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The Procrastination Field or Why I Finally Cleaned Out My Fridge

How the irrationality of procrastination helped to keep my fridge clean.

Fridge cleaningOh, the strange things that we do when we know we don't have time to take a break (but we do). While not working, we find ourselves maintaining a readiness to work, dramatizing our commitment to work, trying to convince the world and ourselves that we are not really off task. I know people who bring books on vacations, but don't open them, or decline invitations to go out in preference to stay in to work, but don't do the work. Why?

There is a certain irrationality to procrastination that separates it from other forms or flavors of delay. I think we all recognize this. Maury Silver and John Sabini did a masterful job of explaining this a few decades ago. Today, I focus on just one part of their argument to explain why I finally cleaned out my fridge (and how I learned to stop).

I think mine is a common story. Trying to revise a manuscript, I feel stuck, so I get up from my desk to walk and think. What I think is, "I'm hungry," so I head to the fridge. Opening the fridge, I spot a yogurt near the back that I know is soon to expire, so I decide it's time to eat it. I pick it up and notice that it has left a wet ring on the shelf. This is not normally something that bothers me, but today it catches my attention. I think, "it will only take a minute" to wipe that up, so I put down the yogurt, pick up the dish cloth and open the fridge door again.

The pickle jar is in front of that small wet ring that I now intend to wipe up. I grasp the pickle jar, but it does not move. It's stuck to the glass shelf. "Ah," I think, "it will only take a minute to free that with a little hot water" and I return to the sink to soak the cloth. Hot cloth in hand, head now deep into the fridge, I soon find that I have removed everything from the shelf and the process is expanding.

About a half an hour later, my head still buried in the fridge and the floor now cluttered with an assortment of jars, bottles and packages, my spouse comes in and says, "hey, that's great, you're cleaning the fridge."

"I'm not" I reply, "I'm working on my manuscript revisions. I'm just getting a snack."

I really believe my explanation to my wife. I never decided to leave my revisions. I was walking and thinking about the revisions. I didn't even consider cleaning the fridge as an alternative activity. I knew I couldn't afford the time to take a break, because these revisions are over due. However, I was deep into a sudsy bucket and the evidence all around me was less convincing. But is it?

I hadn't made a commitment to this fridge-cleaning task. It was just a momentary distraction.

That's it, isn't it? I needed a distraction because I wasn't really working, but one to which I wouldn't really have a commitment, because I don't want to admit that I'm not working. In these instances, we are prey to capture by anything that requires minimal commitment, doesn't take us too far away from our work and isn't immediately painful (well, at least less so than the aversive task we're avoiding). We need both to avoid commitment to our distractions, lest we find we're not working, but also to find distractions because we are not working. This is quite a tension, and I think that procrastinators know this tension all too well.

As Silver and Sabini write,

"The same conflict is expressed in other misfortunes of procrastination, for instance, bringing your books on vacation, although you don't open them. Or on a vacation in Bermuda you decline an invitation to play tennis in order to work on your paper, and then find you've neither worked nor played tennis. Escorting your books and declining tennis do not get the work done, but they do dramatize your commitment to it. They are tokens of sincerity if not proofs of accomplishments" (p. 135; emphasis added).

What they argue is that this irrationality of procrastination is an attempt to maintain ourselves in a readiness to work, what might be called a "procrastination field." We are dramatizing our commitment to reach our goal.

The irony, as Silver and Sabini point out, is that our efforts to portray ourselves as working force us to the distractions of trivia (facebook, Twitter, Web surfing are good examples here) and these efforts eventually backfire. They make us doubt our own commitment or desire to complete the project at hand. If we actually abandoned ourselves to a truly chosen alternative task, admitted to taking a break, we would at least have a sense of agency. Sure, we might think that we're a little irresponsible, but we'd at least know that we made a choice. However, when we're stuck in the irrationality of this "procrastination field" we erode our own sense of self.

I think that this is one of the things that has puzzled me most about procrastination. How we can work so hard on some of the most trivial tasks - alphabetizing our play lists, sorting photos, updating software, house cleaning . . . etc. - instead of doing the task at hand? When we do this, our sense of self is diminished. As Silver and Sabini write, reflection on these activities may convince us that we are neurotic or loathe our jobs, even though we might think otherwise. "And even worse, there is something right about [this] reasoning" (p. 136).

Our attributions about self are affected deeply, I think, when we get caught in the irrationality of procrastination.

Concluding thoughts
There are no easy answers here, but I believe that knowledge is power. Learning to recognize the irrationality of our actions may allow us to bring reason to our choices. I believe that it is possible to learn to leave the yogurt-container ring on the fridge shelf until another time and get back to my desk. In fact, I do it every day. I have adopted a simple implementation intention that provides me with a predecision to break this irrational pattern of behavior.

If I say things to myself like, "It will only take a minute to do this," then I say, "no, later, I'll get back to my work right now." And, I do. Then, I really take a break, and I choose to do things that give me joy, and sometimes, I even clean the fridge.

Silver, M. & Sabini, J. (1981). Procrastinating. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. 11, 207-221

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