Is procrastination rational?

Isaac Sorkin and Henry Swift give us some good reasons to procrastinate:

Though work-smoothing may sound appealing, we all know that it never happens to the ideal degree.  Part of this is certainly due to decision-making myopia.  But is it possible that there is also a rational component to our procrastination habits?  There are at least three reasons why this might be the case.  The first is that there are fixed costs to doing homework.  Suppose that in order to do homework you have to run to Kohlberg for a mocha latté…and check your favorite five media outlets as a preemptive distraction.  In that case, it makes sense to have longer homework sessions in order to reduce the total number of sessions (and number of fixed costs to pay).  Thus, putting things off in order to concentrate the work for a paper in one epic block means that you don’t have to waste time setting up to write again and again.

The second reason is that there may be decreasing marginal costs to doing homework.  Suppose that the second hour of doing homework is much easier than the first, and the third easier yet and so on.  You get in the homework zone.  Then it makes sense to make your homework sessions as long as possible in order to take advantage of these returns to scale in doing homework…

The third reason is that there might be “thick-market externalities” in doing homework.  The idea is that if everyone else is doing the same thing that you are, it gets easier and more enjoyable.  If all of your friends are procrastinating at the same time, then the opportunity cost of doing work is that you miss an excruciatingly funny episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”…  Similarly, when everyone is doing work, the opportunity cost of work is very low.  After all, “Curb” is far less excruciatingly funny when watched alone.  So it makes sense to do work when your friends do work, and avoid work when your friends avoid work.

Perhaps they should have been taxed for having written this.  Fortunately I am a reverse procrastinator and I have no problems with these issues.  It is procrastination which I put off, not work.


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