The Procrastination Equation

Everything you wanted to know about procrastination but put off finding out.

Bondage and Procrastination

Acting now to prevent yourself from acting otherwise later

Ulysses and The Sirens
It began 3,200 years ago, but the story of precommitment or self-binding reads very much like a modern-day bachelor party in Las Vegas. Ulysses is sailing back from the Trojan Wars when he finds himself bound tightly to his ship's mast, unable to free himself despite his frantic efforts. Just out of reach but in full sight, tempting him with every delight, are maddeningly beautiful women. Without clothing or shame, these nymphs beckon him, promising to fulfill every act his imagination can bring forth. He begs for nearby friends to release him from his constraints, but there is no response. Instead, his companions thwart his efforts and, indifferent to his needs, carry him on past these voluptuous temptations. Why? Because that is exactly what Ulysses asked them to do.

You see, Ulysses originally wanted to reach Ithaca and reunite with his wife Penelope. But doing so meant sailing past the Island of the Sirens, filled with bewitching women who sang songs so alluring that men would do nothing but listen to them, not eat or sleep, until they died. Ulysses was both curious and smart, so he had his men plug their ears with wax and had them tie him to his ship's mast. He knew that if he didn't act now, when he was in his own control, he would give in to the Sirens later, when their songs reached his ears.

Ulysses' strategy of precommitment is the direct result of the two-story nature of our minds. As the previous post discussed, our mind's first floor, the limbic system, can override decisions made by the mind's second story, the prefrontal cortex. As a result, our long-term intentions are often undone by short-term pleasures. Impulsively, we get sidetracked by distractions that give immediate gratification at the cost of our larger but later goals. A frustrated prefrontal cortex, constantly having its will thwarted, tries to act now to prevent the limbic system from acting otherwise later.

Though ancient in origin, precommitment has become a modern method to combat all forms of temptations. We have Ulysses Laws and Ulysses Pacts, where people can self-bind their actions with the ropes of law. To treat gambling addiction, Ulysses Laws allow countries around the world, including a dozen U.S. states, to enforce self-bans at casinos. Missouri is the harshest as once you restrict yourself there, you never can get back in (that is, unless you make the trip to one of Missouri's-count 'em-eight adjoining states). Similarly, patients suffering from addiction or mental illness make Ulysses Pacts, where if they ever relapse or fail to take their medication, they instruct others to later force them into treatment. Another variation is Covenant Marriages, an upgraded union that makes obtaining a divorce considerably harder, and then only for major reasons like physical abuse.

The power behind the Ulysses' strategy, and what makes it a particularly effective technique for procrastinators, is acknowledging that our willpower can weaken. We may intend to diet, exercise, or finish that project, but we also know that we are impulsive, which can allow temptations to get the upper hand. How many times have we promised ourselves to get up early and hit the gym only to hit the snooze button the next morning? At the office, when an imminent project is due, are we still taking excessive "breaks" to check out our favourite websites? And later that day, how often is dinner accompanied by dessert, undoing all the nutritious choices we had made earlier?

To master precommitmen,t you have a couple of choices. The Procrastination Equation reviews the three basic forms: Bondage, Poison, and Satiation. The trick is putting precommitment into action, as it really can be used for everything from waking up early to tackling national debt. Because I can't prepare you for every possible situation, let's use just a few examples to get you going.

Bondage

This is classic precommitment, directly descended from Ulysses, where you physically prevent yourself from taking immediate actions. Realistically, you can almost always reach the temptation, but it is going to take a lot of effort and time (e.g., Ulysses could have chartered another ship to return to the Island of the Sirens). The best modern example of its application is dealing with the Internet. Perpetual access to the World Wide Web transforms every laptop into a virtual strip club, casino and games room, making procrastination a staple in every workplace. Professional writers have often had to resort to extreme measures to keep this Siren at bay. Jonathan Franzen Krazy-Glued a stick into his laptop's Internet connection. Jonathan Lethem goes one step further: "I've set up a second computer, devoid of Internet, for my fiction-writing. That's to say, I took an expensive Mac and turned it back into a typewriter. (You should imagine my computer set-up guy's consternation when I insisted he drag the Internet function out of the thing entirely)." Here's a few others.

  • Eating: Food destruction! To prevent yourself from nibbling after you are already full, throw out tempting treats or ruin them with the liberal application of a salt shaker.
  • Sleeping: Using Clocky, an alarm clock on wheels that runs away from you in the morning. It removes the snooze button option and then some.
  • Working: Aside from destroying your Internet connection, erase those games off your computer.

Poison

This is a little bit different than bondage. With poison, you can act upon the temptation to do the wrong thing at any time, but it is going to be really costly. For example, taking the drug disulfiram, brand name Antabuse (made by none other than Odyssey Pharmaceuticals, based on the Greek name for Ulysses), doesn't prevent you from drinking alcohol, but within five minutes of downing a frosty cold one, expect a long list of symptoms ranging from nausea and a throbbing headache to convulsions, heart failure, and death. It has the same success rate as no-bite nail polish (i.e., it works about half the time).

But the most common way to increase your costs is through money. Back when economists John Romalis and Dean Karlan were pudgy graduate students, they bet each other $10,000 that they could take the weight off. Knowing the limited finances of graduate students, I'm not surprised that the bet worked. Now that they've lost the weight, they maintain their slender physiques with a $5,000 penalty if either one ever goes over. After becoming a professor at Yale, Karlan and Ian Ayres created stickK.com (the extra K is economic-speak for contracts) to help you to make side bets for anything. The key is that you need to i) enlist an accountability partner or referee, ii) wager a meaningfully large amount, and iii) make the action specific enough that the referee can verify whether you did it or not.

  • Eating: Buy an expensive wardrobe for yourself that only fits if you hit your target weight. As a bonus, immediately give away most of your present clothes.
  • Sleeping: Use the alarm clock SnuzNLuz. It's programmed with your credit card information and wirelessly connected to the Internet, so I wouldn't touch that snooze button. Pressing it would initiate a sizeable donation to a charity that you hate.
  • Working: Give a meaningful sum of money to a friend and commit to emailing him or her your finished report at the end of this week. If the report isn't sent, your friend keeps the money.

Satiation

Precommitment doesn't necessarily have to be harsh. Abraham Maslow suggests that our needs form a pyramid, where it isn't easy to focus on higher order needs if lower ones aren't being addressed. So it is difficult to study if we are tired or to write if we crave company. Saint Paul the Apostle showed some early understanding of this principle when he suggested a rather fun way to foster faithfulness to our partners:

"Do not withhold yourselves from each other unless you agree to do so just for a set time, in order to devote yourselves to prayer. Then you should come together again so that Satan does not tempt you through your lack of self-control."

Who wouldn't endorse this advice? The underlying idea is that we might be procrastinating because our desires aren't being met in an appropriate manner. Left to grow, they become irresistible and we impulsively indulge in them when we shouldn't. Instead, the strategy is to satisfy our needs now in a controlled and responsible manner so our needs don't run amuck later. More than just sex, this can be applied to any basic need:

  • Eating: Have a series of healthy pre-planned snacks to prevent yourself from ever getting too hungry. Don't go grocery shopping hungry either.
  • Sleeping: It isn't getting up that's your problem. It's getting to sleep early enough.
  • Working: If you find yourself socializing excessively at work, ask yourself if you get out enough on evenings and weekends.

Next Steps

I particularly like the last of these, precommitment through satiation. It's possible that you procrastinate because you aren't taking enough time for yourself. Perhaps a regular date night with your spouse or an evening off with friends would help you focus on your work a little more diligently and with a lot less resentment. Too bad it can't all be this way.

That said, you will likely need to have the other, crueler versions of precommitment in your self-regulatory toolkit as well. They are simply more powerful. For example, in his sixth-century text The Art of War, Sun Tzu recommended, "Throw the troops into a position from which there is no escape, and even faced with death they will not flee. For if prepared to die, what can they not achieve?" I wouldn't bet my life on completing a project, but you are free to make your financial precomittments as large as you need. Make it large though and you will definitely find yourself terrifyingly motivated.

To make the most of your personal precommitment strategies, we need to hear about how to effectively wield them. Your example doesn't have to be clever, just effective. How do you precommit?

Want to learn more about yourself? Take one of our online surveys on different aspects of your pesronality and get immediate feedback about yourself.

Piers Steel has a Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and is a professor of procrastination at the University of Calgary.

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