Monday, April 17, 2006


A Word from your Resident Mathemagician

To all non-procrastinators and worse, people in denial about being procrastinators:

those of us who procrastinate not only do it out of laziness, due to goofing off and out of a deep seated psychological flaw that causes us to hate change and completion and want to delay it as long as possible -- we also realize that doing everything at once, at the last minute saves time even if it does drive a person insane after a while.

Think about it. If you do some things ahead of time -- you have to take time and/or resources to save intermediate results and/or redo stuff. E.g. when you are moving (as I am), if you label boxes and then have to move them back, you take more time than if you label them just before you're ready to pack and/or load them. Sure, it might make things more sane to take the extra time and then even with duplicating effort taking a little less time on "the big day", but it is still a cost. There is no such thing as a free lunch. There is an economy of scale in terms of not having to figure out where to put, e.g., labeled boxes, or to take time to restow them. Doing things ahead of time has the opportunity cost of missing out on the economy of doing things on a larger scale, e.g. all at once at the last minute.

I wonder what the Freakonomics folks have to say about procrastination? Do they have this defense for it?

Hey David, here's a relevant study to consider. I would have posted it earlier, but..... well, I guess I have no excuse, do I?

In defense of procrastination
By Ted C. Fishman
USA Today
Tue Jan 3, 7:54 AM ET

... Another job I am tackling ahead of my resolutions is finding some way to rationalize my tendency to procrastinate. On that I have made some progress, thanks to Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago. Ferrari's research focuses on people who either tend to procrastinate or who do little else but procrastinate.

Prevalent problem

As it turns out, at least 20% of Americans are chronic procrastinators. In the worst cases, procrastinators suffer from their paralysis, but Ferrari also finds that very often the effects are not so bad at all, mostly because the whole world has dillied and dallied in dealing harshly with procrastinators.

Ferrari was recently featured in a three-page foldout spread with pictures in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the trade magazine for American academia, where apparently procrastination is now a topic right up there with race, class and the salaries of university presidents.

Putting off assignments is so pervasive on campuses that psychologists now use "academic procrastinator" as a clinical term. Seventy percent of students report they start their assignments late, a habit that feeds a few scourges students know all too well. Students with crib sheets, plagiarized papers or florid excuses for missing deadlines tend to be those who didn't put in the proper time with their books. Research, according to The Chronicle, shows "that academic procrastinators tend to lack self-confidence, measure low on psychologists' tests of 'conscientiousness,' (and) get lost in wishful thoughts." Procrastination also correlates to depression.

Interestingly enough, many procrastinators are also high achievers. Students at elite colleges tend to lollygag more than their peers at less selective institutions do. Brilliance and writer's block seem to go hand in hand. This is a topic I shall return to after I leaf through some catalogs for running gear and consider, over a piece of cake, whether to take up jogging.

One reason campuses are so prone to procrastination, argues Ferrari, is that they tend to be lenient toward it. Professors, he found, often let lame excuses fly. Only one in every 10 instructors in one of Ferrari's studies made any effort to get to the bottom of students' stories. They should do better. Ferrari also sampled the veracity of excuses offered for late work and found only three in 10 of students' excuses were true. What's more, once phony excuses proved acceptable, students dished up more and thus reinforced their own tendencies to stall.

Attempts to reverse the behavior achieved mixed results. Berating people over their dawdling doesn't seem to help, but offering rewards for early birds does.

[...remainder snipped...]
After years, no decades of experience I came to the conclusion that a life is wasted in minutes and hours and not in months and years.

Hasn't changed my behavior much but it was a hard won piece of wisdom. Such as it is.
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