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.

Comments

There is nothing like the pressure of last minute studying to motivate someone to learn. Sure it is ideal and better to study every night for an hour each night, but a long concentrated study session where you are under the gun is tough to replicate.

Getting a mocha latte and checking your five favorite media outlets is procrastination--it's not a requirement of doing homework. I would argue that it is the delay of homework/study sessions that is procrastination, not the length of the session (which is usually connected to the difficulty of the assignment). Looking at it in that way, I can see the benefit: if I wait until the deadline is breathing down my neck, I can get more work done in a shorter period time. The benefit (or lack thereof) to my mental health is perhaps less apparent.

A better policy for getting through graduate school (especially if you want to publish while you're there) is to start writing papers before the semester even begins. You know what the topic is, and you can get the reading list from the professor beforehand, so start early. That way, you can end the semester with an article rather than a paper.

Think about tweakers and the time wasted in tweaking: 1) You write a 20 page term paper a week before the deadline; 2) each day before the deadline you open up the paper, re-read it and revise.

In the end, you could spend many more hours total on the paper than if you put it off until the last possible moment. The last five days of tweaks won't increase the quality at all, so this time is wasted.

Thus, procrastination is a valid time management strategy.

"So it makes sense to do work when your friends do work, and avoid work when your friends avoid work."

This ignores the intense pleasure of being done with all of your work while your friends are procrastinating. You get all of the benefit of that procrastination fun without your work-conscience constantly nagging you.

After 4 hours your productivity will be zero

Doing homework for 4 hours straight can't be more efficient than more shorter sessions.

However, in school and in work, requirements change over time. Some teachers collect only half the work they assign...

I find procrastination forces me to use my time more efficiently. I don't waste time redoing work or over-focussing on details.

Two more reasons to procrastinate:

Credible Commitment: It's a lot easier to convince people to leave me alone when I'm working to meet an imminent deadline.

Inter-temporal Uncertainty: Hard work might pay off eventually, but procrastination pays off right away.

It is ludacris to deny that their is a definite increase in marginal productivity as a result of procrastination. When starting an assignment well in advance distractions are much more persistent and prevalent considering the diminished costs of not working at optimum efficiency. However, when staring at an imminent deadline such costs sky-rocket and not pushing to continually increase marginal productivity becomes much more costly. Thus, procrastination is an invaluable cost reducing tool, assuming the operator possesses the skill to properly wield it.

Quasi-hyperbolic discounting, surely?

I agree that the idea of procrastination makes more sense than to just assume it is a decision making myopia. I for one know that after one hour of sitting and truly concentrating on an assigment it becomes that much easier to move on to the next. I would assume this is true with many other college students - as it is something I observe in many who live around me. During this time of year (exams) everyone is busy in their rooms working bent over a laptop for hours on end. There is something about knowing that everyone else IS in fact doing the same thing that makes it almost easier to lessen the oppurtunity cost!

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