The Problem with Procrastination

There’s a popular confusion that exists around the phenomena of procrastination.

First of all, people who study the challenge it poses often fail to account for the fact that procrastination is a psychological object. As such, according to Kurt Danziger, the history of the word’s usage must be studied as well as the term itself, because meanings change over time.

Unlike physical objects (like a broken arm), there are a wide range of interpretations flying around but little guidance about defining the phenomena while it’s actually taking place. In other words, it’s far too easy to trick yourself into thinking that you are not procrastinating when you are, and vice versa.

Here’s an example of an interesting study which asked:

Do you overcome procrastination by breaking projects into pieces and rewarding yourself for completing a piece?

In the results paper published several months later, the authors report:

The professionals in the right tail with the highest productivity scores were particularly adept at overcoming procrastination, getting to the final product, and focusing on daily accomplishments. Low ratings on these three habits were typically reported by professionals with the lowest productivity scores.

Notice that the reported result lacks enough specificity to be useful. In fact, there may be some circular reasoning: describe yourself as overcoming procrastination and the survey rewards you with a high productivity score…which means that you are adept at overcoming procrastination.

Also, you have no idea what definition of procrastination the surveyors meant the subjects to use, or the one they actually used.

Finally, if you hope to become less of a procrastinator you can take a guess – the cure has been defined in the question as “breaking projects into pieces and rewarding yourself for completing a piece.”

But is that the only cure?

It’s a bit like asking: “Do you take aspirin when you get a cold?” If you answer negatively, then the conclusion a weak survey would draw is that you get a lot of colds. The possibility of other cures and of being completely free from colds don’t enter into the equation.

This may seem like splitting hairs but once you see psychological objects for what they really are, you  are able to see them everywhere, and are forced to question findings like these. Kurt Danziger ended up challenging a great deal of social science research based on statistical techniques used for the physical sciences. He was not a favorite son in the academy.

While we are fortunately free from numbers in the example I have cited, we must still use his logic, especially if we are serious about making real improvements. Ultimately, we need to translate all improvements into actions otherwise they may as well be flights of fancy.