You’ve been working on an important project and putting off eating for the last couple of hours, but now your stomach is screaming at you. So, you take a quick break and decide to get something to eat. When you open the refrigerator, you notice your leftover burrito from last night and decide to heat it up. You put it in the microwave for a couple of minutes and go back to working until you hear a muffled “POOF” sound that came from the kitchen. You open the microwave to find your cheesy burrito exploded all over the place. Frustrated, you grab the remainder of your burrito, shut the messy microwave and go back to work… You’ll clean it later.
Procrastination comes in many forms, but generally, it’s just a matter of putting something off for later. Sometimes we get to it, and other times, it slips off the radar completely. In the case of our burrito, we put off cleaning the microwave to keep focusing on our work. Why would we do that though? Generally, when we think of putting things off, there is little to no positive reason for it; is that the case for procrastination?
There is a famous study from Stanford University on delayed gratification, also known as the marshmallow test. In this test, researchers recorded kids’ ability to either eat a single marshmallow or treat right away or wait for more marshmallows. They followed up on the original study 20 years later and found that those who delayed gratification the most ultimately were more successful. That overall conclusion based on a mere marshmallow feels over the top, but some of the other more immediate findings are interesting and feasible. Firstly, the child’s decisions changed dramatically based on the tasks and timeframes required to wait. Secondly, the reward being in obvious view had a major impact. Thirdly, the majority of kids that delayed themselves either had little frustration or expressed their frustration in somewhat productive ways, essentially putting their minds on other things as much as possible.
What this means is that the child must be prioritizing the delay of gratification based on 1) some form of difficulty/time involved, 2) how apparent the reward is, and 3) whether they have something else to do or not. Can we really assume that a child who decides to eat the marshmallow right away is doing so because they have less ability to delay gratification?
Procrastination, interestingly enough, seems to have similar correlations. If we have nothing to do, there’s a big reward and the task is simple, the chances we will procrastinate are probably pretty low. If, on the other hand, the task is time-consuming, difficult, with a small reward and we have many other things to do, there’s a good chance we are going to procrastinate.
The concept of small rewards all together somewhat breaks the original purpose of the marshmallow test. For instance, if anyone asked us as an adult whether we would eat a marshmallow now versus a handful of marshmallows later, we simply wouldn’t care. Some of us would, and some of us wouldn’t; it wouldn’t have any bearing on our ability to delay gratification.
To understand gratification, we need to enhance the reward to be something more tangible. Let’s say it was lunchtime, and we hadn’t eaten all day. Then we are asked if we would like to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich now or if we would wait for two hours to get our favorite food. What would we do? For most of us, it would depend on how hungry we were and what we’d be able to do between the two hours. Ultimately, the size of the reward would have to match the time and effort we put in.
Not only that, but the study itself is ultimately impacting our decision. For an adult, it is obvious that for just about any food, no one would care. The best option would be to not be in the study at all and go get whatever food we want. How can we test delayed gratification when the best option isn’t really available?
The result of the study can only measure the time-value of a reward as it relates to the study and each participant. The smaller the reward, the smaller the time-value of that reward. It’s possible to be no different for the children. Imagine, instead, offering a kid a marshmallow and asking them if they would rather wait for tickets to their favorite venue. Guaranteed, most kids would wait without a problem; would that then mean everyone can delay gratification? Most likely, yes.
Machines and Masochists
If we think of procrastination in terms of hours spent, eight hours spent at the last minute could ultimately be the same as eight hours spent over the course of four weeks. If we were machines (or have extreme discipline) and there were no other factors, then procrastination alone wouldn’t make sense. To account for contingencies and maximize the reward of completing tasks, it would make more sense to get important tasks done as soon as possible while spreading them out based on priority. Instead of waiting until the last eight hours, a machine would get it done the first day and not have to account for any other possible outcomes.
Procrastination is confusing because we usually understand that it has various negative outcomes, possibly also causing stress and anxiety. That means that either most of us procrastinators are masochists or that there are other factors that cause and ultimately promote procrastination.
Chances are we aren’t all masochists. It’s possible that procrastination can be rewarding because 1) We are limiting the time and energy spent to the absolute minimum (in other words, delayed frustration). 2) When we get the task done, it can be a relief. Both the completion of the task and the relief of tension are more gratifying than just the completion of the task itself. 3) We may need to prepare ourselves and “save up” for tough tasks.
If we wanted to get a machine to procrastinate, all we would have to do is assign a level of “energy” required to complete certain large tasks. The only way to accumulate the energy would be to do anything but the large tasks for extended periods…
Less Bad and the Energy Meter
For the content and happy procrastinators that aren’t stressed or anxious about their procrastination, their current method is clearly more rewarding than attempting to complete tasks early. Overall, it feels good for them to procrastinate. Yet, for the more depressed and anxious people who struggle with procrastination, it doesn’t make immediate sense that they would be depressed or anxious about procrastinating and still keep doing it.
For the anxious, it’s not that procrastination is “good;” it is just less bad than dealing with the additional stress at a particular point. Imagine, for example, that we have an energy meter from one to ten, with one being extremely depressed and tired and ten being energetic and happy. Now imagine that the task that we are procrastinating doing will end up decreasing our energy meter by three points when we do it.
If we are super happy and energetic at ten, then doing the task will bring us to a seven for a while. That sucks, but it’s not a big deal; we’re still pretty happy and have energy to spare for random events. So, it’s not overly taxing, and as such, we wouldn’t necessarily need to procrastinate. It would be more based on our risk versus reward and general priorities, whether we decide to get the task done early or not.
Yet how would the anxious or depressed person with lower energy feel? If we are in the middle at a five on our energy scale, indicating not super happy but not super depressed, what would happen when we take on that tough task? Our happiness energy would dip pretty low. We’d be at a two, clearly entering the depressed and low energy realm. We’d barely have room for any contingencies, so if we have other life problems going on, we’re screwed.
When we avoid tasks by procrastinating, we could be instinctively managing our energy, our level of happiness or strength. As it gets a bit higher, we can muster enough energy to do tough tasks without getting overly depressed. The simple case of our exploded burrito in our initial scenario would fit into this category. Even though it’s only a five-minute task, for some, just thinking about it raises the level of frustration higher than we want to deal with at the time.
The happiness or energy scale, of course, isn’t a real thing, and it’s a gross simplification of our possible emotions and feelings, but we can easily understand that procrastination could be our intuitive way of putting things off for a variety of reasons. Just because we “really want to get it done” doesn’t mean we always have the time, energy or mental strength to do so. It’s not as simple as “reward” versus “punishment,” or delayed gratification.
Instead, we have a complex web of conflicting priorities. Maybe not wanting to spiral into depression could be conflicting with our need to get the task done. Is there a way to make the task not take as much time, energy or strength? Is there a way to improve overall mindset to be able to handle the task? Ultimately, the more efficient we can learn to handle tasks, the higher we can keep our mental energy, the more prepared we will be for any obstacle that comes our way.
As with emotions, finding the root cause can help lead to the solution. Procrastination in itself is not a bad thing; however, it could be a symptom of something deeper. There will always be a myriad of conflicting priorities and things that actually need to be put off. Fixing procrastination isn’t what our focus should be; improving our ability to handle conflicting priorities is.
Well explained, thanks for sharing
I dislike how you start this article. Reinforcement schedules and the rationale behind procrastination is vastly different.
Thanks for the thoughts Lindsey. Maybe you could expand on what you mean? I agree reinforcement schedules is vastly different than the rationale behind procrastination.