Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Readers Drive Learning: Important Thoughts About Intentions and Choice

PT Blog readers share insights on intentional action

Readers' replies to "Zen, choice and procrastination" were insightful and stimulated further writing and learning on my part. Here are some important distinctions about changing our intentions or failing to act on them.

I like the title of Clay Shirky's book Here comes everybody.  He's writing about the social effects of Web 2.0 where everyone can be a contributor to, not just a consumer of, Internet content. The blog replies here at Psychology Today are a small example of this - here comes everybody (well, not everybody, but thousands of people have read these blog entries, it's quite the growing community!).

I learn from everyone as I write this blog. It's much like my teaching. It's a journey with my students. This blog is a journey in learning with you.

Of course I can't reply to every blog-posting comment (even though I would like to). I also get emails from my own Web site www.procrastination.ca. Again, it's simply not possible to keep up with replies, but I enjoy hearing your perspective on the issues I discuss - sharing is part of learning.

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This week, in reply to my posting East meets West: Zen, choice and Procrastination, there were two replies that stimulated my writing. I'm going to provide excerpts of each of these replies below and then add some comments of my own.

What these readers replied to was the story of the unfulfilled intention to run. As you may recall from this blog entry, having set the alarm for 5 a.m. to go for a run, when the alarm goes off, you don't feel like running now, so you go back to sleep instead. The readers' replies focus on two things: 1) the notion of choice, and 2) the difference between intention-update and intention-failure. Here are excerpts from both readers. You can read their full replies here.

Reader 1 (MS):
ONLY A ROBOT WOULDN'T SEE OPTIONS OR CHOICE

I think you're right in that there need not be choice involved, BUT ONE HAD TO BE A ROBOT NOT TO SEE IMMEDIATELY THE OPTION JUMPING RIGHT AT YOU to stay in bed and exercise another day. So I would certainly have to make the choice. In this case it's not so hard to actually make it because RUNNING GIVES ALSO IMMEDIATE GRATIFICATION. I always feel better afterwards although I'm not yet fit enough to reach a runner's high. (emphasis of all uppercase added)

Reader 2 (Carl):
INTENTION-UPDATE OR INTENTION-FAILURE . . . there's a difference!

It sounds to me as though the "it's about choice" people are seeing intention revision where you see intention failure. Obviously both phenomena are real and will need to be allowed for in any attempt at describing agency: changing your mind is clearly rational in some cases, and not all cases of going against earlier intentions can honestly be described as rational revision. Both weakness of will and intention-updating exist, the question is how to tell the difference between them

. . . the run-don't run case can't be a rational case of intention-update because nothing is updated except the intention itself: no new information is gained overnight, we should've known for example that we'd likely not want to go for the run, etc etc. Nothing happened that was in anyway novel, we just wantonly decided to go against the earlier intention on the basis of shifting occurant desires. But if we take *that* as being a rational basis for decision-making, then we shouldn't have been forming intentions in the first place. Rational updating requires new information or a new awareness of earlier error. That's not present in the case you describe so as described we're being irrationally inconsistent, plain and simple.

Even so there's a puzzle: the decision/intention-shift/gap being irrational doesn't itself determine which of the decisions/intentions was the right/best/most rational one to have. I can say I was being irrational to go against the intention, or I can say I was irrational to form *that* intention in the first place (when I should've known how little it reflects what I will want when it's time to carry it out). Either description seems possible: because we often form intentions out of externally derived guilt, wishful thinking or idealism borrowed from others which (if we thought about it) we don't actually share. We'd need to know more about which intention coheres best with our long-term plans and goals... and therefore have a way to figure out what those are.
END OF READER RESPONSES

Wow. This is great. This is a discussion! We simply have to address these issues of whether it takes away from our humanity (becoming more like a robot) to exclude choice, and we need to make this crucial distinction between an intention-update (or change) that is rational and an intention-failure that is irrational (and  I have labeled procrastination). Perhaps the most rationale thing we can do is realize that the intention was irrational in the first place. If that's the case, we have to examine goal setting, and I'll do that too.

I won't do any of it in this entry, however. It's long enough (and I write too much for a blog I'm told ☺). So, check in tomorrow where I'll take on the difference between intention-update and intention-failure.

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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