Philosophical essays procrastination

According to Piers Steel, a business professor at the University of Calgary, the percentage of people who admitted to difficulties with procrastination quadrupled between and The Harvard economist David Laibson has shown that American workers have forgone huge amounts of money in matching k contributions because they never got around to signing up for a retirement plan. Procrastination also inflicts major costs on businesses and governments.

Philosophers are interested in procrastination for another reason. Piers Steel defines procrastination as willingly deferring something even though you expect the delay to make you worse off. The essence of procrastination lies in not doing what you think you should be doing, a mental contortion that surely accounts for the great psychic toll the habit takes on people. 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.

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. We want to watch the Bergman masterpiece, to give ourselves enough time to write the report properly, to set aside money for retirement.


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But our desires shift as the long run becomes the short run. Why does this happen? One common answer is ignorance. 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. My apartment, for instance, has rarely looked tidier than it does at the moment. And people do learn from experience: procrastinators know all too well the allures of the salient present, and they want to resist them.

A magazine editor I know, for instance, once had a writer tell her at noon on a Wednesday that the time-sensitive piece he was working on would be in her in-box by the time she got back from lunch. She did eventually get the piece—the following Tuesday.

So a fuller explanation of procrastination really needs to take account of our attitudes to the tasks being avoided. A useful example can be found in the career of General George McClellan, who led the Army of the Potomac during the early years of the Civil War and was one of the greatest procrastinators of all time. When he took charge of the Union army, McClellan was considered a military genius, but he soon became famous for his chronic hesitancy. In , despite an excellent opportunity to take Richmond from Robert E. It requires the lever of Archimedes to move this inert mass.

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. Viewed this way, procrastination starts to look less like a question of mere ignorance than like a complex mixture of weakness, ambition, and inner conflict.

Different factions contended, short- and long-term interests were entrenched in mutual loathing. Not only were motions tabled and opposed, certain proposals were aired in order to mask others. Sessions could be devious as well as stormy. It is like being in a republic.

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If identity is a collection of competing selves, what does each of them represent? The easy answer is that one represents your short-term interests having fun, putting off work, and so on , while another represents your long-term goals. The philosopher Don Ross offers a persuasive solution to the problem. For Ross, the various parts of the self are all present at once, constantly competing and bargaining with one another—one that wants to work, one that wants to watch television, and so on.

This means that it can be bargained with: working now will let you watch more television down the road. It is just the venerable sin of sloth. Most impulses have definable boundaries.

The Thief Of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination.

Sometimes the impulsive act itself is naturally demarcated—you take a drug, or you do not. Even where no line divides the harmful from the benign, there is usually a definable topic that can be subjected to rules—diets to define overeating 11 and budgets to regulate spending and gambling. But the impulse to procrastinate is diffuse, seeming to grow pervasively from the way we experience time.

It always feels better to defer costs. We put off going to our workroom; in our workroom, we put off cleaning it; when cleaning it, we put off the grungy or monotonous parts.

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However small the unit of activity, we are drawn from the more tedious parts to the less tedious. This is not to say that we always do the work in that order; we are apt to make a rule to do just the opposite and follow the rule so habitually that it becomes second nature. But the rule is our response, not the original impulse.

When cleaning the workroom, our attention wanders in undefined ways that reduce our efficiency. To give a personal example, whenever I have a choice regarding the order in which I add columns of figures, I add the ones that look as if they will produce round numbers first, even though a systematic approach would probably be more efficient. It is hard to be sure, when each competing behavior takes fractions of a second.

Hyperbolic Discounting as a Mechanism of Procrastination There is debate about what causes impulses. Instead, I would argue that the occurrence of procrastination among even the most mundane alternatives is evidence for a pervasive tendency to perceive value as a hyperbolic function of delay, an instance of the Weber-Fechner law by which most psychophysical quantities are perceived. A plot of this function against delay shows that for some combinations of SS and LL rewards with a constant lag between them, SS rewards will be temporarily preferred when they are close. A general tendency for both humans and nonhumans to discount prospective rewards hyperbolically has now been widely documented.

Short-range motives are based on the spike of value that occurs as a reward gets closer. Long-range motives are based on the values described by the tails of the curves that describe value at a distance, which are much lower but have the tactical advantage of governing first. Each may survive in competition with the others as long as it sometimes gets its goal.

A motive and the behaviors that have been learned on the basis of this motive can be called an interest, by analogy to economic interests in the larger world. It will be more useful to follow common usage and define procrastination negatively, as a preference for deferring aversive experiences rather than just a preference for SS rewards.

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However, the shape of its discount curve in this case has been little studied. With human subjects, there has been only a Dutch survey in which undergraduates were asked to rate their motivation to study in the face of five kinds of temptation, such as social invitations or favorite TV shows, as a function of the delay before an exam.

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This shape might seem to predict that the relative values of partying and passing an exam will shift over time, but the experiment was not designed to elicit changes in relative value; this 13 would have required a constant lag between partying and exam and evaluation at a variable distance before both. The nonhuman literature is not much fuller. If pigeons are given the choice between interruption of intermittent noncontingent reward by an obligatory five-response task FR5 after six seconds or a harder task after a longer delay, they will accept harder and harder tasks as the delay before they have to perform them is lengthened.

Analysis of preference as a function of delay in a similar experiment where the longer, later task was a duration of required pecking FI 7. FI 5 showed that the discount rate varied with delay, implying a curve like a hyperbolic one that could produce temporary preferences. Thus, the rats preferred a few seconds of comfort to a brief shock that would prevent a much longer shock but only if this comfort was nearby—temporary preference.

Read The Thief Of Time Philosophical Essays On Procrastination

Experimental analysis of procrastination is still in its infancy. Nevertheless, we can predict that ways of controlling procrastination will not be as simple as in the control of a single, clearly demarcated behavior. The kit of tools that work against discrete impulses will not be as effective against procrastination. A short catalogue shows their limitations.


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Best understood are forms of precommitment. Pigeons can learn to peck a key, the only effect of which is to prevent a tempting option from being offered subsequently. Subjects who are aware of the problem, presumably only we humans, can actively arrange for external controls such as deadlines or, even better, series of subdeadlines. This kind of external control may or may not be available and may have undesirable costs—excessive restrictiveness, say, or side demands by the other people.

However, plans maintained by such controls on our attention or emotions will be unstable, vulnerable to reweighings of options that may give a short-range interest an opening. Furthermore, the exploration of possible information or emotion will be tempting in itself, and some incentive will be needed to maintain our plan of not exploring. As with other kinds of impulse, the most effective control for procrastination is usually willpower.


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  • The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination - Mark D. White.
  • A Theory of Will Will has been an elusive concept, partly because of multiple meanings but more importantly because it has lacked a clear mechanism of action. The term will has been applied to the process of connecting thought with behavior a holdover from philosophical dualism, found superfluous by Gilbert Ryle 14 and to your sense of ownership of your actions shown to be often misleading by Daniel Wegner 15 as well as to a faculty for controlling impulses such as procrastination.

    That is, a self-aware person notices that her current choice of an SS or LL reward is evidence about whether she will pick SS or LL rewards in similar situations in the future and thus finds that her expectation of a bundle of prospective rewards is at stake in a choice that literally determines only one.