Having just gotten around to reading bits of the October 11 New Yorker, I ran across a fascinating piece on procrastination written by James Surowiecki, which was his review of the book “Thief of Time,” a collection of essays edited by Chrisoula Andreou and Mark D. White.
As a parent of adolescents, I find this topic to be very relevant — whether its arguing about math homework or pushing more piano practice. Therefore, it is very reassuring to read economist George Ainslie describe procrastination as a “basic impulse” — even as Surowiecki cites evidence that the problem is growing with modern times. According to a professor at the University of Calgary, the percentage of people who admit problems with procrastination quadrupled between 1978 and 2002.
In the growing field of behavioral economics, the study of procrastination is interesting because at its core is the question: Why do people do things that are clearly not in their best interests? A common example is the huge number of people who leave money on the table because they simply don’t sign up for their company’s matching 401(k) plan. This topic was a popular section in the recent book “Nudge.”
Of course, not everything boils down to economics. In the field of ethics, Rushworth Kidder, author of “How Good People Make Tough Choices,” calls some issues right vs right dilemmas. In the case of procrastination, it would be balancing between the perceived short-term good and perceived long-term good. In the mind of a kid, that is exactly what is at stake when you ask them to stop texting with a friend and get back to that essay. Short-term: Social relationships are important and my friend needs my advice; if I help them now, my day tomorrow will be better. Long-term: My essay won’t write itself, and I need to finish early so I can ask my teacher for feedback so that I can get a good grade when the essay is returned a month from now. With kids, short-term usually wins because near-time is more valuable than far-time.
There is no magic bullet for convincing people to do what might be in their best interests, but Surowiecki does say evidence suggests that with practice we can strengthen the will power necessary to procrastinate less. In research cited in his book “Predictably Irrational” MIT psychologist Dan Ariely describes an experiment that gave college students options on setting essay deadlines in his classroom. Not surprisingly, students did not willingly pick the option that was logically more sound. Thankfully, Ariely found that students would respond positively if he set up systems to “nudge” them toward the better option by explaining clearly why a different path was in their best interest.
For students in secondary schools, teachers know that this often means breaking tasks down into manageable chunks. Concrete, do-able steps can make a big project much more likely to get done on time — and creates a safety net to determine if something goes wrong along the way. Students often struggle more in higher grades and college when those built-in safety measures begin to go away.
I’m not sure what can be done for us adults.