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I am very interested in procrastination, because it is such a clear sign of lack of motivation. I have a hypothesis about why we procrastinate, which I would like to get tested by you.

The assumption for this hypothesis is that we are more likely to procrastinate on tasks, which we are not good at, or which does not yield a sufficiently large boost in status.

If this assumption is correct, then I believe that a group of people, where all members are able to do all tasks, would become more efficient if those group members who were less efficient at solving a task would procrastinate and never get it done, so it could get solved by someone who is better at it. Similarly, it would be good if the whole group procrastinate on tasks, which do not yield a sufficiently large boost in status, because this way the group can allocate more status to tasks that are more important and this way avoid having the members do tasks, which they just felt like doing.

Questions

  • Are individuals more likely to procrastinate on tasks that they are not good at?
  • Are individuals more likely to procrastinate on tasks when the rewards in terms of status boost for successfully completing the task are low?
  • Does procrastination serve a functional role in efficiently allocating tasks in groups?
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I think your hypothesis with regards to why we procrastinate probably has some flaws (working on an answer to this now), but I'm very happy to see questions of this sort. Preliminary hypothesis falsification seems like a good use of this site. –  zergylord Jan 23 '12 at 20:54
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Actually, perfectionists tend to be procrastinators. And perfectionist usually are damn good at sth. –  Piotr Migdal Jan 23 '12 at 21:01
    
@StevenJeuris: It's less funny than it sounds, as the best are these who can do task very well (its not possible to get anything perfectly) and in a finite time (see e.g. matt.might.net/articles/ways-to-fail-a-phd). –  Piotr Migdal Jan 23 '12 at 21:45
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You say "I would like to get tested by you." However, the first step would be to examine the scientific literature on procrastination. To what extent does existing research support or not support your assumptions: scholar.google.com.au/… –  Jeromy Anglim Jan 23 '12 at 23:06
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Gentlemen, please continue the 'hypotheses' discussion on this meta topic. ;p –  Steven Jeuris Jan 24 '12 at 0:33
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2 Answers 2

As a starting point, the Steel (2007) meta-analysis in the highly regarded Psychological Bulletin is an excellent starting place for learning about the theoretical and empirical literature on procrastination. However, a lot of the literature seems to be focused on procrastination as trait, rather than treating procrastination as a task specific, temporally varying phenomena (which I think is what is more relevant to your question).

Defining procrastination

Before we can talk about the causes and consequences, we should define procrastination. The wikipedia article on procrastination cites Steel (2007) who defined procrastination as

"to voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay."

Thus, we should be clear that procrastination is not intentional stalling with the aim of getting out of a task.

Skill, difficulty, and procrastination

Steel (2007) suggests that procrastination may be greater when:

  • people have low self-efficacy, fear of failure, and perfectionism

Self-efficacy may be due to an actual lack of skill or may be a bias in thinking.

From a utility perspective, for a constant level of reward, having lower levels of skill on a task or doing a task that is more difficult, increases the cost of obtaining the reward. I can also see a specialisation argument, whereby people seek out domains that they are good at because the link between effort and reward is shorter.

So in summary, I think there is reasonable theoretical support for the idea that being bad at a task whether through lack of skill or inherent task difficulty may increase procrastination (or even task avoidance).

Rewards and procrastination

I'd be more comfortable defining your question in terms of rewards rather than specifically focussing on social status. Social status is one, albeit very important, type of reward. However, I think as a starting point, it would be easier to think about the rewards provided by the task. Also, it is probably also worth thinking about the flipside, the punishment (or loss of rewards) that flow from not doing a task.

In reviewing the literature, Steel (2007) suggests that procrastination may be greater when:

  • the task is aversive in itself
  • rewards are more distal

It is also implied by the concept of procrastination that the person does want to do the task in the longer term, whether this be out of obligation or for another more material reward. That said, greater reward and less distal rewards should reduce procrastination. Also, increasing the punishment and temporal proximity of not completing the task should reduce procrastination (as perhaps many all-nighter before an assignment is due can attest).

More broadly, there is a school of thought typified by this blog post by Daniel Lemire that sees procrastination as sometimes representing an adaptive indicator that one should focus on different tasks.

Thus, in a broad sense, reduced rewards for task completion should both increase procrastination and task avoidance.

Functional role of procrastination

Thus, in broad terms there is a theoretical argument suggesting that reward structures and the distribution of skill should lead to specialisation whereby people generally will tend towards doing tasks to which the opportunity cost is less than that for others. That said, there is a difference between procrastination and task avoidance in that task avoidance implies someone does not want to do the task at all.

Anyway, while the above analysis touches on the empirical literature, it is largely driven by a theoretical analysis grounded in concepts of rationality and utility maximisation. I'd be interested to read about what specific empirical studies have been conducted to test some of these ideas.

References:

  • Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin 133 (1): 65–94. FREE PDF
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I don't understand how task avoidance is not procrastination, while procrastination is greater when the task is aversive. The latter suggests to me that procrastination is indeed task avoidance. What else can it be? I'd say that procrastination is avoiding a task for as long as possible and limiting the time spent on an aversive task to a minimum. Example: When I have to write an essay for university, I don't start early enough to be able to write a great essay, but I start just in time to pass the essay with a reasonable mark. –  user1196 Apr 1 '13 at 7:04
    
Also, you say a lot of the literature sees procrastination as a trait, but your examples are all task specific. Wouldn't it be more accurate (from subjective observation) to say that aversive tasks cause those people prone to procrastination to procrastinate, while they work joyfully at joyful tasks (and don't procrastinate), and people not prone to procrastination never procrastinate, not even at aversive tasks, so that procrastination = (task aversiveness + distance of rewards) * individual tendency to procrastinate? –  user1196 Apr 1 '13 at 7:05
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I believe that Dan Ariely's experiment contradicts your assumption, since he shows that avoiding procrastination makes you better in the task. Thus, the correlation between performance and procrastination is in the opposite causality from what you propose.

see: http://bookoutlines.pbworks.com/w/page/14422685/Predictably%20Irrational for details. copy pasted from there:

The Experiment

  • Ariely conducted an experiment on his class. Students were required to write three papers. Ariely asked the first group to commit to dates by which they would turn in each paper. Late papers would be penalized 1% per day. There was no penalty for turning papers in early.
  • The prudent response is to commit to turning all three papers in on the last day of class.
  • The second group was given no deadlines; all three papers were due in the last day of class.
  • The third group was directed to turn their papers in on the 4th, 8th, and 12th weeks.

The Results?

Group 3 (imposed deadlines) got the best grades. Group 2 (no deadlines) got the worst grades, and Group 1 (self-selected deadlines) finished in the middle. Allowing students to pre-commit to deadlines improved performance Students who spaced out their commitments did well; students who did the logical thing and gave no commitments did badly.

These results suggest that although almost everyone has problems with procrastination, those who recognize and admit their weakness are in a better position to utilize available tools for precommitment and by doing so, help themselves overcome it.

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I don't agree with your conclusion that the Dan Arieli's experiment contradicts with the first OP assumption. The assumption is: Are individuals more likely to procrastinate on tasks that they are not good at?. To prove it wrong, you have to show that you procrastinate the same amount regardless of your ability to do the task well. The Dan Arieli's experiment shows that the less you procrastinate, the better you perform, which is not in contradiction with the OP assumption. –  pinouchon Mar 2 '12 at 0:19
    
-1 This answer does not answer the question, which was not about deadlines, but about the effects of task difficulty and anticipated results (status boost). –  user1196 Apr 1 '13 at 6:53
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