Why Our Monkey Brains Are Prone to Procrastination (No, It's Not Just Laziness or Lack Of Willpower)
The Misconception: You procrastinate because you are lazy and can’t manage your time well.
The Truth: Procrastination is fueled by weakness in the face of impulse and a failure to think about thinking.
Netflix reveals something about your own behavior you should have noticed by now, something which keeps getting between you and the things you want to accomplish.
If you have Netflix, especially if you stream it to your TV, you tend to gradually accumulate a cache of hundreds of films you think you’ll watch one day. This is a bigger deal than you think.
Take a look at your queue. Why are there so damn many documentaries and dramatic epics collecting virtual dust in there? By now you could draw the cover art to “Dead Man Walking” from memory. Why do you keep passing over it?
Psychologists actually know the answer to this question, to why you keep adding movies you will never watch to your growing collection of future rentals, and its the same reason you believe you will eventually do what’s best for yourself in all the other parts of your life, but rarely do.
A study conducted in 1999 by Read, Loewenstein and Kalyanaraman had people pick three movies out of a selection of 24. Some were lowbrow like “Sleepless in Seattle” or “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Some were highbrow like “Schindler’s List” or “The Piano.” In other words, it was a choice between movies which promised to be fun and forgettable or would be memorable but require more effort to absorb.
After picking, the subjects had to watch one movie right away. They then had to watch another in two days and a third two days after that.
Most people picked Schindler’s List as one of their three. They knew it was a great movie because all their friends said it was. All the reviews were glowing, and it earned dozens of the highest awards. Most didn’t, however, choose to watch it on the first day.
Instead, people tended to pick lowbrow movies on the first day. Only 44 percent went for the heavier stuff first. The majority tended to pick comedies like “The Mask” or action flicks like “Speed” when they knew they had to watch it forthwith.
Planning ahead, people picked highbrow movies 63 percent of the time for their second movie and 71 percent of the time for their third.
When they ran the experiment again but told subjects they had to watch all three selections back-to-back, “Schindler’s List” was 13 times less likely to be chosen at all.
The researchers had a hunch people would go for the junk food first, but plan healthy meals in the future.
Many studies over the years have shown you tend to have time-inconsistent preferences. When asked if you would rather have fruit or cake one week from now, you will usually say fruit. A week later when the slice of German chocolate and the apple are offered, you are statistically more likely to go for the cake.
This is why your Netflix queue is full of great films you keep passing over for “Family Guy.” With Netflix, the choice of what to watch right now and what to watch later is like candy bars versus carrot sticks. When you are planning ahead, your better angels point to the nourishing choices, but in the moment you go for what tastes good.
As behavioral economist Katherine Milkman has pointed out, this is why grocery stores put candy right next to the checkout.
This is sometimes called present bias – being unable to grasp what you want will change over time, and what you want now isn’t the same thing you will want later. Present bias explains why you buy lettuce and bananas only to throw them out later when you forget to eat them. This is why when you are a kid you wonder why adults don’t own more toys.
Present bias is why you’ve made the same resolution for the tenth year in a row, but this time you mean it. You are going to lose weight and forge a six-pack of abs so ripped you could deflect arrows.
You weigh yourself. You buy a workout DVD. You order a set of weights.
One day you have the choice between running around the block or watching a movie, and you choose the movie. Another day you are out with friends and can choose a cheeseburger or a salad. You choose the cheeseburger.
The slips become more frequent, but you keep saying you’ll get around to it. You’ll start again on Monday, which becomes a week from Monday. Your will succumbs to a death by a thousand cuts. By the time winter comes it looks like you already know what your resolution will be the next year.
Procrastination manifests itself within every aspect of your life.
You wait until the last minute to buy Christmas presents. You put off seeing the dentist, or getting that thing checked out by the doctor, or filing your taxes. You forget to register to vote. You need to get an oil change. There is a pile of dishes getting higher in the kitchen. Shouldn’t you wash clothes now so you don’t have to waste a Sunday cleaning every thing you own?
Perhaps the stakes are higher than choosing to play Angry Birds instead of doing sit-ups. You might have a deadline for a grant proposal, or a dissertation, or a book.
You’ll get around to it. You’ll start tomorrow. You’ll take the time to learn a foreign language, to learn how to play an instrument. There’s a growing list of books you will read one day.
Before you do though, maybe you should check your email. You should head over to Facebook too, just to get it out of the way. A cup of coffee would probably get you going, it won’t take long to go grab one. Maybe just a few episodes of that show you like.
You keep promising yourself this will be the year you do all these things. You know your life would improve if you would just buckle down and put forth the effort.
You can try to fight it back. You can buy a daily planner and a to-do list application for your phone. You can write yourself notes and fill out schedules. You can become a productivity junkie surrounded by instruments to make life more efficient, but these tools alone will not help, because the problem isn’t you are a bad manager of your time – you are a bad tactician in the war inside your brain.
Procrastination is such a pervasive element of the human experience there are over 600 books for sale promising to snap you out of your bad habits, and this year alone 120 new books on the topic were published. Obviously this is a problem everyone admits to, so why is it so hard to defeat?
To explain, consider the power of marshmallows.
Walter Mischel conducted experiments at Stanford University throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s in which he and his researchers offered a bargain to children.
The kids sat at a table in front of a bell and some treats. They could pick a pretzel, a cookie or a giant marshmallow. They told the little boys and girls they could either eat the treat right away or wait a few minutes. If they waited, they would double their payoff and get two treats. If they couldn’t wait, they had to ring the bell after which the researcher would end the experiment.
Some made no attempt at self-control and just ate right away. Others stared intensely at the object of their desire until they gave in to temptation. Many writhed in agony, twisting their hands and feet while looking away. Some made silly noises.
In the end, a third couldn’t resist.
What started as an experiment about delayed gratification has now, decades later, yielded a far more interesting set of revelations about metacognition – thinking about thinking.
Mischel has followed the lives of all his subjects through high-school, college and into adulthood where they accumulated children, mortgages and jobs.
The revelation from this research is kids who were able to overcome their desire for short-term reward in favor of a better outcome later weren’t smarter than the other kids, nor were they less gluttonous. They just had a better grasp of how to trick themselves into doing what was best for them.
They watched the wall instead of looking at the food. They tapped their feet instead of smelling the confection. The wait was torture for all, but some knew it was going to be impossible to just sit there and stare at the delicious, gigantic marshmallow without giving in.
The younger the child, the worse they were at metacognition. Any parent can tell you little kids aren’t the best at self-control. Among the older age groups some were better at devising schemes for avoiding their own weak wills, and years later seem to have been able to use that power to squeeze more out of life.
“Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.”
- Jonah Lehrer from his piece in the New Yorker, “Don’t”
Thinking about thinking, this is the key. In the struggle between should versus want, some people have figured out something crucial – want never goes away.
Procrastination is all about choosing want over should because you don’t have a plan for those times when you can expect to be tempted.
You are really bad at predicting your future mental states. In addition, you are terrible at choosing between now or later. Later is murky place where anything could go wrong.
If I were to offer you $50 now or $100 in a year, which would you take? Clearly, you’ll take the $50 now. After all, who knows what could happen in a year, right?
Ok, so what if I instead offered you $50 in five years or $100 in six years? Nothing has changed other than adding a delay, but now it feels just as natural to wait for the $100. After all, you already have to wait a long time.
A being of pure logic would think, “more is more,” and pick the higher amount every time, but you aren’t a being of pure logic. Faced with two possible rewards, you are more likely to take the one which you can enjoy now over one you will enjoy later – even if the later reward is far greater.
In the moment, rearranging the folders on your computer seems a lot more rewarding than some task due in a month which might cost you your job or your diploma, so you wait until the night before.
If you considered which would be more valuable in a month – continuing to get your paycheck or having an immaculate desktop – you would pick the greater reward.
The tendency to get more rational when you are forced to wait is called hyperbolic discounting because your dismissal of the better payoff later diminishes over time and makes a nice slope on a graph.
Evolutionarily it makes sense to always go for the sure bet now; your ancestors didn’t have to think about retirement or heart disease. Your brain evolved in a world where you probably wouldn’t live to meet your grandchildren. The stupid monkey part of your brain wants to gobble up candy bars and go deeply into debt. Old you, if there even is one, can deal with those things.
Hyperbolic discounting makes later an easy place to throw all the things don’t want to deal with, but you also over-commit to future plans for the same reason. You run out of time to get things done because you think in the future, that mysterious fantastical realm of possibilities, you’ll have more free time than you do now.
“The future is always ideal: The fridge is stocked, the weather clear, the train runs on schedule and meetings end on time. Today, well, stuff happens.”
- Hara Estroff Marano in Psychology Today
One of the best ways to see how bad you are at coping with procrastination is to notice how you deal with deadlines.
Let’s imagine you are in a class where you must complete three research papers in three weeks, and the instructor is willing to allow you to set your own due dates.
You can choose to turn in your papers once a week, or two on the first week and one on the second. You can turn them all in on the last day, or you can spread them out. You could even choose to turn in all three at the end of the first week and be done. It’s up to you, but once you pick you have to stick with your choice. If you miss your deadlines, you get a big fat zero.
How would you pick?
The most rational choice would be the last day for every paper. It gives you plenty of time to work hard on all three and turn in the best possible work. This seems like a wise choice, but you are not so smart.
The same choice was offered to a selection of students in a 2002 study conducted by Klaus Wertenbroch and Dan Ariely.
They set up three classes, and each had three weeks to finish three papers. Class A had to turn in all three papers on the last day of class, Class B had to pick three different deadlines and stick to them, and Class C had to turn in one paper a week.
Which class had the better grades?
Class C, the one with three specific deadlines, did the best. Class B, which had to pick deadlines ahead of time but had complete freedom, did the second best, and the group whose only deadline was the last day, Class A, did the worst.
Students who could pick any three deadlines tended to spread them out at about one week apart on their own. They knew they would procrastinate, so they set up zones in which they would be forced to perform. Still, overly optimistic outliers who either waited until the last minute or chose unrealistic goals pulled down the overall class grade.
Students with no guidelines at all tended to put off their work until the last week for all three papers.
The ones who had no choice and were forced to spread out their procrastination did the best because the outliers were eliminated. Those people who weren’t honest with themselves about their own tendencies to put off their work or who were too confident didn’t have a chance to fool themselves.
Interestingly, these results suggest that although almost everyone has problems with procrastination, those who recognize and admit their weakness are in a better position to utilize available tools for precommitment and by doing so, help themselves overcome it.
- Dan Ariely, from his book “Predictably Irrational”
If you fail to believe you will procrastinate or become idealistic about how awesome you are at working hard and managing your time you never develop a strategy for outmaneuvering your own weakness.
Procrastination is an impulse; it’s buying candy at the checkout. Procrastination is also hyperbolic discounting, taking the sure thing in the present over the caliginous prospect some day far away.
You must be adept at thinking about thinking to defeat yourself at procrastination. You must realize there is the you who sits there now reading this, and there is a you sometime in the future who will be influenced by a different set of ideas and desires, a you in a different setting where an alternate palette of brain functions will be available for painting reality.
The now you may see the costs and rewards at stake when it comes time to choose studying for the test instead of going to the club, eating the salad instead of the cupcake, writing the article instead of playing the video game.
The trick is to accept the now you will not be the person facing those choices, it will be the future you – a person who can’t be trusted. Future-you will give in, and then you’ll go back to being now-you and feel weak and ashamed. Now-you must trick future-you into doing what is right for both parties.
This is why food plans like Nutrisystem work for many people. Now-you commits to spending a lot of money on a giant box of food which future-you will have to deal with. People who get this concept use programs like Freedom, which disables Internet access on a computer for up to eight hours, a tool allowing now-you to make it impossible for future-you to sabotage your work.
Capable psychonauts who think about thinking, about states of mind, about set and setting, can get things done not because they have more will power, more drive, but because they know productivity is a game of cat and mouse versus a childish primal human predilection for pleasure and novelty which can never be excised from the soul. Your effort is better spent outsmarting yourself than making empty promises through plugging dates into a calendar or setting deadlines for push ups.
This story is cross-posted from You Are Not So Smart.