Procrastination

Why Is Procrastination Even a Thing?

How did so many procrastinators slip through the filter of natural selection?

Posted May 06, 2016

TRF_Mr_Hyde/flickr
Source: TRF_Mr_Hyde/flickr

I was out with some friends and the topic of procrastination came up. We weren’t on the topic long, and my only contribution was to say, “I don’t believe in procrastination."

I misspoke. In fact, I do believe in procrastination. Procrastination happens when we think we should work on a task or project, and then we keep putting it off. That phenomenon clearly exists, and I do it myself more often than I’d like to admit.

What I meant to say is that I don’t believe procrastination is caused by laziness in most cases.

OK, so, if it’s not laziness, why do we procrastinate?

It seems to me that most procrastination is caused by one or more of these four things: 1) we’re tired, 2) we don’t enjoy the task, 3) we’re easily distracted, and 4) we’re confused. I would like to elaborate on the fourth cause—confusion.  But first I'll say something quickly about the first three.

Sometimes we will put off a task until the next day because we are dead tired and need to get to bed. Or we might lack enthusiasm for a task and need a break to clear our heads before diving in again. Whenever you catch yourself procrastinating, ask yourself if you need a break. If you do, then take a break.

Sometimes we will avoid a task because we really dislike doing that task. If we need to fire someone, or clean a toilet, or move a pile of rocks, we might avoid it simply because we don’t want to do it. Or, put another way, even if we want to do it at a higher level, because it is part of our overall plan, we really dislike doing it at a base level.  I don’t have any fancy advice for these situations, unless “buck up buttercup” or “try to get someone else to do it” count as fancy advice.

And sometimes we are pursuing a long-term goal, and it’s important to us, but we have a lot of time to get it done, and there happen to be a lot more interesting or pressing things to do in the meantime. We intend to do our taxes, but there’s still time to play a videogame or do some yard work first. This kind of procrastination might well be the most common kind of procrastination, and it deserves an article (or book) of its own. Even here, though, I’m not inclined to call this laziness. Slaying a dragon in Skyrim might not accomplish much in the real world, but it’s not exactly the kind of thing a “lazy” person would do.

And now that we’re done with the appetizers, let’s hit the main course.

Confusion

It seems to me that, at least when it comes to some of our more complicated projects, a lot of our procrastination can be chalked up to confusion—and, more specifically, confusion about either the “why” or the “how” of the task or project at hand.  

If that doesn’t immediately ring true for you, then just try the idea on for a bit and give me a chance to make the case. Part of the problem is that we won’t always be aware of our confusion but will instead simply lose our enthusiasm for working. We can call this the “hidden confusion” account of procrastination.

I also want to float the possibility that this kind of procrastination is more or less by design. It’s an adaptive motivational state that causes us to slow down and sort things out before proceeding.

Your Fractal Projects

In Brian Arthur’s wonderful book The Nature of Technology, he reveals technology’s fractal structure, and I think that’s something of a key to understanding procrastination. [1]

If you’re building a spaceship or writing a computer program, it might be easy for you to see yourself as “developing a new technology”. But, even if you’re writing an essay or a blog post, the way you go about completing your project shares some very important features with the way engineers go about creating more stereotypical technologies.

So humor me for now, and tell yourself that all your creative projects involve creating a new technology.

Say it with me: “I am creating a new technology."

Good.

Now, here is an important insight about technologies:

Insight #1: Technologies are built from sub-technologies.

When we create a new technology, we have it in mind to build something that will perform a function. And we build it by putting a bunch of parts together. These parts are themselves technologies, or, in this context, sub-technologies.

And each of those parts might be built out of other parts—sub-sub-technologies. And so on, often many levels deep.

If you’re writing a blog post, you want the overall post to perform a function, and you will build it out of parts. First you will discuss A. Then you will discuss B. Then you can discuss the relationship between A and B. And so on.

Even if you write more free-form, you are probably guided by a rough structure of parts relating to parts in your head.

Now, combine that insight with the next insight, and the picture starts to take shape:

Insight #2: It takes effort to combine sub-technologies into a technology.

You know how it goes. You sit down to plan out a new project, and your initial plan sounds quite easy and smooth. But then, when you start implementing it, you realize it doesn’t actually go as easily as you thought it would.

Imagine you’re a prehistoric cave-dweller, and you get the idea of combining a stick and a strip of bark with a stone to create a bludgeoning instrument. That’s only three basic pieces, but it might easily take a whole day of fiddling to get it to work the first time.

The projects we tend to work on these days have many, many more parts and levels of abstraction. And that can make it even more difficult to make all the parts fit together well.

For instance, imagine you’re writing an essay defending a certain tax policy, and the argument seems like a slam dunk. You think, “my policy of combining A, B, and C is superior because of X, Y, and Z.” But as you start to write about A and B, you see that parts of A are actually in practical conflict with parts of B. And, the thing is, you would never have seen this conflict without actually sitting down and describing A and B in detail.

Developing a website works like this, too. “We’ll just merge Affiliate Software W with Shopping Cart X with Payment Gateway Y with Content Management Software Z, and throw in some custom features in PHP. And it will all fit together like a 10-piece jigsaw puzzle.” Yeah, right!

The problem is that your sub-technologies will interact with each other in ways you can’t foresee. And sometimes a sub-sub-sub-technology will interact with a sub-sub-sub-sub-technology in a way you didn’t anticipate, and that’s what prevents the whole thing from working well.

The big-chunk solutions always sound easy. Guess what: It almost never works that smoothly in practice. You know there will be conflicts, but you can’t tell ahead of time what they will be. We can call this the “Law of Unforeseen Complications.”

It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing an essay, developing software, building a spaceship, or moving across town. Unforeseen complications (almost) always crop up.

And the time needed to resolve these conflicts will range all over the map. Sometimes a resolution will turn out to be impossible and you will need to rethink the whole project. Other times it will just take a quick little work-around. Most resolutions will be somewhere in between.

And, in order to make two sub-technologies work well together, we sometimes even have to create another new technology to make it happen.

Perhaps all this complication would be less surprising if we changed our metaphor from one of building blocks to one of building trees. Creating a new technology out of building blocks sounds simple. The blocks are misleadingly easy to fit together in our minds. If we more accurately thought of ourselves building a new technology out of wildly branching tree-like sub-structures, we might appreciate more what we’re actually trying to do. [2]

Now, as if that weren’t bad enough, consider this:

Insight #3: Most technologies are themselves sub-technologies.

A new website is a technology. But so is a business. If you’re building a website, not only do you have to think about how its parts fit together to form the website, you also have to consider how the website itself fits together with the other technologies inside the business.

Because the website is itself a sub-technology, many questions can arise as you’re working on it: Does this new website play nice with the other technologies being used by the business? Does the function of the new website align with the overall function of the business? Should you work on the website now, or should you work on something else first? And so on.

Any project you work on has a tree-like structure and is itself part of a larger tree. So you’re always working at some node in the middle of a tree. And any other node, anywhere else in the tree, can potentially interact negatively with the part of the project you’re working on now.

This is the main reason large projects can be a big headache, and it’s also why good project managers are worth every penny they earn.

Back to Procrastination

Here’s how a bout of procrastination might go down for me.

I plan out a project in enough detail to start working on it, or so I think. I work on it for a bit, and then suddenly lose all motivation for working on it. I’m filled with a sudden urge to straighten my office, check my email, or play a game (or three) of Minesweeper.

Why does this happen? It doesn’t make sense. I want to finish the project. Good things will happen if I complete the project. Finishing the project is far more important to me than winning a game of Minesweeper.

I am, it seems, a strangely counterproductive creature. How did the likes of me slip through the ruthless filters of natural selection?

If I were alone in this, we might suspect a rare mutation or an early-childhood bump on the head. But I’m not alone in this, and that leads to a question. Does this kind of procrastination actually provide some hidden value? Is it possible that it’s not a bug, but a feature?

Well, consider this: We can’t see it yet, but our project is going in a completely wrong direction relative to the rest of our business. It would be nice to have part of our brain detect this and slow us down, right?

Or what if our current plans have a fatal flaw, and any further work is likely to be wasted effort, because the thing isn’t going to function properly when we’re done. It would be nice to have part of our brain detect this and slow us down, right?

Could it be that this is what procrastination on complex projects is mostly all about?

Our conscious reasoning is just the slow, exposed tip of the computational iceberg. What’s below the surface can be much faster, because it doesn’t need to be narrated and put into a form that can be easily talked about and shared with others.

Perhaps, whenever we develop a new plan or take on a new project, our brains start working through a tree-like structure, looking for conflict between the current project and all our other plans, projects, values, goals, and relationships.

And when it finds some conflict, or even the potential for conflict, it puts on the motivational brakes for us.

If this is how things work, it is unfortunate that our unconscious minds don’t communicate in more detail to our conscious minds. We rarely get a clear report telling us what is in conflict with what. Sometimes we have an inkling, but too often we don’t. All we know is that we suddenly lost our enthusiasm for working on the task at hand. And it’s up to us to figure out why.

And Now Back to Work

My unconscious mind might not be good at initiating communication, but I’ve learned that I can get stuff out of it by asking questions.

Whenever I find myself procrastinating, I’ve learned to ask two questions. These two questions start from the part of the project I’m working on now and focus my mind up the tree and down the tree. Here are the questions:

  1. Do I need to plan this project out in more detail?
  2. Do I need to make sure this current project fits with the rest of my life?

The first question tells me to search for conflicts among the sub-technologies—below the level to which my current planning has taken me.

And the second tells me to search for conflicts between my project and the parent-technologies (and cousin-technologies) with which my current project is embedded and enmeshed.

I’ve made a habit of asking these questions whenever I lose motivation on a project, and I’ve discovered that my own procrastination is a fairly reliable signal that there are points of conflict of some salience lurking somewhere in my plans.

If we want to work with vigorous flow, we must have a mind that is free to focus on the task at hand. We must be able to clear our minds of extraneous thoughts. (In “Clear Mind in a Complex World” I help people get most of the clutter out of their heads.) [3]

But a clear mind also depends on having a clear plan. If we’re confused at some level about our project, our unconscious minds will keep looping and exploring the issue with or without us (our conscious minds). If we can figure out where the confusion lies, we can plan our way through it and get moving again.

Conclusion

We began by noting four causes of procrastination: 1) exhaustion, 2) aversion, 3) distraction, and 4) confusion. But here’s the thing. Even if you think you’re in the grip of one of the first three kinds of procrastination, it might still pay to ask yourself if there’s some confusion at play as well.  

Why do the videogames distract you from your term paper? Could it be partly because you have no idea what you want to accomplish with the paper or how to get started? Why is the term paper aversive? Could it be that you don’t particularly like sitting there looking at a blank screen feeling confused? Why is your brain tired? Could it partly be because it’s busy wrestling with confusion while you’re trying to work?

If you learn to treat procrastination as your unconscious mind’s request for more planning, you might be able to keep yourself moving more of the time, and do better work as well.

Notes:

[1] W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves

[2] In software development and other fields the problems inherent in merging two many-tentacled sub-technologies together are well known. And measures are taken to make the sub-technologies work together more easily. The major tool for doing this involves making the sub-technologies as “modular” as possible. Increased modularity works spectacularly well when well-designed. And designing for modularity is one reason we are even remotely able to have a society as complex as we have today. However, designing for modularity comes with its own costs. For this reason and others, not every sub-technology is modular with respect to every other sub-technology you might want to combine it with. And even things that are designed to be modular don’t turn out to be as completely modular as intended, and unforeseen complications still crop up.

[3] "Clear Mind in a Complex World" is a free email course that will help you get almost all of the clutter out of your mind, so you can work and live with more focus.