Procrastination: Read This NOW!!

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It is mad that success is supposed to be worth more than

the beautiful possibility

which was there immediately before.

- Nietzsche


rocrastination is just one strategy we humans use to manage the unmanageable. Without the ability to postpone tasks, we would suffocate under the mass of responsibilities and potentialities we face at every moment of every day.

Therefore, the first thing to say about procrastination is this: we are all doing it constantly. It is actually impossible to not put off most of what you actually could do at any point in time. All we can do is try our best to prioritize not just hustle. Think for a moment how hyper-productive we can be at times (cramming for a midterm, cleaning the house for visiting relatives, or completing a huge project to meet a deadline at work) and imagine living that way constantly. Some people try to do this. And these people are called stress cases.

The second thing to say is that procrastination is not stupid. There are several ways procrastination can create positive outcomes. Oftentimes procrastination saves us trouble. We put off making an awkward phone call to get out of going to a boring event and the event gets cancelled. Hooray. Our delay paid off. Also, procrastination can help us clarify our intentions in that the things that mean the most to us tend to rise subconsciously to the top of our way-too-long list of Things To Do, while those things we may not value slip further and further down the list. Maybe we weren't so keen on building a koi pond as we had imagined. And, finally, many of us work efficiently under pressure, which is where we find ourselves when we put off starting something until the last moment. Like premium fuel in a BMW, the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are biochemical powerhouses.

The third thing is: OF COURSE we procrastinate, even when it negatively affects our welfare. All of us are sloppy about getting things done. It feels good to postpone the effort or discomfort of aversive tasks. It even feels good to avoid routine and easy tasks. Procrastination allows us to bounce off unpleasant things and defer the costs of expending energy into an uncertain future. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we…

Nonetheless, like running bamboo, procrastination can spread through our lives, changing quickly from “one strategy among many” to an habitual tendency to under-function. The latter type of procrastination is what we will address here. It’s called akrasia.

Akrasia

Akrasia is a Greek word that means routinely behaving in ways that do not reflect your better judgment due to a lack of self-command. As you can imagine, akrasia becomes self-perpetuating since ineffective choices leave us feeling weak willed which undermines our resolve to make better choices. Akrasia needs to be weeded out of our lives on a regular basis.

Economist Geir Asheim defines the problem of akrasia this way:

 

The Last Gift of Time

- Carolyn G. Heilbrun

The Case Against Perfection

- Michael Sandel

Impulsivity: The Behavioral and Neurological Science of Discounting

- Edited by Gregory J. Madden and Warren K. Bickel

 

 

If you have questions about this material, please send them to me at: Jan@self-construct.com

 

When faced with a task with immediate costs and future benefits, if we
end up doing the task later than we thought we would have and later
than we wish we would have, then we have served ourselves poorly.

What causes us to serve ourselves poorly?

Akratic behavior occurs when we are cavalier about the welfare analysis upon which delay of gratification depends. When we don’t take the time to calculate what the current episode of procrastination will cost us down the road, we are selling ourselves short. I think we are cavalier about the analytic process because most of us are embarrassed by how little we actually know about delay of gratification. And so, understandably, our embarrassment precludes us from seeking training in this tricky yet vital life strategy.

Delay of gratification – A primer

Delay of gratification is only logical if we are forsaking a smaller reward now for a larger reward later. Sounds pretty straightforward. But who has spent time thinking about how to assess and compare rewards over time? Well, economists and social scientists have and they have concluded that humans are not very well versed in the economics of procrastination. It turns that out humans have a couple of tendencies that can interfere with good welfare analysis.

First, that cavalier attitude. We often refuse to pay attention to the cost of akrasia because it’s humiliating to notice how often we serve ourselves poorly. Rather than taking a moment to run through a cost/benefit calculation, we try to avoid the humiliation by pulling our focus entirely off this important step. If we can remember that humiliation is the result of shame and that shame is unproductive, we can reorient our thinking wisely back toward making a cost/benefit analysis. Here’s the little sequence of mental events that needs to happen inside each of us if we want to stop being cavalier: we need to eliminate our tendency to shame ourselves thereby elevating both our willingness and also our ability to notice guilty feelings. Guilty feelings are wonderful guides for behavior and can arise in humans in anticipation of poor behavior. That means we can catch ourselves preparing to indulge in akratic behaviors. When we can consistently notice this predictive guilt, we can buttress our attention to skills that maximize our good behavior such as those described below. BTW – doesn’t it seem like all high-quality human behaviors begin with eliminating shame?!

Second, misunderstanding the analytic part of the delay of gratification process. Welfare analysis is a specific type of willpower, meaning that it requires a specific version of the same three steps we use to engage willpower: stop time, check intentions and choose to choose. The first and last steps are the same as regular willpower and are covered in that article. The second step is the part that is slightly different. The intentions we need to check are those concerning our hierarchy of gratifications. In other words, we need to explore the principles inside of us that dictate what we want most and why. Then we compare these principles to see what is most gratifying to us. Is it playing after our chores are done, being on time, being well liked or what? For example, if you are at work and need to wrap things up to meet a friend for dinner, your gratification decision comes down to a work ethic versus a don’t-keep-people-waiting ethic. There is no universal right or wrong, there is only what’s more right for you right now. And these principles can appropriately change depending on the situation. Even though you may have a very strong get-your-chores-done-before-you-play ethic, it is a completely valid existential choice to hit the slopes when there is fresh powder and leave the dishes in the sink and the beds unmade. So the point of having ethical guidelines is to help us assess our future welfare, which means we have to be able to reference them. Many of us are afraid to check in with our principles because we’re afraid that we’ll find a version of that “Eat, drink and be merry” value. We will. That’s okay. We all have that ethic within us. We will also have many impressive moral guidelines. And each will have its time to be an appropriate choice.

Third, biases in perspective concerning the values we use to analyze the cost of delay. We tend to make several miscalculations when we are comparing a smaller-sooner reward or penalty with a larger-later one. This psychological Doppler effect reflects our tendency to discount the value of something the further away that something is from us in time. Our subjective delay discounting occurs for rewards (we try to convince ourselves that building a high quality house won’t truly make that much difference to potential buyers a year down the road), aversive events (we pretend that going to the dentist will be much less problematic six months from now) and consequences (our night-before self tries to sell the story that hangovers aren’t really that bad). We also exaggerate the awfulness of current unpleasantness (I simply cannot tolerate not being able to buy that particular truck right now), our ability to handle waiting (I can’t bear it that I won’t get to go on my vacation for three months), and we overestimate the extent to which our current wants will persist (I’m never going to stop craving a chocolate chip cookie).

If we are comparing a smaller-sooner reward, aversive event or consequence with a larger-later one, we can only adequately calculate long-term payoff if we have a measuring stick that is reliable across time. Here’s how we create that consistency of measurement: Keeping in mind that delay discounting can contain a grain of truth (Why save for tomorrow if you are going to get hit by a bus next month?), we have to make the commitment to try to hold ourselves true to a specified far future. Now we are at the hub of the human condition, for the ability I’m discussing here requires us to relate to all five dimensions of time simultaneously. To do this we must maintain what I call "an existential stance". In a nutshell, an existential stance means being very aware that you are standing in the present with your particular past influencing you from behind, a certain level of energy to fuel your will to power, an unknown amount of future available due to your mortality, and yet facing the need to commit to a particular future of your own design. Not easy to do and not easy to remember to do, but nonnegotiable if you wish to have strong delay of gratification skills.

It is important to note here, however, that desperate lives have trained many people to believe that taking what they can get right now makes more sense than banking on an untrustworthy future. They could be correct. People who exist in a more immediately dangerous world are wise to rely on risk-sensitive decision making. If this is the case for you or someone you care for, please consider building a safer internal environment in terms of self-esteem, trust and stipulation before launching into developing psychological skills or eliminating problematic behaviors such as akrasia. And, as is ALWAYS the case, never demand growth and change in yourself or others if the level of shame is too high.

A clever reader will recognize that there are two layers of deficiency operating when we fail to postpone gratification – one being the inability to face our appropriate guilty premonition that we are now confronting an episode concerning instant gratification and the other being the actual indulging in instant gratification. We need, in other words, to both stop to think about making a good choice in the present using the existential stance, and then we need to make a good choice in the present using our self-command. Otherwise what we are doing is trading the immediate gratification of avoidance for the later gratification of accomplishment. A poor trade a very, very high percentage of the time.

In short, the skills underlying delay of gratification reflect the truth that honesty is the best policy. We honestly face the need for a welfare analysis despite having to face guilty feelings about our human tendency to procrastinate. We honestly evaluate what we want most for our future and why, even if some of our reasoning seems childish. And we honestly hold our existential stance, which reminds us what happens when we foreclose on our prospects if we absentmindedly value the near future more than the far future.

Be brave, be honest, do the math, look to the future and make the choice.

She loves me, she loves me not

Something else to consider when you are planning the tasks that will fill this day is your relationship with your future self. I would venture to guess that few of us have given any degree of thought to how we feel about our cute little upcoming self. Isn’t that odd? When you think of good parents you naturally think of people who have both the child’s current and future needs foremost in their minds. Indeed, parents attach keenly to an image of the life of the child down the road and use it to guide their current parenting behaviors. Why can’t we do the same for ourselves – attach fondly to a sense of who we will be becoming and wish the best for that version of ourselves?

Is it because thinking of our future selves suggests we need to sacrifice everything for her or him, and does that asceticism activate a piety that our petulant side cannot tolerate? In other words, if given the choice between satisfying a need now or seeing to the needs of our future self, do we set up a zero sum game within? If so, this is almost sibling rivalry and serious sibling rivalry is always a function of inadequate resources. So, what is inadequate in our relationship with ourselves that makes tenderness toward our future self so activating?

In my experience what is lacking in an akratic life is comfort. Wounded humans – and that’s most of us, isn’t it – tend to anchor their striving to an oasis point in the nearest future they can manage. Examples might be: I’ll work on this difficult brief all morning knowing I am going to lunch with Stephanie; I may have to lay the flooring for super annoying clients today but tomorrow is Saturday; or, this quarter is a heavy one but next quarter I finally get to take two meaty, upper-division courses.

With too few guaranteed upcoming rest stops, our daily life can take on a marathon feel. It behooves us to build and maintain adequate places in our near future that can supply us with specific amenities. For some people that can be social events, for others its solitary pleasures and still others prefer communing with nature. Please take a moment here to think about how you are treating yourself in terms of this very critical aspect of life design. A restful place or activity or refreshment must be an excellent fit with your current hungers. Be as creative as possible in this regard. If you find yourself too lost in akratic behavior, take a little of your current energy to put a lush oasis or two in place for yourself. And remember, only YOU can prevent oasis depletion!

We have to not only be able to visualize our future, we have to remember to like our future selves at least as much as we like our present selves. Otherwise we risk arriving in the future with nothing put in place for ourselves.

The cost of akrasia

Willpower, will and will to power combine to give us the executive functioning we use to create the future-directed intentions that make us unique in the animal world. (Ah. Is there anything more compelling than existential thought combined with psychobabble? Music to my ears.) Humans are able to “choose certain courses of action, maintain the choices over time and in the face of contrary desires, and then act upon them” to quote the philosopher Richard Holton. Akrasia, a collapse of our will system, interferes with this ability. It is a thief of time, stealing from us in the following ways:

Procrastination keeps us in a state of endless deliberation. We may believe that we have put a decision out of our minds and have moved on to other things, but until we say "yes" or "no" to a task, we haven’t really. What we have said to ourselves is “maybe later.” And because part of us is aware that we are choosing not to choose, we must spend precious energy in not only subconsciously grinding away at the problem but also working to keep it from returning to our conscious minds. And while some time delay to analyze our options is appropriate, we have all experienced the time drain of the paralysis of analysis.

In addition, procrastination prevents us from forming future-directed intentions, which is problematic because future-directed intentions are both efficient and undeniably powerful. Just look at the synonyms for the word “intention” – resolve, resolution, ambition, goal, desire, design, hope – wonderfully existential words. When we have chosen a plan for our future we can terminate the difficult choosing process, harness the power of hope, activate strategies that will help us avoid temptations that can slow down our implementation process and get on with the show. If, for example, our goal is to get up early to write a report, this clear choice empowers us to optimize our odds. We might gather our resource material, straighten up our desk, eschew wine at dinner and make it an early night. Intentions are vey powerful future memories that provide that nice, little pull from what lies ahead of us – a boon for all of us with limited self-motivation abilities.

Procrastination that has turned into akrasia also steals the quality of our time. When we act out of weakened self-command, our next hours will be filled with dismay, knowing we are behaving poorly. I want to paint the fence over the long weekend, I avoid, and I suffer. I may have had a three-day break from work, but I did not have any quality time. Not to mention, of course, returning to work still shouldering the dismay of having let myself down.

And, finally, procrastination opens the door for impulsivity – that behavior which, over time, maximizes losses and minimizes gains due to making many smaller-sooner choices over larger-later ones. The time we have lost to impulsivity is the time we could have spent learning to be more mature by remembering to consider welfare consequences, rather than recklessly ignoring the thinking process.

Bottom line – procrastination is normal, unavoidable and fairly often a wise strategy. Akrasia, in contrast, robs us of our time, our energy and our peace of mind, and it needs to be curtailed with all the self-command we can muster.

Self-command

In a meta sense, self-command involves the entire will system – willpower, will and will to power – which allows for the full range of human behavior from imagining possibilities through taking action. Anywhere along that route from dreaming to doing, akrasia can thwart your better judgment and can cause a collapse of the will system. A thwarted will system causes us to become less able to imagine a range of possibilities, too distracted to take the time to consider what to do next, or even unable to form an intention. A collapsed will system is also responsible for those times when we make a good choice but fail to follow through.

When these things happen for us (and they do for all of us all of the time), we need to engage what shrinks call “multi-self” strategies. Multi-self strategies are those that create a committee-like system inside our minds to discuss our options. The more wise members we have on our committee, the more likely it will be that our internal executive functioning will direct the more adaptive aspects of our personalities to assert. To support that process – here are some tips for improving your self-command.

Understand the economics of delay of gratification. Our internal executive functioning works best when it has a clear model to follow. Everyone should design for him or herself a little protocol to implement when faced with the need to do a welfare analysis. It would need to include assessing the following: what you would have now if you did the task now; what you would have now if you didn’t do the task now; what you would have later if you did the task now; and what you would have later if you didn’t do the task now. If you have a rubric for analyzing the cost of postponement clearly outlined in your mind, with a little practice your mind will happily remember to use it.

Understand the role of the will system in establishing workable intentions. We will be much less susceptible to interruptions of will if we realize that we need more than just a vague intention if we are going to successfully turn possibilities into successes. It might help if you think of the will system as needing to provide you with goal intentions, implementation intentions and resolutions. Goal intentions are schemas on a large scale, such as wanting to go to college, have regular medical check-ups, or learn Chinese, and they have an aspirational quality to them. Implementation intentions are detailed plans for execution and represent an effort to visualize a strong path toward your goal. For example, thinking about strategies for finding a good physician, using your birthday as an appropriate day for an annual appointment, asking your spouse to remind you to make the appointment, etc. Resolutions are simply making the commitment that you are going to do this thing, that you want to choose to choose. This is the step that precipitates resource allocation. Put together, well-formed intentions represent wanting to accomplish something, knowing what to do next and making a promise to yourself to take that plan seriously. The last piece of the will system is action. Action occurs when we have will to power, which integrates high levels of will (I want to do this) and high levels of willpower (I am able to start doing this) to create action. Don Quixote had to dream and then mount up.

Avoiding pitfalls. Even though we are always uncertain whether or not our near future selves will do the task we are choosing right now, or whether or not our far future selves will even want the task to have been done, we need to employ as many strategies as needed to clear the way for implementing action. These strategies fall into two categories:

External. It is both wise and possible to scaffold your will to power by co-opting environmental help. Typical examples include using the buddy system to get something started; going public with your resolutions, which allows you to use social pressure to strengthen your enthusiasm and ego involvement; making side bets with others to increase your odds of success; surrounding yourself with impressive people who model forward-moving behaviors; asking for deadlines or subdeadlines from others to create helpful urgency; requesting tutoring in any of the will to power steps that are less robust in you; soliciting rewards from your environment for task initiation or cheerleading for tedious, ongoing efforts; and, finally, seeking personal therapy if your distrust of the future has blocked you from moving ahead in your life. It’s a clever and powerful person who conscientiously taps into local resources to supplement his or her resolve.

Internal. Internal thought control helps us navigate through the field of nearly limitless hazards that threatens our good intentions. Powerful self-command is fostered by good internalized parental voices, the creation of which is the underlying aim of this self-construct website. If we understand that forward action is only possible if we are both challenged and supported, we will value and rehearse each voice until our parental system is reliably there when we need it.

A challenging voice will urge us to routinely behave ourselves in order to prevent ego depletion. To wit: we will try to avoid becoming too intoxicated, hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (iHALT). We will want to observe and perhaps curtail behaviors that underlie impulsivity (if they are becoming excessive) such as sensation seeking, leisure, hedonism, boredom or poor planning. We would seek to investigate any judgment shifts that occur with either temptations or peer pressure. We would be vigilant in keeping the three steps of willpower clear in our minds. Because we recognize the danger of wishful thinking, we would attempt to reign in fantasies that suggest to our more childish sides that this time we will get away with akratic behavior. We will remind ourselves that we benefit from frequent exercise of our delay tolerance. We would acknowledge that rushing derails a thorough welfare analysis process. We can admit that we are vulnerable to creating a procrastination chain – when our need for instant gratification causes us to postpone a task, then our lack of awareness of having done so disconnects us from our executive functioning ego which further compromises our self-command. Underlying all these great expectations is the powerful belief that we can handle these high standards.

A supportive voice will urge us to be proactive in bolstering our strengths. To wit, we will want to: protect the energy level accessible to our willpower system using the conservation skills listed in that article (habituation, linking, planning, rewards, advanced preparation, subgoals, etc.); devise elaborate and elegant self-distractions to help with delay bridging; remind ourselves to shift our attention to something other than the unpleasantness of waiting; use our attachment skills to make a bright-line distinction for ourself when there are holy things that we want to accomplish; remember that environmental control (keeping temptations at a distance) is a wise and gentle way to protect ourselves (because it is nearly impossible to resist things that are immediately available); think about the wording we use when we talk to ourself, (i.e. it may be easier to stop bad habits such as chewing on ice cubes if we focus on good health like strong teeth rather than poor health like chipped teeth); learn to think concretely about our long-run self and intentionally practice giving extra weight to future well-being over current well-being. And, finally, a supportive voice will remind us to trust the fact that we can handle the following difficult truth: reality is not going to change anytime soon. If indulging in a certain act of instant gratification always leaves us feeling nauseous or despairing, it will always do so. Therefore we compassionately remind ourself – “this poor behavior is not working because this poor behavior does not work!”

The final piece

I guess now would be a good time to confess that this article has taken me an inordinate amount of time to write. I have dilly dallied in all the creative ways that free me from facing the task but that leave me feeling disconnected from my core sense of self.

Why? Why have I allowed the difficulty of this subject to steal week after week of quality from my time?

I found the answer in the way I managed to overcome the akratic plague that had ground me to a halt. I had to start backward from five years in the future in order to fix my will system. It turns out that I could imagine six months, a year or even several years in the future not having finished this website. But I simply could not imagine five years in the future not being horribly depressed if I had failed to complete this project. I had to soul search until I discovered this insight – that I was unwilling to foreclose on half a decade of my will to power. It took me a couple of additional weeks to get practiced at staying with my clearer future memory (a completed website in less than five years) long enough for it to be powerful enough to pull me back on track and toward a version of my life that made my heart beat a little faster.

In the last analysis, then, we need to anchor our dreams in the bedrock assumption of our right to a better future and one that is primarily of our own making.

There is a problem with this for humans in that, absent a belief system that guarantees success for the pure of heart, anytime we go prospecting into the future to make our existential fortune, we are speculating. To use Sartre’s words, we make an appointment with ourselves believing in a foreseeable future, but who knows what we shall find when we arrive there (if, indeed, we even do). This is where the existential whiz kids can help us sustain our faith in ourselves because these writers and thinkers believed deeply in the human capacity to use our brains to fasten onto lusty future memories.

Here’s the thinking I used to draw myself into my future: the next five years are going to pass and I will arrive at the end of that period whether or not I have been living intentionally. I know from my past that, by and large, when I live on purpose, many of my efforts pay off. I also know from my past that, when I am an accidental tourist along the journey through time, many fewer things go my way. But, most of all, I know that when I commit to living on purpose, just the fact that I am earnestly attempting creates the biochemistry of satisfaction that can help sustain me. Without that intentionality, there is very often despair and lethargy.

So when akrasia has you in a death grip, throw an existential grappling hook farther and farther into the future until you hit something solid enough to anchor your dreams. Give it a yank or two, and then trust it to support you as you make an appointment with yourself in the near future to get to work on your next big experiment.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.