When we're relying on willpower to overcome our desire to procrastinate, what we need is a credible excuse. What are the features of a credible excuse for a sophisticated decision maker? What if our excuse is less than perfect? Can we fix it?
I'm reading an advanced copy of an excellent book that will be published by Oxford Press in April of this year. The book is, The thief of time: Philosophical essays on procrastination, edited by Chrisoula Andreou (University of Utah) and Mark White (College of Staten Island, CUNY, who joined the Psychology Today blogging community). I will be writing about various issues raised in this book, as they and the many contributors to the book tackle some thorny issues about the nature of procrastination. I recommend the book highly for those who want to reflect on questions like: "Is procrastination the product of compromised agency, involving the breakdown of will? Does it betray a lack of identification with one's future self? . . . Is procrastination just a manifestation of the vice of imprudence?" (2010, p. 5), as well as for the focus in the final section on coping with procrastination.
Today, I want to begin with an issue identified in the first chapter of the book by George Ainslie. Ainslie is well known for his explanation of procrastination as a problem of the hyperbolic function of delay known as hyperbolic discounting. This account draws on an instance of the Weber-Fechner law that explains most psychophysical quantities we perceive. It can be expressed as a discount function, and in fact a colleague from the University of Calgary, Piers Steel, has a book to be published later this year that draws on Ainslie's ideas to suggest that there is a "procrastination equation." I'll leave it to interested readers to explore this further when Piers book is published, as I think this explanation based on a deterministic perspective of incentives falls far short of any satisfactory explanation for procrastination (although it does speak to the issue of general delay in our lives quite well).
Procrastination, impulses and willpower
My interest today, as may be yours given my title for this blog entry, is Ainslie's discussion of excuses in this latest philosophical contribution to the consideration of procrastination. Ainslie gets here in his own thinking as he clearly sees the urge to procrastinate as the most basic of impulses - a temporary preference for a smaller, sooner reward over a larger, later reward. In sum, he argues that a temporary preference for an immediate reward is impulsiveness, and the temporary preference for deferring costs is procrastination. From a cost and rewards perspective, this makes a lot of sense to me. Impulses are intensely rewarding choices, while procrastination usually offers very little reward per se at the moment but is preferred because it feels better to defer the prospect of effort now to later. It's about how we see the future. Of course we prefer the rewards now, and Ainslie notes, "As with other kinds of impulse, the most effective control for procrastination is usually willpower"(p. 15).
The role of excuses
Following from this, Ainslie provides his theory of will and a discussion of the use of will against procrastination. He writes that, "To the extent that a person relies on willpower, the success of impulses will depend not on the imminent availability of gratification but on the existence of a credible excuse that lets her expect to be, as in Saint Augustines' prayer, ‘chaste and content, but not yet.' The credibility of the excuse is the pivotal factor" (p. 17; emphasis added).
The nature of credible excuses
"But not yet" - what excuse can I use to ensure that I don't have to act now? This is an extremely important question because Ainslie believes "if a credible excuse is available, resisting the impulse will not seem to be necessary" (p. 17).
First and foremost, Ainslie argues that an excuse must be unique. If we have given in to similar impulses in the past (with similar excuses), there will be little power in the excuse to reverse the trend in our behavior. The excuse must hold for today only, or Ainslie adds, "at least infrequently enough that neither it nor similar excuses occur too frequently to preserve adequate value in the bundle [which means the summed prospective rewards that we attach to the behavior we want to delay]" (p. 18). A credible excuse is one that we won't later recognize as a rationalization. In other words, a credible excuse allows us to deceive ourselves comfortably, and this takes a very good excuse indeed for sophisticated decision makers.
Ainslie argues that a credible excuse, this unique instance that depends somewhat on luck, creates a "bright line" that demarcates this unique excuse from other potentially similar ones that we might (later) recognize as mere self deception.
Of course, life isn't so nicely demarcated for us. Our impulsive incentives are often mixed as a sort of fuzzy set with rational ones. So, for example, Ainslie notes there may be rational reasons (excuses) for task delay such as taking advantage of an exceptional present opportunity that may seem to meet the criterion of being a unique instance, but on further inspection even this falls far short when that "exceptional present opportunity" is an invitation to a party (of which there are actually quite a few available).
The thing is, as each of us weighs the credibility of our excuses against Ainslie's notion of offering an unique instance, we're actually in the deep end of a very subjective pool. What we determine as "special" in the example above with the invitation to a party depends solely on us and, I would argue, our talent for self-deception. In this regard, I disagree with Ainslie about how unique something has to be to be a credible excuse. We're able to do a lot of "repair work" later to reduce any dissonance we might feel if in the end we choose an excuse that looks a little less credible than first imagined. In fact, a comparison of the individual who truly found a credible excuse (in Ainslie's sense) with the individual who used whatever excuse was "handy" may reveal that they have very similar psychological states. If we don't do the work ahead of time to find or create a credible excuse, we'll do it later and manufacture our own happiness.
So, what is it for you? No excuses or know excuses? I think Ainslie's account will help you achieve the latter goal with a careful analysis of what might count for an excuse. What bothers me in all this is the line, perhaps a slippery slope, between excuses and reasons. One person's reason is another's excuse and vice versa. This is the subjective reality of our choices in life. It's the reason that the notion of self and intentionality figures prominently in the philosophical discussion of procrastination.
What I think we're left with at a practical level is the recognition that it is our nature to search out credible excuses to justify our preference for the smaller, sooner rewards over the larger, later. Knowing this can make a difference in recognizing our propensity for self-deception. I know from the many letters from the Don't Delay readers that it already has.