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Procrastination: Bad Credit on Future Self?

Borrowing and credit helps explain procrastination

Get approved now!It's often the case we want things now for which we do not have the money. Credit solves this problem. Credit can create problems too. So it is with procrastination.

I was listening to the wonderful weekly radio broadcast (and podcast), Philosophy Talk this past week. The hosts, John Perry and Ken Taylor (Stanford University), had Robert Rowland Smith as their guest. As always, the conversation was interesting. Smith drew on two of his recent popular books, Breakfast with Socrates and Driving with Plato: The Meaning of Life's Milestones to discuss philosophy and everyday life. Since that interview, I've been listening to Breakfast with Socrates as an audiobook.

Among the many insightful and provocative things that Professor Smith discusses in his exploration of the extraordinary in our ordinary days is shopping. Shopping is of interest in and of itself in terms of self-regulation failure. Compulsive shopping, for example, is a self-regulatory failure that has features common to procrastination. However, it wasn't self-regulatory failure that caught my attention. It was the notion of credit in relation to shopping that made me think about procrastination.

As Smith notes, credit comes from the Latin credere meaning "to trust or believe." In the economic sense, it means that the money you're borrowing will someday be returned, at least that's what the lender must believe. The lender and the borrower have a belief about the future, particularly the future ability to pay. Because of this belief, the borrower is able to defer payment, and the lender trusts that he or she will be paid in the future. There is an intention to pay, just not today. Payment is deferred, and it can be deferred for quite some time.

This deferral is seductive as we all know. Advertisements prey on our desire to have now, pay later. "Buy now and don't pay until 2013" allows us to think that we really will have an extra thousand dollars between now and 2013 to pay for that fridge, or that, contrary to our past behavior, we really will put away $100 monthly to be able to pay later. In any case, this isn't where our focus is. Although we might briefly consider our ability to pay in the future, hopes springs eternal, our optimistic biases kick in, and the really important thing is that we get what we want now!

In his chapter about shopping, Smith gets into the psychology of some of this, as he sees it. He argues that (and I'm paraphrasing his text here): "The psyche will do anything to avoid pain - when faced with paying the psyche will do anything to put it off. We stagger pain over time. In the short term, the deferral can even feel like pleasure. This is why retail can be therapeutic. It takes something potentially taxing, parting with money, and by manipulating the terms so that you pay nothing until next year, converts it all to an upside, with no pressing downside."

And so it is with deferral in general, I think. Deferral takes something potentially taxing like work, and by manipulating our intentions for action - "the terms of payment" so to speak - converts it to an upside. Taken from this perspective, procrastination relies on credit of the future self. I have written about how this affects future self in a previous post, so I won't get into it again. Instead, I want to focus specifically on this issue of credit, of borrowing, and of the temporal self in whom we have the belief will pay, just not today.

It's pretty obvious that there are parallels between the economics of borrowing money on credit and procrastination. In both cases, we pay later. I also think that procrastination also has the short-term gain feature similar to the immediate short-term reward of having what we want now when we buy on credit. In both the purchase on credit and the postponement of a task for a later time (despite the potential negative consequences of this unnecessary delay), we have an effect on mood.

When we buy, particularly an "impulse buy" beyond our current budget, or when we put off a task we know we really need to do now, we are acting against our own best long-term interest. However, as Smith noted, the psyche will do anything to avoid pain, and the short-term pain in these instances is to wait until we have enough money or do the work now, respectively. We don't want to do this, so we "give in to feel good." We buy now in the one case, or we procrastinate in the other.

It's this immediate mood repair that is so central to all of our self-regulation failure. Credit makes this short-term mood repair possible through shopping with credit cards. We can borrow on future income. The same is true of the delay of procrastination. It is credit (credere) in the sense that we have to believe that we will do it later. We can defer a task and "pay" later. If this were always true, we may understand our delay as a prudent or at least a necessary intention update. The thing is, much like credit card balances on which only minimum payments are made, we are not always true to our word about deferred action. And, like the interest due on unpaid credit-card balances, procrastination comes with its own costs: poorer performance, stress and even illness.

Finally, I was intrigued when Smith's discussion of shopping and shopping malls turned to narcissism. We buy now on credit, "because we're worth it," because we deserve it. Me, me, me. Of course, this narcissism is nothing new. It seems to be in epidemic proportions in modern western society, and it is linked to many of our ills, including spending beyond our means. What this reflect is that this over-emphasized and non-deserved sense of entitlement of the self is part of the irrational thinking that gets us into trouble.

In the case of procrastination, irrational thinking related to discomfort or frustration intolerance is a harbinger of needless delay. I shouldn't have to feel discomfort. I want to feel good now. Credit does this for us in our favorite shops, and credit of a different sort is what we borrow on against our future selves when we procrastinate in order to avoid feeling discomfort or frustration with the task at hand.

With money and time in such short supply in our lives, I wonder why we are so quick to borrow both? Behavioral economists offer us up many reasons for this, including notions of temporal discounting. It's human it seems to want what we want now and to believe that later rewards are not as desireable. Although this may be true, for each of us as individuals it comes down to the exercise of better judgment and the will to act in the pursuit of our long-term wellbeing. Perhaps seeing our procrastination as "bad credit" might help motivate change. At the very least, we might acknowledge the "interest" accruing on the unfulfilled intentions in our lives.

Smith, R.R. (2009). Breakfast with Socrates: An Extraordinary (Philosophical) Journey Through Your Ordinary Day. New York: Free Press.