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The Coronavirus and Travel Procrastination

Purposeful, sagacious delay or procrastination?

As my wife contemplates travel for work and holidays, she’s suffering from what she calls “Coronastination" (Coro-nas-tin-a-tion); defined as putting off making travel plans for fear of catching coronavirus, or being affected by measures to limit its spread. Is it procrastination or a wise delay?

A key thing to keep in mind when thinking about procrastination is this simple distinction:

Although all procrastination is delay, not all delay is procrastination.

Delay is part of life, particularly for any rational agent like homo sapiens. We set priorities, so some things must wait while we do other things. My students and I call this purposeful delay.

Similarly, life involves many “inevitable delays.” Bad weather can delay airport travel. A sick child can delay just about anything planned previously for the day.

The thing is, there are many flavors of delay in our lives, and procrastination is just one rather specific form. Psychologists define procrastination as “the voluntary delay of intended act despite expecting to be worse off for the delay.” By definition, procrastination is a needless, self-defeating delay.

What about my wife’s quandary about whether to travel to a major population centre for the March Break holiday and for work later the same month? She has plans, reservations, and a work commitment in a city that has reported cases of the COVID-19. She’s not alone in this type of decision.

Interestingly, when my wife posed her quandary about “corona-astinating,” one of her colleagues jumped right on it and said that’s exactly what he’s doing, but he meant something entirely different. He interpreted this strange new word to mean reading about the Coronavirus and thinking about what to do instead of doing the work he should be doing. As a psychologist who has been studying this topic for 20+ years, I would say that he is definitely procrastinating. But what do we make of my wife’s choice? Should she frame not going on the holiday and/or business trip as a sagacious delay or procrastination?

At the heart of an answer to this question is our perception of risk. We are, by nature, risk-averse. Yes, people vary on this, but it’s human nature to be overly pessimistic.

There are only a handful of cases of COVID-19 in the city she intends to travel to, and it’s a city with a population of nearly 3 million. She is healthy and certainly not someone who we might classify as "at-risk" based on the fatalities from the virus known so far. In addition, she knows she could practice simple health behaviors to protect herself such as thorough, frequent hand washing, not touching her face, maintaining distance from others, etc.

Why does she hesitate in this self-described coronastination? Uncertainty is the short answer. Even our earliest studies of procrastination in the 1990s revealed that feelings of uncertainty are highly correlated with procrastination. When we don’t know what to do or how to do it, we tend to put things off. Uncertainty leaves us feeling uneasy, and we can relieve this "dis-ease," at least in the short term, by avoiding the task, decision, or action. Avoidance as a coping mechanism is procrastination in a nutshell.

I’m left to conclude that perhaps my wife is correct with coining this new term. She is procrastinating with a potential needless delay, because it’s not exactly wise to stop enjoying life or continuing business commitments in a timely manner given the data we have to date. In terms of the definition summarized above, she would be making a voluntary delay (no one is forbidding travel . . . yet), and she does expect to be worse off for this delay.

Of course, it's essential to acknowledge a number of things in reaching this conclusion. First, the situation is changing daily. Perhaps there will be a point where the risk justifies a decision to postpone travel as a purposeful or inevitable delay. Second, one of her fears is that she would become infected, and although her body may be able to deal with the viral infection, perhaps her children or husband, who is recovering from cancer, will not. This is yet another level of uncertainty. Finally, she fears that she will plan the business trip in particular, and then a policy will emerge that forbids travel, wasting resources on deposits, etc. There is no doubt that uncertainty looms large.

All of this said, at this point, I would conclude that her notion of "coronastination" is an example of the effects of fear and uncertainty at its best.

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