Why We’re Reluctant to Get Specific

Specificity aversion may contribute to second-order procrastination.

Posted Aug 12, 2015

Do you ever put off doing the thing that would decrease your procrastination? For example, you want to stop needlessly delaying getting out of bed by repeatedly hitting the snooze button. You know that you could achieve your early-morning goal by moving the alarm clock to the other side of the room, out of arm’s reach, but you put that off. Not moving the clock when you know that this would help is a common example of second-order procrastination.  You’re procrastinating on implementing a solution to your first-order procrastination problem of getting up when you intend.

Second-order procrastination is not something that is discussed very much, but it’s a common problem.  In a much earlier post, I focused on how implementation intentions, a precommitment to act, can help us get past this reluctance to act.

In the example above, we might make the intention “when I’m just about to get into bed tonight, I will move the alarm clock to the other side of the room.” This type of intention puts the cue for our action into the environment. As we pull down the covers to get into bed, we’re more likely to remember our commitment to move the alarm clock. Many studies show that implementation intentions of this sort make a difference. (Yes, of course, you may still remember but think “I don’t feel like, I’ll do it tomorrow,” but that’s another story for another post.)

However, it’s not always as simple as unplugging and moving an alarm clock. Take another classic example of second-order procrastination, saving for retirement. At each pay cheque, many of us find it difficult to meet our retirement savings goal by putting away a little of our income into a savings account. A solution is to use a precommitment device in the form of an automatic deduction from payroll. The thing is, typically we have to set this up, which, depending on our employment and banking arrangements, can be a complicated process.  It requires we invest some time into learning how to do this. We have to get into a planning process, learn new things and potentially schedule a whole series of actions such as: figuring out how much we can really afford from each pay period, revisiting our budget to do the first step, calling the bank to set up a new account, authorizing a regular deduction, going to the bank to sign off, etc. You get my point. There is quite a bit more planning than simply having the intention to move an alarm clock.

I think you would agree that many of us are reluctant to make the implementation intention around payroll deduction, and evidence supports this as companies realize it’s more effective to have employees opt out rather than opt in to such a plan (see Peter Ubel’s book Free Market Madness for a discussion of this and related approaches).  It’s obviously important to understand why we do this.   Fortunately, some of my Dutch colleagues at a recent conference in Germany explained why we may be reluctant to form these implementation intentions to act in our best interest.

What a great way to start my sabbatical last month, a trip to Europe. After some relaxing time in Leiden cycling around South Holland and a visit with colleagues at Utrecht University, my students and I headed for Bielefeld, Germany for the 9th Biennial Procrastination Research Conference. It was an engaging and interesting two days of paper and poster presentations.

My goal over the coming weeks is to share many of these new studies with you – the cutting edge of new thinking regarding procrastination.

A cross disciplinary team from Utrecht University (The Netherlands) - Joel Anderson and Bart Kamphorst (Philosophy & Ethics Institute) along with Sanne Nauts, Floor Kroese & Denise de Ridder (Health Psychology) – have been engaged in an ambitious research project entitled, “Promoting Effective Intentions: Volitional Scaffolding, Implementation Intentions, and Bedtime Procrastination” (a €500,000 project financed by NWO National Initiative on Brain and Cognition and Philips Research). One of their research questions has been, “If implementation intentions are so beneficial, why don’t people make them?”

They argue that the problem is often an issue of specificity. We have an aversion to being specific, despite how powerful and important specific plans can be.  Although it is true that specific plans like implementation intentions help us by making the desired behavior more automatic, reducing the effects of temptations and keeping us honest about how well we’re meeting our own expectations (because they are specific, not vague), they argue that specificity and specification are aversive. We don’t like this planning process.

Why would specifying our next steps or a plan be so aversive? Anderson and his team think there are a number of reasons. Specificity:

  1. reduces our autonomy (we feel locked in and no longer able to choose);
  2. creates fear that we’ll miss out on future opportunities because we’re locked into the plans we’ve made;
  3. reduces our “deniability” – it’s painfully clear when we’re no longer on track with our plan, and we can’t fool others or, more importantly, ourselves; and
  4. creates an image of an overly rigid person, not a spontaneous care-free person (and social pressures kick in here to not be so “rigid”).

In addition to these problems with specificity, the process of specification can be viewed negatively as well. Why? Because specification:

  1. is effortful;
  2. brings us face-to-face with our limitations (what can I realistically do, no more dreaming allowed);
  3. creates a conflict between our self-image (as a more spontaneous, live-by-the-seat-of-my-pants individual) and the work of a detailed planning process; and
  4. it can be viewed negatively socially, as my specifications have implications for others who resist being part of the plan.

I think Anderson and his colleagues have identified an important new area for research when it comes to successful goal pursuit and procrastination. Specification such as forming implementation intentions may be helpful, but there are limits to this form of intention as well as a resistance to over-specifying our tasks. One key goal of their research agenda is to explore when and for whom specifying plans becomes aversive and a problem in itself. I certainly believe that many of us suffer from second-order procrastination because of the non-conscious resistance we experience when we think about making a plan.

Finally, I like where Anderson ended his paper at the conference as he reflected on the intervention implications of the problem of specificity and second-order procrastination.  For example, we need to consider how to address the aversion experienced by the planning, not necessarily the task itself. This has not been a focus of research to date. In addition, we might side step this aversion completely by out-sourcing this planning to “smart agents.” In other words, is there an app for that?

This second focus of outsourcing our will and planning is an extension of some of Anderson’s earlier writing about extended will, where we recognize that our will is limited (or in this case our planning ability is taxed) so we seek support for this process.

The implications of this team’s work is clear – we need to think about any resistance we feel about planning and what level of specificity works best for us.  What we consider to be an optimal level of planning varies by situation and person. I hope that Anderson and his colleagues help us sort out the factors that influence this planning process. In the meantime, each of us can explore to what extent it’s the task that we’re avoiding or the process of specifying our plan. Both are important in understanding the needless delay we call procrastination.