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Productive Procrastination

We prefer doing fun things now, and not-so-fun things later.

But there are people who procrastinate to the extent that will do ANYTHING rather than the thing they have to do. As such I know I have currently written five blogposts to not have to code anything in R. I know my best friend currently has a spotless house because she doesn't want to look at her coding assignment either. And another friend has gone for a run to make sure he doesn't have start on his presentation.

Now I love writing blogposts, my best friend doesn't mind cleaning too much and working out is good for you. But ultimately, these activities keep us away from what we should really be doing. Because those coding assignments will have to be handed in, and that presentation needs to be prepared and given!

What we are doing is obvious. We are doing things other than those we should be doing. However, those other things are quite OK. We are not binge-watching Netflix. We are not asleep (power-napping anyone?) and we aren't out partying either. We are still productive. We are productively procrastinating. But procrastinating nonetheless!

Now at the end of the day if someone asks us what we have been up to we can tell them about the long list of tasks we have completed. As we go through this list we feel good about ourselves. So many things got done. People around us are impressed. We feel so good about ourselves. We don’t feel guilty at all. I mean, we didn’t do what we set out to do, but we still did a lot. That counts right?

Wrong. The longer you wait to do what you really need to do, the more daunting the tasks becomes. I’m not kidding. The concept of anticipatory (dis)utility is at work here. Let me explain to you what this does.

Anticipatory utility is a form of utility (which is positive), almost a sense of pleasure or excitement that we experience when looking forward to something, or having a nice future outcome. One example this can be the utility you get from booking a summer holiday in March. Although the holiday is still months away, you can already picture yourself relaxing on the beach sipping cocktails. It is the process of imagining or fantasizing about something nice (the holiday), without currently experiencing it, that has been dubbed anticipatory utility. As we derive utility from it, we keep engaging in this game of imagination, because it is pleasurable after all. The more we fantasize, the more excited we become for the holiday itself. Continuous engagement with anticipatory utility leads to increased excitement.

Now, unfortunately, the reverse is also true. We can also experience negative anticipatory utility, or just anticipatory disutility. Instead of looking forwards to and fantasizing about a pleasant event, we are milling over an unpleasant event, often a task. Instead of experiencing excitement we experience dread. We actively dread this event, and the more we think about it, the more negative utility we experience. The irony is, we are doing this ourselves. Because it is a negative experience, and very often a task that NEEDS to be done, there is no way around it. So rather than getting it over with and experiencing the disutility of just doing the task, we postpone the task and its disutility, which makes us think about not having done the task yet, which stresses us out and makes us dread the task even more. The higher overall experienced disutility is much higher, and more frequently experienced, when not getting the task out of the way.

My advice? Just get it over with.

If you’re not immediately convinced by this advice let me give you another reason that postponing an unpleasant task is not a great idea, especially if it needs to be done. The longer you wait, the less likely you are to do the task, finish it, or do the task properly. This is because the other forms of productive procrastination take up cognitive capacity. And that my friend, is a limited resource.

Let me exemplify this. When you’ve come back from a nine-to-five on a physically exhausting job, you’re not exactly excited about hitting the gym for another two hours, walking the dog and then vacuuming your entire house. Your body is tired. You might still be able to read a really complicated book, but only in a sitting or lying down position. Similarly, when having a cognitively engaging job, such as research and teaching, you don’t really go back home wanting to crack code, read up on research or engage in any intellectually heavy stuff. Your body might still be awake physically, but your mind is done for today.

There is limits to the things we can work with. So if I spend my whole day teaching, is it surprising that I no longer have the energy, creativity or the general cognitive capacity to look at my own research? Not really.

Now what does this mean for productive procrastination? It means that you are depleting your own cognitive resources for completing “other” tasks, before even engaging in the task you have to do. But the more depleted these resources are, the less likely you are to start the task, let alone complete it (properly). I have tried writing blogposts after I spend 8 consecutive hours doing statistical analysis. Guess what? I spend an hour looking at a computer screen without writing a single sentence, before realising I should just go to bed.

Now you’re probably thinking that as long as your task is cognitively engaging, productive procrastination that is not cognitively but more physically engaging should be fine, right? Well, that depends. It depends on two things. First, when are your most productive hours? And second, it depends on how you fit the non-cognitively engaging tasks around your cognitively engaging task.

Let’s start with the first issue. If your most productive hours, those hours when your mind is most awake, are in the morning, starting with a morning run is not a great idea. Why would you take time away from doing your main task, to get some exercise that you could do later, when you’ve reached a dip in your productivity for the challenging task? This leads to issue two. Even when you dedicate your most productive hours to the cognitively engaging task, that doesn’t mean the task is finished when your productive hours are up.

I work best in the morning, but the morning isn’t 8 hours long, and sometimes that is the time it takes to complete a cognitively engaging task. So I start in the morning, until I reach a dip in my productivity. There is just nothing more coming out of my mind. When reaching that point just stop. This is the time to engage in another task, as long as it’s not cognitively engaging. It could be very beneficial to go for a run, or just for a walk, or to hit the gym. You could also do something more social and hang out for friends. Or clean the house. Whichever one you choose, it should be an activity that recharges your cognitive capacity, rather than continues to deplete it.

After this activity, you might be able to go back to your cognitively engaging task. It works for some people, it doesn’t work for others. I have met plenty of people who can get four hours of cognitively engaging work done in a day, and that’s it. It’s similar to running a marathon. After a certain amount of time it’s become too much and you’re done. Like body, like mind.

All in all, I don’t productive procrastination is a great thing, especially if you’re using cognitively engaging tasks to distract yourself from another cognitively engaging task. Save yourself the anticipatory disutility and other forms of stress and anguish, and just get on with it!

After you have finished it you will feel better, and you can start on all the other many productive tasks on your to-do list. Or just take a quick break. You did finish your main task of the day after all!

Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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