice between a hundred dollars today or a hundred and ten dollars tomorrow; in the second stage, they choose between a hundred dollars a month from now or a hundred and ten dollars a month and a day from now. In substance, the two choices are identical: wait an extra day, get an extra ten bucks. Yet, in the first stage many people choose to take the smaller sum immediately, whereas in the second they prefer to wait one more day and get the extra ten bucks. In other words, hyperbolic discounters are able to make the rational choice when they’re thinking about the future, but, as the present gets closer, short-term considerations overwhelm their long-term goals. A similar phenomenon is at work in an experiment run by a group including the economist George Loewenstein, in which people were asked to pick one movie to watch that night and one to watch at a later date. Not surprisingly, for the movie they wanted to watch immediately, people tended to pick lowbrow comedies and blockbusters, but when asked what movie they wanted to watch later they were more likely to pick serious, important films. The problem, of course, is that when the time comes to watch the serious movie, another frothy one will often seem more appealing. This is why Netflix queues are filled with movies that never get watched: our responsible selves put “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Seventh Seal” in our queue, but when the time comes we end up in front of a rerun of “The Hangover.”
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..
Why does this happen? One common answer is ignorance. Socrates believed that akrasia was, strictly speaking, impossible, since we could not want what is bad for us; if we act against our own interests, it must be because we don’t know what’s right. Loewenstein, similarly, is inclined to see the 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.” Loewenstein also suggests that our memory for the intensity of visceral rewards is deficient: when we put off preparing for that meeting by telling ourselves that we’ll do it tomorrow, we fail to take into account that tomorrow the temptation to put off work will be just as strong.
Ignorance might also affect procrastination through what the social scientist Jon Elster calls “the planning fallacy.” Elster thinks that 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.” When I was writing this piece, for instance, I had to take my car into the shop, I had to take two unanticipated trips, a family member fell ill, and so on. Each of these events was, strictly speaking, unexpected, and each took time away from my work. But they were really just the kinds of problems you predictably have to deal with in everyday life. Pretending I wouldn’t have any interruptions to my work was a typical illustration of the planning fallacy.
I'll have more to say on this in another post; I'm just too pressed for time right now.