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On Rational Procrastination

One of the most fundamental assumptions in mainstream economics is the rationality of humans. Yet, as argued by Timothy A. Pychyl, professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada, frequently observed procrastinating behavior, i.e. the “needless voluntary delay” (Pychyl), cannot be reconciled with the rational man paradigm. 

Pychyl claims in his book The Procrastinator’s Digest that procrastinators violate a most fundamental axiom of rationality, namely the so-called transitivity of preferences. If a person prefers dogs to cats and cats to hamsters, transitivity implies that this person also prefers dogs to hamsters. Yet, a procrastinator behaves differently, says Pychyl. Having a deadline on Wednesday, they may on Monday prefer to do the job on Tuesday, and on Tuesday, they would typically prefer to work on Wednesday. Once Wednesday has arrived, however, working under extreme time pressure becomes a real agony, and they would wish that they had done the job on Monday. Hence, a procrastinator prefers Monday to Tuesday, Tuesday to Wednesday, and Wednesday to Monday. 

Secondly, Pychyl believes that not doing what one wants to do is irrational in an even more fundamental sense. Economists assume that people act on their preferences, and without reason not doing something one wants to do is therefore incompatible with this most basic tenet of economics. Pychyl says that a procrastinator becomes their “own greatest enemy” – in game theory, we are used to analyze situations of conflict that include multiple adversaries, but a situation where somebody is their own adversary is entirely alien to economic theory.


THE STRUCTURED PROCRASTINATOR

There are other voices. In his book The Art of Procrastination, John Perry, professor of philosophy at Stanford University, states that “the procrastinator can acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done”. In his view, there may be deeper reasons for not doing certain things, and these reasons may not be entirely irrational. For example, he says, if one has something like “Learning Chinese” at the top of one’s priority list, it may be quite rational to delay that task, maybe forever. Moreover, he suggests that “structured procrastinators” finally do things in a highly efficient manner, even if (or because) they do it shortly before the deadline. Too long before the deadline, on the other hand, people delve in perfectionist fantasies of how greatly they want to do the job, wasting a lot of resources elaborating on unimportant aspects. Waiting for the moment when we feel the heat of the deadline can be what economists call a commitment device, saving us from wasting time on inessentials. 

On his popular blog waitbutwhy.com, Tim Urban makes a similar point. He identifies three benchmark types of procrastinators, and only two of them are clearly irrational. There are those he calls the successinators. They procrastinate, but when it is neck or nothing and the “panic monster” shows up, they do act, and they usually get the job done in the remaining time that is left. He considers himself to be a successinator, and he says that one can arrange one’s life around this character trait, using external deadlines, agreements with others and the like as commitment devices. The other two types, however, are incompatible with the rationality paradigm.  An impostinator is always busy but never does what is really required. You are an impostinator when you start cleaning your apartment one day before you need to submit your term paper. Such weird prioritizations are in conflict with one’s own preferences and would qualify as irrational according to Pychyl’s second argument. Even worse, there are the disastinators. These are the really critical cases who may be in a pathological condition and require professional help. Disastinators do not react to the “panic monster” anymore, and even when pressure mounts and a situation is about to go awry, they remain idle.


THE ISET CONSENSUS: IT DEPENDS…

Here at ISET, we think that at least one of two criteria must be fulfilled to call procrastination irrational. Everyone may decide for themselves whether according to these criteria their personal procrastination is rational or not. 

Procrastination is irrational for a person who finds it unpleasant to work shortly before deadlines. It is important to realize that through procrastinating, one does not work more than one would without procrastination. The only thing one does is to choose an order of doing things that leads to time trouble. By simply rearranging the order in which one processes tasks, one can do exactly the same work without suffering from pressure. However, if one is a person who enjoys operating in the run-up of deadlines, if one seeks the adrenaline and the energy that is released when time is running out, it may be quite reasonable to not do things too early. In the end, today’s work is not hunting mammoths anymore, and if one sits in front of a computer screen for most of the day, some deadline thrill may be quite welcome.

The second criterion is the effect of procrastination on the quality of work. If the time pressure is recognizable in the final product, this is a good reason to do things earlier – in the end, success requires not just to do certain things but to do them well. Yet, someone who can work accurately and reliably when it is high time does not have this incentive.

A few weeks ago, ISET hosted Maria De Paola, associate professor at the University of Calabria, who presented an empirical study on procrastination and its effects on student performance (De Paola and Scoppa (2015): "Procrastination, Academic Success and the Effectiveness of a Remedial Program", Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 115, pp. 217–236). Her experimental subjects were students from her university, and as a measure of procrastination served the number of days students needed to complete their enrollment procedures after they were admitted to Calabria University. It turned out that on average those who waited longer to finish their enrollment had lower grades and were less motivated in their studies. 

Inspired by Maria De Paola’s presentation, we decided to explore the relationship between procrastination and academic performance among ISET students. We based our analysis on the average grades (GPA) of 119 alumni who graduated from ISET between 2012 and 2015, and, like in De Paola’s paper, we took the time needed to fill out the application form after they were notified about admission as a proxy for the tendency to procrastinate. While our results are statistically not significant, we found that those who submitted their application forms close to the beginning of the time window had better grades than those who did it close to the end – by mere 0.021 points, which corresponds to not even one tenth of a grade step (the difference between, say, a B and a B+ is 0.33). Somewhat more strikingly, procrastinators were overrepresented among those students who moved downwards in the ranking of students during their studies at ISET (the ranking is an important parameter that determines, among others, the eligibility for scholarships and financial support). Most interesting is that we could replicate an earlier result of De Paola, namely that “being exposed to time pressure exerts […] a strong negative impact on female’s performance, while there is no statistically significant effect on males.” (De Paola and Gioia (2014): "Who Performs Better under Time Pressure? Results from a Field Experiment," IZA Discussion Paper 8708). We found that the academic success of male ISET students is not at all correlated with procrastination, and the whole effect was caused by the female students. 

Our findings are in line with a rational view on procrastination. In Figure 1, one can see that the heavy procrastinators are predominantly male. Figure 2 shows that the average grade of the heavy procrastinators, if they are male, is considerably better than the average grade of the male non-procrastinators (while they are doing a little worse than the moderate procrastinators). Male behavior looks like an optimal response: as their performance does not suffer from procrastination, they do not avoid it. For females, on the other hand, the situation is completely different. The more they procrastinate, the more their performance suffers. Hence, we find few procrastinating females and many who do their tasks early in time. 

Having said all of this, it is time to send off this article. It is Saturday, 11:07 pm, and the editor of The Financial is waiting impatiently. Perhaps, also the reader should now stop reading this newspaper and go back to work.

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Pati Mamardashvili on Monday, 23 May 2016 14:18

Very interesting review and findings.
I agree that procrastination might work well for individuals. She/he can put a lot of stress on her/himself, have higher adrenaline level and only slightly reduce the quality of final products. But what about teams? Most of the work environments require team work and I am sure the quality will be compromised and some of the team members will suffer a lot because of procrastinators.
Do not procrastinate!

Very interesting review and findings. I agree that procrastination might work well for individuals. She/he can put a lot of stress on her/himself, have higher adrenaline level and only slightly reduce the quality of final products. But what about teams? Most of the work environments require team work and I am sure the quality will be compromised and some of the team members will suffer a lot because of procrastinators. Do not procrastinate!
Eric Livny on Monday, 23 May 2016 17:19

A GREAT point, Pati! Procrastinating managers are a disaster for organizations!!!!

A GREAT point, Pati! Procrastinating managers are a disaster for organizations!!!!
Florian Biermann on Tuesday, 24 May 2016 04:10

These are very general statements. I would agree if there is a sequence of tasks that have to be done in a certain order, and other team members have to wait and get into time trouble because there is a delay on a preceding stage.

These are very general statements. I would agree if there is a sequence of tasks that have to be done in a certain order, and other team members have to wait and get into time trouble because there is a delay on a preceding stage.
Salome Deisadze on Tuesday, 24 May 2016 18:10

When it is about team-working, I think the effect of procrastination might be similar to free riding; some people will do most of work. When it’s about a manager, a procrastinator manager might discourage workers from working, but on the one hand, that might encourage worker to take an initiative on their own. So, Eric, maybe you should procrastinate in order to discover new talents of your staff :) What is your experience toward this behavior?

When it is about team-working, I think the effect of procrastination might be similar to free riding; some people will do most of work. When it’s about a manager, a procrastinator manager might discourage workers from working, but on the one hand, that might encourage worker to take an initiative on their own. So, Eric, maybe you should procrastinate in order to discover new talents of your staff :) What is your experience toward this behavior?
Eric Livny on Tuesday, 24 May 2016 19:42

Salome, am so glad you are saying this because thats exactly what Ive been doing all along, trying to develop the ISET team spirit and creativity! :-)))))))))))))))) Now I will no longer feel guilty

Salome, am so glad you are saying this because thats exactly what Ive been doing all along, trying to develop the ISET team spirit and creativity! :-)))))))))))))))) Now I will no longer feel guilty
Maka Chitanava on Monday, 23 May 2016 14:21

I have a comment about time pressure and different gender performances. I think results are consistent from natural selection’s point of view. Males had always to fight (or fight much more frequently compared to females). So males, whose genes survived, where the ones who were good at fighting and were able stay alive in stressful environment. I think this can explain why males may perform better in stressful environment nowadays.

I have a comment about time pressure and different gender performances. I think results are consistent from natural selection’s point of view. Males had always to fight (or fight much more frequently compared to females). So males, whose genes survived, where the ones who were good at fighting and were able stay alive in stressful environment. I think this can explain why males may perform better in stressful environment nowadays.
Eric Livny on Monday, 23 May 2016 17:18

Maka, but the stress-resistant males who survived have both daughters and sons, dont they? How does that square with your theory?

Maka, but the stress-resistant males who survived have both daughters and sons, dont they? How does that square with your theory?
Florian Biermann on Tuesday, 24 May 2016 04:15

There are gender specific traits. Your stress resistance carries over to your son but not to your daughter, because __ if Maka is right __ it is not a winning trait for females, while for males it is.

There are gender specific traits. Your stress resistance carries over to your son but not to your daughter, because __ if Maka is right __ it is not a winning trait for females, while for males it is.
Florian Biermann on Tuesday, 24 May 2016 04:12

Maka, that may be true. It is now a long time ago that I hunted my last mammoth, but at least I have some deadline excitement occasionally...

Maka, that may be true. It is now a long time ago that I hunted my last mammoth, but at least I have some deadline excitement occasionally...
Maka Chitanava on Tuesday, 24 May 2016 11:38

Dear Eric,

I am not an expert in genetics, but as I know there are some gender specific genes, sex-linked, which means these conditions mainly affect family members of one gender and are passed from parent to child. For example: male-pattern baldness, is a condition that affects both men and women; however, its far more common in men. Women are less likely to have this condition. Further details can be found here: http://genealogy.lovetoknow.com/about-genealogy/diseases-that-are-genetic-gender-specific

My point was just an opinion, which I think has right to exist, unless you have other arguments.

Dear Eric, I am not an expert in genetics, but as I know there are some gender specific genes, sex-linked, which means these conditions mainly affect family members of one gender and are passed from parent to child. For example: male-pattern baldness, is a condition that affects both men and women; however, its far more common in men. Women are less likely to have this condition. Further details can be found here: http://genealogy.lovetoknow.com/about-genealogy/diseases-that-are-genetic-gender-specific My point was just an opinion, which I think has right to exist, unless you have other arguments.
Eric Livny on Tuesday, 24 May 2016 15:35

Wow, Maka, now we are likely to veer into a vary dangerous discussion of gender differences. I am definitely not an expert in genetics, but I would think that parents that possess certain qualities (courage, good hair quality, blue eyes, physical strength, speedy reaction or intelligence) are, on average, more likely to give birth to children (both male and female) that possess the same qualities. Stronger parents would give birth to stronger daughter and stronger sons. Agree?

Now, it would also be (politically) correct to assume that, on average, a male child is likely to be stronger than his sister (not true for my own kids though). Agree?

But would it be (politically) correct to say that, on average, a male child is also less likely to get emotional and, say, cry, under stress, than his sister?

Wow, Maka, now we are likely to veer into a vary dangerous discussion of gender differences. I am definitely not an expert in genetics, but I would think that parents that possess certain qualities (courage, good hair quality, blue eyes, physical strength, speedy reaction or intelligence) are, on average, more likely to give birth to children (both male and female) that possess the same qualities. Stronger parents would give birth to stronger daughter and stronger sons. Agree? Now, it would also be (politically) correct to assume that, on average, a male child is likely to be stronger than his sister (not true for my own kids though). Agree? But would it be (politically) correct to say that, on average, a male child is also less likely to get emotional and, say, cry, under stress, than his sister?
Florian Biermann on Tuesday, 24 May 2016 15:38

If there are gender specific genetic traits, why should they only be physical and not also cognitive/intellectual?

If there are gender specific genetic traits, why should they only be physical and not also cognitive/intellectual?
Salome Deisadze on Tuesday, 24 May 2016 18:15

Maka, neither I am an expert in genetics, but I found this article interesting, see it (not related to this blog). I like the idea that the roots of this gender-difference is in our conscience.
http://www.babycentre.co.uk/a1038517/from-tv-to-toys-what-makes-girls-into-girls-and-boys-into-boys?scid=gb_en_mbtw_baby_post3m3w

Maka, neither I am an expert in genetics, but I found this article interesting, see it (not related to this blog). I like the idea that the roots of this gender-difference is in our conscience. http://www.babycentre.co.uk/a1038517/from-tv-to-toys-what-makes-girls-into-girls-and-boys-into-boys?scid=gb_en_mbtw_baby_post3m3w
Super User on Tuesday, 24 May 2016 14:47

Gohar Kartashyan

"Procrastination is the foundation of all disasters." people say. A saying which I couldn’t disagree more. But research conducted by organizational psychologist Adam Grant (a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania) suggests there is a strong link between procrastination and CREATIVITY.
When Dr. Martin Luther King was preparing his famous speech on Washington in 1963, the final edits came just minutes before the speech was to be delivered. His most memorable line, I have a dream, wasnt in the original script.
Leonardo da Vinci was a classic procrastinator. He painted the Mona Lisa on and off for a few years starting in 1503, left it unfinished, and didn’t complete it till close to his death in 1519.
Another experiment by Jihae Shin (a professor at the University of Wisconsin): investigated the hypothesis by carrying out surveys at two different companies, analysing how often staff there procrastinated and then getting their bosses to rate how creative and innovative they were.
He found those who procrastinated were often found to be the most creative.
So, in my opinion, procrastinators are disasters if those are carrying a non-creative job.

Gohar Kartashyan "Procrastination is the foundation of all disasters." people say. A saying which I couldn’t disagree more. But research conducted by organizational psychologist Adam Grant (a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania) suggests there is a strong link between procrastination and CREATIVITY. When Dr. Martin Luther King was preparing his famous speech on Washington in 1963, the final edits came just minutes before the speech was to be delivered. His most memorable line, I have a dream, wasnt in the original script. Leonardo da Vinci was a classic procrastinator. He painted the Mona Lisa on and off for a few years starting in 1503, left it unfinished, and didn’t complete it till close to his death in 1519. Another experiment by Jihae Shin (a professor at the University of Wisconsin): investigated the hypothesis by carrying out surveys at two different companies, analysing how often staff there procrastinated and then getting their bosses to rate how creative and innovative they were. He found those who procrastinated were often found to be the most creative. So, in my opinion, procrastinators are disasters if those are carrying a non-creative job.
Eric Livny on Tuesday, 24 May 2016 15:14

An excellent point, Gohar! Seems like we are reaching consensus that procrastination is more consistent with individual assignments (as opposed to work in teams, in which people depend on each other) and creative work (in which adrenaline can pay an important role).

An excellent point, Gohar! Seems like we are reaching consensus that procrastination is more consistent with individual assignments (as opposed to work in teams, in which people depend on each other) and creative work (in which adrenaline can pay an important role).
Maka Chitanava on Wednesday, 25 May 2016 15:42

Eric, I agree this is dangerous discussion and I do not want to be involved without proper knowledge in this field. There are some traits which come from our genetics, some from nurture. As it was mentioned in the article provided by Salome “nurture, as well as nature, plays an important role and the two interact in a complex way”. So I have no idea from which side stress resistance comes from :(

Eric, I agree this is dangerous discussion and I do not want to be involved without proper knowledge in this field. There are some traits which come from our genetics, some from nurture. As it was mentioned in the article provided by Salome “nurture, as well as nature, plays an important role and the two interact in a complex way”. So I have no idea from which side stress resistance comes from :(
Eric Livny on Wednesday, 25 May 2016 18:30

Looks like both of us have to do some more reading on this very interesting topic :-)))

Looks like both of us have to do some more reading on this very interesting topic :-)))
Salome Gelashvili on Wednesday, 25 May 2016 19:01

Very nice article!

1. I think that it is extremely difficult and almost impossible to work accurately and reliably under high time pressure and if a person deals with figures and facts, procrastination inevitably hurts the quality of work. Thats because there is not enough time to think carefully, check information, consider all alternatives and so on.

2. I like the comment about creativity and I think that in case of arts, procrastination might not hurt that much because the evaluation of the quality of the final outcome is subjective. It is hard to criticize the quality of the picture, because it is mostly about the preferences. The same is about advertisements and similar products.

Very nice article! 1. I think that it is extremely difficult and almost impossible to work accurately and reliably under high time pressure and if a person deals with figures and facts, procrastination inevitably hurts the quality of work. Thats because there is not enough time to think carefully, check information, consider all alternatives and so on. 2. I like the comment about creativity and I think that in case of arts, procrastination might not hurt that much because the evaluation of the quality of the final outcome is subjective. It is hard to criticize the quality of the picture, because it is mostly about the preferences. The same is about advertisements and similar products.
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