Article sketch: When procrastination isn't akrasia

by [anonymous]2 min read8th Oct 201217 comments


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I have a lot to say on this topic, but I haven't written an article about it, for two reasons... come to think of it, more like for one reason, twice. The first reason is that, while I've learned quite a bit about procrastination in the past few months, I haven't learned much about it, and as a result, the essay I could write now wouldn't be as good as the article I could write a couple of months from now, after I've learned even more. The second reason is that, while I've learned quite a bit about procrastination in the past few months, I still do procrastinate, and besides that, I have a backlog of stuff I consider more important than writing this essay, and as a result, I've decided to postpone it until I've gotten all that other stuff done.

I figure a sketch is better than nothing, so I'm just giving you this stream-of-consciousness business you're reading now.

Procrastination, as far as I can tell, has two major causes. The first of these causes is akrasia: you know you should be doing something else, and you know what you should be doing, but you aren't doing it. This essay is about the second cause: disorganization.

Now, it's likely that you can think of at least one thing right now—a major homework project, or cleaning the entire house, or something—that makes you think, Dang it. I haven't done that yet, and I wish I had. I've been procrastinating. Ask yourself this question: when should you have done it?

Perhaps the answer is along the lines of "Well, I should have done that Tuesday morning, when I looked on my to-do list and saw that it was the top item on there, but instead of doing it, I played Minecraft for three hours." In other words, perhaps you can think of a specific time you should have done it, and you remembered that you could have done it, but instead, you did something that was less important. If all three of those things are true, then your problem is akrasia.

If any of those parts is missing, then your problem is not akrasia; your problem is disorganization. Let me explain.

Suppose that instead of thinking of a specific time you should have done the task, you simply thought, "I should have done that at some point". Even if you have perfect willpower, knowing that you should be doing something "at some point" isn't enough, because at any given time, there are lots of things that you should do "at some point". If there are fifty such things, then it is impossible not to postpone at least forty-nine of them, so you can't blame yourself for not doing those forty-nine.

Suppose that you think of a specific time you should have done it, but you didn't remember that you could have done it. Even if you have perfect willpower, you can't do the things you've completely forgotten to do.

And suppose that you think of a specific time, and you remembered that you could have done it, but instead you did something that was more important. Obviously, that's not akrasia; you simply had better things to do.

How can you fix these problems? The basic solution is simple: write down the things you have to do. All of them. Also write down the time frame in which you'd like to get them done, so that you can work on them in an order that makes sense, instead of just whenever they randomly pop into your mind.

About working on things in an order that makes sense. What order should that be, exactly? Well, I think there are two things that are worth taking into consideration here: importance and ease. Working on more important tasks first can be a good idea for obvious reasons. Working on easy tasks first can be a good idea for less obvious reasons: that makes it easy to get started (and getting started tends to be the hardest part), it gives you a feeling of success right away, and it makes the work seem more manageable. (If you have 60 things to do, and the first 50 are easy, that seems manageable. If you have 10 things to do, and they're all hard, that also seems manageable. If you have 60 things to do, and the first 10 are hard, that seems far less manageable!)

Assuming you have all your tasks written down and ordered sensibly, you're ready to begin executing your "work algorithm". What should that be? Simple enough. First, look at the first item on the list. If it's easy, do it. If it's hard, then break it into pieces, at least one of which is easy, and sort the pieces into a reasonable order. Repeat.

Breaking a hard task into easy ones is outside the scope of this essay (or, at least, this sketch of it).

Most what I think I know about organization is thanks to David Allen's "Getting Things Done". I highly recommend reading the first chapter, which will both give you some context, and convince you to read the second chapter. The second chapter will teach you organization in a nutshell.

This page on my wiki may be useful or interesting to read: This page may be interesting, but probably not particularly useful:


17 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:05 PM
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Your post may be confusing to some because your definition of "procrastination" is at odds with several (perhaps most) of the standard definitions of procrastination in the psychological literature, e.g. Steel (2007): "to procrastinate is to voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay."

[-][anonymous]9y 4

Huh, so it is. If you define "procrastination" that way, then, this essay isn't about when procrastination isn't akrasia; it's about when delaying things regretfully isn't procrastination. But that would make a less catchy title.

It's true, in any case, that when I was less effective at getting things done than I am nowadays, the name I gave to my problem was "procrastination". If this was a mistake, perhaps it's a common one.

I think the question of when one should have done it is a great step forward. It makes "procrastination" more specific, less of a mysterious black box. If we are ever going to find a cure for procrastination, we need to get more specific. Then we may realize there are multiple causes which require multiple solutions... which is OK as long as we can make a decision tree showing which specific form of procrastination it is, and which solution should be applied.

I think the frequent failure mode is trying to fix something else than what it broken. For example making better and better to-do list with priorities etc., when the problem is simply internet addiction. The first step should be to identify the broken part.

Also, it could be interesting to make a research, which kind of procrastination is how frequent, once we have a method for telling the difference. For example I would guess that for most people the real problem is the internet addiction. But I would like to see the data.

Ooh, not only is procrastination sometimes not akratic, it's sometimes the opposite! Namely, it can be an effective commitment device. If you want to force yourself to spend less time on a project, just start it closer to its hard deadline.

[-][anonymous]9y 2

If you want to force yourself to spend less time on a project, just start it closer to its hard deadline.

But if you underestimate how long it'll take you, you'll risk burning yourself out by working fifteen hours a day during the last two days before the deadline.

True, but it might be worth the risk if it's the kind of project that will expand to fill whatever time you allow for it and yet it's not that important to you. In other words, it's worth the pain of the two fifteen-hour days because starting it sooner means a lot more total time spent on it.

This is the solution to procrastination I finally settled on during my senior year of college, when I was deepest in its throes. My biggest hurdle was that I no longer cared about the work, and rather than try to fight the apathy, I embraced it. I said to myself, the reason I don't want to work on this lab report is because it's a stupid assignment and I don't care about it, so what sense does it make trying to force myself to work on it for hours and hours? Instead, I think it's worth, at most, 4 hours of my time, and it's due at 1:30 on Tuesday afternoon, so I will purposefully not start it until 9:30 Tuesday morning, and—and this was the crucial step—not feel in the least bad about the fact that I haven't started it yet up until that point. And whaddaya know, I still graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

Is this an ideal long-term solution? Presumably not, though maybe for some people. And it wouldn't work on a task that legitimately required a hundred hours to complete. But it was a great solution for me in that context, when the desirable end-goal of the diploma was in sight, and I just needed to keep handing in my homework long enough to get there.

Or risk missing my deadline by a couple of days.
Which usually turns out not to be a big deal.

[-][anonymous]9y 1

Knowing (more precisely, alieving) that missing the deadline won't be a big deal completely stops dreeves' mindhack from working for me.

I'd like to add, being organized is a skill, and as with all skills you will be bad at it when you start. A lot of personal angst could be avoided if one takes up the attitude that one is learning to be more organized, rather than delusionally "deciding" to "get organized."

I've also noticed that, if you scrutinize the individuals at the top of any field, it becomes apparent that they tend to be not just better at their domain of expertise but also better-organized in general.

I would be very grateful if someone wrote an article summarizing all of the different methods of getting organized and learning to do so, with links to all of those various productivity blogs.

Are you making fun of all us productivity porn connoisseurs? :)

Seriously though, we're pretty proud of the Beeminder blog:

There's also good stuff at though they actually post too frequently for my taste.

Ooh, and and of course has a gazillion interesting ideas.

(And, yes, self-parody that I am, I second your call for a comprehensive survey article on productivity techniques!)

No. :)

I am just dipping my toe into productivity porn---most productivity pornography that I've seen assumes a higher level of organization/habit than I have (Beeminder doesn't assume that) so I haven't bothered at trying any advanced techniques. I do have a strong desire that information be much more organized and consolidated that it usually is. I have a dream that someday I'll be able to get books in certain fields that are like lists of facts, with collapsed context/deeper explanations and evidence for the facts.

With regards to blogs, and productivity blogs, it isn't really possible since people are writing new information, but I would like to see 1 huge article that "has everything" just summarized, with links or collapsed details.

Currently, it's really difficult to "skim" many different long blog articles and pick out what is different, what's good, what is repeated on another site, etc. I like lists of single sentences/short words with no little to no context.

Thanks for the links!

[-][anonymous]9y 0

I'd probably be willing to do that eventually, but I'm not actually aware of a significant number of books or blogs about organization.

Yeah, what I think happens is: Your brain doesn't treat your goals as things to work towards. It treats your goals as things to tell people you're working towards. (Near vs Far here, with goals being Far.) So if you're not accomplishing your goals, your brain's default is to feel bad about it, to make sure any nearby tribe members know how very guilty and ashamed you are for not accomplishing your goals. Your brain's default is not to actually figure out how to change your behavior to get more goal-achievement, because, well, goals aren't for accomplishing.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

Surely the brain thinks of something as being goals to actually work towards. If not, how do we ever get anything done?

Deadlines, which are near in time, and therefore get processed in near mode?