Thursday, May 26, 2011
Procrastination and the spell of danger
Procrastination: the abiding problem of getting things done in time or at all, which will soon be cured by our leading psychologists as soon as they get around to it.
When we go to the movies, it’s often in the nick of time before the feature starts. And when the feature does start, we take pleasure and excitement in watching folks do things once again in the nick of time. Consider the proverbial time bomb. It is a metaphor for plot lines like getting the girl, solving the crime, averting the fire, saving the planet, and of course defusing the bomb when there is literally no time to spare. Miss the deadline and there will be a proverbial or actual explosion that will render the hero and all the good things he stands for into a pile of dust. That’s what makes drama so dramatic, the fact that the outcome is always uncertain until a resolution comes in the nick of time. Identifying with our hero in the cinema means putting ourselves in his place, and this cinematic empathy can drive us to tears, horror, disgust, or delight, but underscoring it all is a need for our undivided attention. The easiest way to do that is to literally wait until the last minute, or preferably, the last second. But that of course is courting danger, and danger is something that we presumably are instinctively geared to avoid or flee through the intervention of a ‘hard wired’ stress response, with the result that danger would be something we would continually want to avoid. But we don’t, and that’s the rub. The fact that we wait until the last minute to get things done means that we are actively putting ourselves into stressful or near stressful situations that we by all accounts should wish to avoid, but how can this be? Like a moth to the flame we are at once attracted and repelled by danger, but the problem and irony is that we couldn’t be motivated to do things otherwise. Danger increases risk, and risk embodies the prospect of uncertainty, and it is precisely this fact that makes us attentively aroused and more attuned to the task at hand. But with it, we are also incented to stay the course of being uncertain. That is the property of the neuro-modulator dopamine, which primes us to be alert and imparts incentive value to moment to moment behavior. But because dopamine only increases the value of momentary behavior, it can act at cross purposes to our long term interests. Hence we often procrastinate to be attentive, a state of mind that is dependent upon the uncertainty of the moment but ignorant of the long term prospects of behavior irrespective of their danger.
Motivation is da bomb!
But what is procrastination? Simple definitions of procrastination mean to postpone activities until another time. Of course, that by definition covers everything you postpone, whether it’s logical or not. So if to order our daily schedule means to do one thing in deference or postponement of another, that means that our whole life is spend procrastinating, which is absurd. A better definition is provided by the Oxford Dictionary, which holds that “Procrastination is a postponement, often with the sense of deferring though indecision, when early action would have been preferable," or as "deferring action, especially without good reason." [i] The concept that procrastination is an inherently unreasonable thing has been echoed by many pundits who concur that procrastination is the irrational delay of behavior.
At root however this definition is nonsense, for even irrational behavior must have a reason to be. It’s only when behavior doesn’t fit our prized model that we curse the agent rather than the explanation, but the faulty explanation always loses. Consider the behavior of the solar system. The fact that it didn’t conform to the model that put the earth in the center of the universe didn’t make the planetary motions irrational, and even faulting God for bad design principles couldn’t escape from the fact that the world worked in mysterious but not irrational ways. As creatures who embody the natural world, the conclusion is the same. Humans act in mysterious but not quite irrational ways, and behavior must serve reasons both obvious and subtle, as there is nothing nutty under the sun. The point therefore is not to decry the unreasonableness of procrastination, but investigating why for us common folks procrastination is often not an unreasonable but a necessary and rational thing.
Consider the fact that we don’t work when we are sleepy, hungry, or are under the sun, and generally wait until a time when we are rested, sated, or in the cool of the evening. We do this because at a later time we can work faster, more comfortably, and with more alertness and attention to our job. In these cases, ‘procrastination’ is rather a justifiable delay. Procrastination can also be a reasonable thing if we consciously or non-consciously postpone an action in order to inject an element of risk into behavior. Since risk increases dopamine release that corresponds with positive affect and attentive alertness, procrastination can actually increase the effectiveness of behavior. In other words, procrastination is a reasonable thing if it represents the non conscious manipulation of affect to increase effectiveness, whereas procrastination due to distraction or fear (e.g. postponing a trip to the dentist) simply reduces effectiveness. Doing things effectively means doing things affectively, and that often means acting just in time. Ultimately, the non-reasonableness of behavior is an aspect of everything we do because motivation requires activation, and this means affect. In other words, to be effective we must be affective, and affect never falls within ‘good reason’ unless there is good reason to manipulate affect. Ultimately, procrastination implies irrationality, but irrationality occurs when we ignore reasonable causes, and when affect is left out of the picture of human behavior we are left confused and needful of a title to describe how timeliness of behavior cannot be predicted by the reasonableness of behavior. Thus procrastination is not an artifact of behavior, but of our ignorance of how motivation works.