Thursday, January 11, 2007

The math of procrastination

One procrastinating professor released this study on procrastination the other day. The results from the man who may be the world's foremost procrastination scholar are surprising. Here are some of his results:

Most self-help books have it completely wrong when they say perfectionism is at the root of procrastination

Procrastination can be explained by a single mathematical equation. (is this man sure he's a pyschologist and not an economist?)

"Essentially, procrastinators have less confidence in themselves, less expectancy that they can actually complete a task," Steel says. "Perfectionism is not the culprit. In fact, perfectionists actually procrastinate less, but they worry about it more."

It's estimated that about 15-20 per cent of the general population are procrastinators. And the costs of procrastinating can add up well beyond poor work performance, especially for those who delay filing their taxes or planning their retirement.

The good news is that willpower has an unusual capacity. "The old saying is true: 'Whether you believe you can or believe you can't, you're probably right'," Steel says. "And as you get better at self control, your expectancy about whether you can resist goes up and thus improves your ability to resist."

Might be better if you just read the article. It's interesting - but I think it couldn't be further than the truth. It seems like the off the cuff analysis of a bad psychologist. People procrastinate because they're not confident they can do a great job - is that not perfectionism? (I know that the drive behind my procrastination appears to be, in fact, perfectionism and general anxiety.) Whenever I actually do something, I do well 90% of the time. Yet that doesn't stop me from procrastinating. I'll even procrastinate on simple, mundane tasks - why? (I feel that it is because of fear and in part laziness.)

And, at a guess, I'd say much more than 15-20% of the population is a procrastinator - it's simply a matter of degree. I know that 90% of the men I go to school with are procrastinators - they wait until the last minute (the night before) to do assignments, papers, and study for tests. Why doesn't he mention the higher incidence among men?

Steel has also come up with the E=MC2 of procrastination, a formula he's dubbed Temporal Motivational Theory, which takes into account factors such as the expectancy a person has of succeeding with a given task (E), the value of completing the task (V), the desirability of the task (Utility), its immediacy or availability (Ã) and the person's sensitivity to delay (D).

It looks like this and uses the Greek letter Ã: Utility = E x V/ÃD

Then there's this idea that procrastination can be shown perfectly with his simplistic mathematical model. Such models are always flawed, usually extremely flawed. It looks as if half the variables there aren't truly relevant. Looking at life from his perspective, we walk around choosing actions based on their utility. I continue to play my video game, according to him, because it's easy (100% E), it's relatively valuable (V), it's immediate (A), and I have a low sensitivity to delay (?). Contrast that to paper-writing, which has a slightly lower probability of success (90%), a relatively MUCH HIGHER value, and a slightly higher immediacy (I must open Word). Sensitivity to delay would seem to be an individual constant - would it be spread universally

It would have been so easy for him to try and examine the differences between men and women that cause men to procrastinate more, to do an empirical study of the brain, but no...apparently the expected value of such a decision was too low.

It's too bad the man couldn't wrap his head around the idea that habits persist, either, and incorporate that into his math.

By the way, I have a statistics class in 7 hours as well as a problem set due, and I haven't devoted much time to either of them. That's procrastination. It seems I no longer sleep at night (I procrastinate at that as well.)


Lynda said...

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undergroundman said...

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ADHR said...

I hate when psychologists try to do math. It never ends well.

I think you've hit on a number of important points that this guy missed. I'd also wonder about the effect of social expectations on shaping his variables. It seems to me that the environment you're working in can have significant effects on when/how you'll do things. For example, I tend to get more reading done in less time when I'm on campus, but I get more reading done overall when I'm at home (because I can stay here till 1 in the morning, because I don't get distracted by talking to colleagues, etc.).