As I always do each morning after the kids get on the bus for school, I was out in the barn feeding the horses and doing related chores. The radio was on, and I was half listening to an interview with an actor who was discussing his one-person show. He was asked how many characters he had to play, and he paused for a moment before answering. Explaining the pause, he said, “I was just thinking in my head, counting up the characters. I play eleven characters.”
I’m sure you are no more interested than I was in the play, and it’s certainly not the reason you clicked on this blog post. So, let me explain the relevance of this story and why I felt compelled to write this post beginning with this story.
I often hear people use this expression, “I was just thinking in my head.” As a psychologist my immediate reaction (although typically kept in my own head) is “where else do you do your thinking?!” Our brains are that quite magical group of cells that perform this function. Where else would you be thinking?
Typically, that’s as far as I take it . . . in my own head. Today was different.
The actor in this story could have been thinking another way. He could have used a piece of paper and a pencil. If he did, we might call this extended cognition. Whereas cognition (thinking) can be and is often an internal process – in our heads – it can also be done outside of our heads with the help of tools like paper and pencil. We extend our thinking, and it can be incredibly helpful to do so. For example, think for a moment how much easier it is to multiply 258 x 363 using a pencil and scrap of paper than to do the calculation “in your head.”
So, extended cognition is common and a useful strategy. What does this have to do with procrastination?
Well, when we face a task we don’t feel like doing, a task that might evoke negative emotions like frustration, boredom, anger or fear, it’s tempting and common to put it off. Not to give in to the temptation to feel good now by procrastinating takes some willpower. And, much like cognition, we could simply make the mental effort “in our heads” to exert self-control and stay on task.
The thing is, that’s not easy, much like multiplying 258 x 363 isn’t easy just in our heads. What if we could extend our will like we can extend our cognition?
We can. At least that’s what Joe Heath (Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto) and Joel Anderson (Department of Philosophy, Utrecht University) argued in their wonderful contribution to the book The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination. In their chapter entitled “Procrastination and the extended will” they argue that we can extend our will much as we can extend our cognition. We can do this by using the environment to support our better self, who wants to stay on task, and to foil our weaker self who wants to give in to feel good with procrastination.
A simple example that Anderson raises in a more recent chapter on this notion of extended will is if I know that I am going to be tempted to overeat at a holiday dinner, I can enlist the help of a another guest to “run interference” for me. If others are putting pressure on me to eat or drink more, or if my resolve weakens and I begin to fill my plate again, someone else is there to help bolster my resolve (or simply stop me as requested, much as Ulysses’ men were instructed to do as they approached the sirens). As Anderson (in press) writes, “there are even more dramatic ways of using the environment as a precommitment mechanism, such as removing all alcohol from the house if one is struggling with an alcohol abuse problem.”
In sum, it’s not all “in our head” anymore, and that can make the difference between success and failure. If we can learn to use the environment to work for us and not against us, we’ll be much more likely to succeed.
How can you extend your will? What precommitment device do you need to stay the course? When the sirens call, will you be prepared to stay the course?
Heath, J., & Anderson, J. (2010). Procrastination and the extended will. In C. Andreou & M. White (Eds.), The thief of time: Philosophical essays on procrastination (pp. 233-52). New York: Oxford University Press.
Anderson, J. (in press). Structured Nonprocrastination: Scaffolding Efforts to Resist the Temptation to Reconstrue Unwarranted Delay. In F.M. Sirois & T.A. Pychyl (Eds.), Procrastination, Health and Well-Being. San Diego: Elsevier.