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An Essay In Procrastination

15 March 2001
James has a problem, but at least he understands it.

While it is not a purely modern affliction, in today's computer age with increasingly high demands on an individual's labour-time, procrastination is an ever more prevalent problem. From the traditional British builder's addiction to tea, to more high-tech examples, modern society loses a high proportion of potential output to this pestilence on productivity.

The modest aim of this current work is to go some way into understanding time-wasting behaviour, and to understand factors which affect it. This is an immense and complex topic, and it would be impossible to produce a comprehensive exposition of all the issues within such a strict constraint. Instead, the intention of this piece is to lay the groundwork and spark further debate, so that the various intricacies of this topic may be examined in greater depth in the future.

As a starting point, we take the basic philosophical tenet that all the conscious actions of an individual are caused by some personal mental impulse to perform that particular action over any another alternative action. For the purpose of simplicity, we shall state that the way an individual chooses between alternative actions is by assessing the utility produced by each action. Where one action is determined to produce more utility than any of the alternatives, then that action is the one pursued. Put more succinctly and euphemistically, we do things 'cos we want to. Essentially, the important concept taken from this is that it is possible to compare the value of two alternative actions. This forms the basis of this thesis.

Procrastination occurs when a task must be completed within a certain timeframe. This can either be a fixed timeframe (i.e. in an examination), or a flexible timeframe (i.e. doing household chores). In either case, at any point in time within this frame, an individual is faced with the choice of doing 'work' (i.e. working towards completing the set task), or to pursue some other task that goes no way in completing the primary and time-constrained task. Procrastination is therefore defined as performing these secondary actions at the expense of spending time on the primary task for which there is some sort of deadline. For the purposes of this analysis, we shall assume that these secondary tasks are frivolous (as in reality they most often are - constructive procrastination is a slightly different topic, and is outside the remit of this piece).

Click for a larger version of this diagram. See essay text for description.
This diagram illustrates the basic trade-off decision faced by the individual with the deadline. The deadline for the primary task is in one unit of time, and the individual must split his or her time into working (w) and procrastination (p). The diagonal red line shows all the possible time distributions. The coloured curves are isoquants of utility, i.e. each line shows all the points on the diagram which have an equal utility value to the individual (these lines are also called indifference curves, as they show a set of points between which the individual is indifferent). The indifference curves increase in value with distance from the origin, i.e. lines to the right are preferred to lines to the left. The optimal choice for the individual is the point on the time-constraint line which is tangential to an indifference curve. This gives the highest utility value of any point on the time-constraint line. Therefore, given the situation in the diagram, when faced with the deadline of one unit of time, the individual will procrastinate for tp time, and work for tw time.

It is clear from experience that true procrastination behaviour is far more intricate than a simple one-off utility maximisation decision. Most importantly, procrastinatory behaviour is based on perceived workloads and deadlines, and it can not be assumed that perceptions are always perfect. Anecdotal evidence shows that the rate of procrastination varies as the deadline approaches. The following diagram goes some way towards explaining the dynamics of procrastination behaviour.

Click for a larger version of this diagram. See essay text for description.
The diagram shows three sets of trade-off decisions, each with an associated deadline. Say the individual starts on the red time-constraint, which results in a low work-rate and a high procrastination rate. This is due to the relative distance of the deadline, and the individual at this stage is confident that the primary task can be completed well within the deadline. As time progresses to the green time constraint, the individual may be forced to reassess the time that needs to be spent working on the project. The diagram shows that the trade-off based on the new time-constraint results in a higher work rate and lower procrastination rate (tw2/tp2 > tw1/tp1). It is possible to join together all the points that maximise the individual's utility, shown on the diagram by the downward-sloping black dotted line (the reassessment curve). This shows clearly that as the individual reassesses the amount of time remaining to complete the primary task, the proportion of time spent working on the primary task increases. Interestingly, as the deadline nears, the reassessment of the trade-off decision actually results in a larger amount of work done overall (tw2 > tw1). The intercept of the reassessment curve shows the minimum perceived time it will take to complete the primary task (twmin). When the total time constraint equals twmin, no time will be spent procrastinating, and the primary task will be completed just in time.

The result of the model developed above fits closely with the reality of procrastination behaviour; when the perception of the length of time required to complete a task is accurate, the task will be completed right on the deadline no matter when the project was actually begun. This is due to the high procrastination rate at times when the time-constraint is looser. The key point here is that meeting the deadline depends on the accuracy of the individual's perceptions of the deadline and the length of work time required to complete the primary task.

The first type of perceptions that must be accurate are the physical time constraints associated with the task. In the case of, say, writing an essay for a tutorial, physical time constraints include the time taken to print out the essay, and travel time to the tutor's room. Any student should be able to tell you exactly how long it takes to get from their printer to their tutorial. If they can not, then they face the risk of using inaccurate perceptions in their work/procrastination trade-off decision.

The second type of perception relied upon in the work decision is the perception of deadline itself. In the case of an examination or tutorial, these are usually firmly set, and there are credible threats of punishment if the deadline is not met. There are tasks that do not have a set deadline, such as household chores or replying to emails. For some of these tasks, the reassessment curve may be upward, rather than downward sloping (as was shown in figure 2 above). In this situation, less work would be done overall as the work/not work decision is periodically reassessed as the deadline approaches.

Common to both types of perception listed above is the extra factor of the perceived necessary quality of outcome of the task. It is possible that as deadlines are reassessed, the perceived necessary quality of the essay may be reduced, thus allowing more time for procrastination. Similarly, as perceived deadlines approach, the perceived necessary quality of performance of household chores may decrease.

Reasonable and accurate perceptions, therefore, are key to striking the correct balance between work and procrastination. Otherwise work may be completed too late, or too early.

A factor that has not yet been examined is the types of behaviour undertaken during procrastination, and their possible effects. Secondary tasks fall into two broad areas, large and small. Large secondary tasks take longer to complete, and small tasks are very quick.

Strategies for taking a large amount of time out of performing a primary task are relevant when there is a significant amount of time before the perceived deadline for the primary task. These include, performing household chores (where, of course, household chores are not the primary task), and watching television. The best example of a television-based secondary task is watching snooker.

Small secondary tasks tend to be done often in the middle of performing the primary task. The best example of these are the purpose-designed procrastination aids for PCs, most commonly, solitaire, minesweeper, and freecell. These 'games' take only a short while to complete, and involve fast mouse-clicking and intense mental concentration. The attraction of these games is the contrast with essay-writing on computer, which can be painstakingly slow. Three further points about the success of these particular secondary tasks are as follows: the intense concentration gives the impression that the player is exercising their mind, and so the game is worthwhile; generally, in order to stop performing the secondary task, the player must have won the last game; they are incredibly addictive - eventually, not just one win will do.

In the final analysis, this work brings forward three significant conclusions. Firstly, experience shows that procrastination is inevitable. The model developed above demonstrates the pattern of indifference curves that explains procrastinatory behaviour. Secondly, the accuracy of the individual's perceptions are of vital importance if important tasks are to be completed on time. As experience of certain tasks grows, perceptions can become more accurate. This may result in a possibly higher rate of procrastination, but should not result in deadlines not being met. And thirdly, 'procrastination aids' in the form of computer-based fast games are a great help. They allow the individual to procrastinate, but allow him or her to return immediately to the primary task.

Overall, this thesis provides an outline for further debate on the issue of procrastination, and possibly a framework for the development of more effective procrastination aids. While it will never be possible to eradicate procrastination, if it is understood and well-managed, then it will help to end the social taboo on this topic. Future generations will be free, and will thank us.

This essay was originally begun to be entered into the Douglas Sladen essay competition at Trinity College, Oxford in late 1998. It is now complete.


Previously on upsideclown


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