Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Second-order Procrastination: Another Inconvenient Truth Related to Climate Change

Procrastination taken to a whole new level

You control climate change . . . if you get around to it. The problem is, the immediate costs of behavioral change are high, the effects of individual effort uncertain or at least negligible, and you can't be sure others are also working for change. This is the perfect storm for both first- and second-order procrastination.

Earlier in my blogs, I wrote about Chrisoula Andreou's  perspective on procrastination with intransitive preference structures.  Today, I am going to take my discussion of her work further with summary of her article, "Environmental Preservation and Second-Order Procrastination" (Philosophy & Public Affairs, 2007, 35, 233-248).

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From my perspective, there are two important reasons to discuss her work. First, Chrisoula defines a new level of procrastination, second-order procrastination. This will be very important for anyone who has been struggling with change in life. Second, Chrisoula applies this concept to understanding environmental preservation, specifically the procrastination in our work on acting to implement actions that will benefit us in the long run.

Procrastination and Environmental Preservation
As Chrisoula writes, "As far as potentially catastrophic procrastination problems go, procrastination with respect to environmental preservation is exemplary. Unlike run-of-the-mill cases of procrastination, it really can mean the end of the world" (p. 245). At an individual level, of course, even our everyday, run-of-the-mill cases of procrastination can seem like the end of the world, at least the world as we know it, if it means the end of a job or relationship; but I agree with Chrisoula that procrastination on environmental preservation is not only incredibly important, but certainly different as it is a matter of collective procrastination as well.

I won't repeat a summary of intransitive preferences, as you can quickly access the early blog entry  if you're confused. I don't think it's absolutely necessary to review this to grasp her concept of second-order procrastination in any case.

Her argument is fairly straightforward. It goes like this.

Our overall goal is to act in a way that preserves our world. We value clean air, clean water and thriving ecosystems.

However, the preservation of clean air, water and thriving ecosystems has substantial immediate costs. We have to change our behavior now, with concrete immediate costs such as less consumption, less travel or commuting, etc

Our individual action to preserve the environment requires that we refrain, repeatedly, from taking actions (like driving, flying, wasting) whose effects are individually negligible yet cumulatively devastating over time.

The exercise of will to act in an environmentally responsible manner now is tempting to put off, and certainly one more day without action will not be the downfall of the earth, right?

Chrisoula notes,
"As such, procrastination with respect to environmental preservation is (pardon the pun) natural" (p. 240).

In the end, the result is that the immediate costs of acting in an environmentally protective manner now prompts us to keep making exceptions to our plans to act responsibly today. It's the classic, "I'll do it tomorrow."

What we need then is a plan and/or a policy to implement action. As we have seen in earlier blog postings, implementation intentions or even binding early deadlines (Kyoto anyone?) can prompt the desired action despite the tendency to want to excuse behavior now in favor of the short-term gain (another form of temporal discounting which we discussed earlier, and which Chrisoula describes as "discounting-induced preference reversals").

Second-order procrastination defined
Given that we could implement a plan and/or policy, why then do we continue to see procrastination on real action now? This is where Chrisoula's notion of second-order procrastination emerges. (Note: Think of this beyond environmental issues as well. Our everyday procrastination can be described the same way. I prefer to act later as the immediate costs of acting now seem so much larger than the potential later reward.)

Second-order procrastination is procrastinating on implementing the solution to your procrastination.

I know that readers who are chronic procrastinators know exactly what Chrisoula means by this. I like her example to explain this notion.

"If my procrastinating tendencies prompt me to press the snooze button repeatedly when my alarm goes off in the morning, I can, even as a procrastinator, solve my procrastination problem because the tasks of coming up with a plan to solve my procrastination problem and putting the plan into effect do not have high immediate costs. There is a simple and obvious (or at least familiar) solution that I can put into effect with just a few simple movements while I am wide awake the night before I have to get up early. I can simply place the alarm out of arm's reach, so that I am forced to get out of bed as soon as the alarm goes off (to avoid being subjected to the alarm's intolerable ringing)" (pp. 243-244).

This strategy is a "precommitment device" as it commits the self to act promptly by raising the immediate costs (the intolerable ringing) for not acting. Essentially, by raising the immediate costs of not acting, the incentives for procrastinating are reduced.

UNFORTUNATELY, as Chrisoula notes - ". . . for some procrastination problems, simple and obvious solutions are not available. In such cases, the immediate costs of arriving at an implementation intention to solve one's procrastination problem will be high, and so second-order procrastination is likely to be an issue.

Second-order procrastination is procrastinating on solving the first-order procrastination problem. Oh, this is at the heart of so many academic procrastination workshops I do. Students perceive the immediate costs of implementing a plan as so high that they then procrastinate on ending their procrastination. The hopeless feelings are tangible.

The hopelessness is also attached to environmental preservation. Not only are the stakes high for action, but there is great uncertainty about what implementation intention, plan or policy will really have the desired long-term effect. In addition, politicians are aware that the resources required to pay for the uncertain plans associated with environmental action might garner immediate results with other more manageable problems that also have more transparent solutions. The result is a bad case of second-order procrastination for environmental preservation.

Chrisoula summarizes this sad situation writing, "Otherwise put, when it comes to environmental preservation, second-order procrastination is to be expected" (p. 246).

The solution to this thorny problem?
"To discourage second-order procrastination we need a strategy for increasing its immediate costs that is not itself subject to yet higher-order procrastination" (p. 246). Chrisoula considers how laws (e.g., federal clean air laws) might work in this regard as they not only set future deadlines, but also require state implementation plans and include penalties for inaction (increasing immediate costs). Laws like these might add a strong incentive for timely action.

Unfortunately, Chrisoula notes again, "there is still plenty of cause for worry . . . current legislation concerning environmental preservation is insufficient in terms of preventing severe damage" (p. 247). The overly optimistic assumptions of the proposed strategies are one example of why this legislation and related implementation plans leave cause for concern. As well, in a global environment (it can be no other with respect to pollution), international implementation plans are a necessity; lacking these undermines local action.

Chrisoula closes her paper with,
"The moral with respect to environmental preservation is that, even given genuine collective concern with preservation, without required implementation intentions and binding deadlines, both first-order and second-order procrastination threaten to trap serious efforts at preservation on our agenda, close but not close enough to the world of action" (p. 248).

My closing comment on this insightful and thought-provoking paper is that implementation intentions and binding deadlines serve to take us out of the world of habit or automatic processes to more conscious action (e.g., Bargh, 2004). Forming an implementation intention is a conscious acknowledgement of the desire to act differently. The strategy of the implementation intention or a binding deadline or any precommitment device is a conscious choice.

To be most effective, conscious choice requires consciousness to be fully present, lacking deception. Where implementation strategies, or the "way," may fall short, the "will" or our unflinching conscious awareness of the real costs of not acting now must close the gap between intention and action. Ultimately, with an issue as life-threatening as global climate change, the existential reality of our choice, freedom and responsibility must be brought into this dialogue. Policy, implementation intentions and any other "techniques" will only work to the extent that it truly serves our collective choice and courage. "The Courage to Be" as described by Paul Tillich is an essential, if not the essential, element missing in this story of second-order procrastination. Without this conscious, courageous choice, laws and policies will always fall short. We're just too good at deceiving ourselves.


References
Andreou, C. (2007). Environmental preservation and second-order procrastination. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 35, 233-248.

Bargh, J.A. (2004). Being here now: Is consciousness necessary for human freedom. In J. Greenberg, S.L. Koole, & T. Pyszczynski (Eds.), Handbook of Experimental Existential Psychology (pp. 385-397). New York: The Guilford Press.

 

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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