Science in Action: Procrastination

A month ago I had lunch with Greg Niemeyer, a professor of art at UC Berkeley whose medium is games. His games have appeared in art galleries all over the world. He asked me if games had been studied by psychologists and pointed out some of their psychological properties — the power to make you concentrate for a long time, for example.

This was fascinating. He was so right — games are powerful in several ways. I wondered how that power could be (a) studied and (b) used. My first question was whether games could be a stimulant, like caffeine. I emailed Greg about this; he suggested I try Bejeweled and Sudoku. But I found them tiring — they require concentration. My next idea was that maybe I could use games as a reward. I used to enjoy Tetris and Freecell. If I do X (something I wouldn’t otherwise do), then I get to play a game. This contingency causes me to do X. There are dozens of rewards you could use this way (listening to music, eating a piece of chocolate, etc.); the advantages of games include their number and variety, the care put into them, the lack of satiation (you can play the game many times and it remains pleasant), their harmlessness (if I avoided getting addicted), their low cost, the ready supply (you can play a computer game whenever you have a computer), and the short duration of some of them. The reward for a 5-minute task should not last 4 hours.

I have wondered for a long time about procrastination — what causes it, what to do about it. I like to think I’ve figured out a few things but even so certain things I should do seem to go undone . . . well, forever.

For example, a month ago I had 40-odd emails in my inbox, some a few months old. I never got around to clearing it out. Bejeweled was no fun but Sudoku (Easy level) was okay. I never played Sudoku for fun but it was slightly enjoyable. Maybe I could play a game of Sudoku as reward for answering email. If I made the requirement — the amount of email that I needed to answer — small enough, it might work.

It worked. When I made the requirement tiny — deal with 3 email (which might take 10 minutes) — that was small enough. And I was able to do it again and again: handle 3 email, play Sudoku, handle 3 email, play Sudoku, etc. Progress was slow — I spent more time playing Sudoku than dealing with email — but slow progress was far better than no progress. I was a little stunned it was actually working. After about 10 cycles (which took 3 or 4 hours), my inbox was as empty as I could make it. It hadn’t been that empty in years. To gather some data about the whole process I wrote some R programs for recording what the task was, how long it took, etc.

Then I started spending all my time revising The Shangri-La Diet for the paperback edition. A few days ago I finished that. My inbox had gotten full again and again I used Sudoku to clear it out.

I want to learn more about this way of getting things done. Does it work with other chores besides email? Here is the kitchen table in my apartment:

My Kitchen Table 26 December 2006 8 am

It isn’t usually this messy but it hasn’t been completely clear for years. Can I use Sudoku to clear it off?

2 Replies to “Science in Action: Procrastination”

  1. There are a couple of good books re procrastination, keeping current, etc. you might enjoy:

    Getting Things Done by David Allen, and

    Sink Reflections by Marla Cilley.

    I’m glad you’re writing a blog!

  2. I just saw this on and had to add it — it will appeal to self-experimenters:

    From the blog post:
    I usually work on multiple projects at the same time, and whenever a new project comes along, I find it really difficult to actually get started. Once I’ve begun making progress, I’m able to move smoothly without any problems. It’s the getting started that’s really difficult, especially if it’s something I’m not really interested in. At an intellectual level I know I have to get started, but I’m not able to summon up the motivation to begin.

    For the last few months, the most reliable technique I’ve found to help me get started is to take the work to a coffee shop and begin while sipping coffee. I’ve found that this allows me to get excited about whatever is in front of me at that time. My brain appears to misattribute the physiological response to coffee as excitement about whatever I’m working on at that time.

    Of course, once I’ve started on the project, I get into a state where I’m chugging along well after the coffee has worn off. The interesting thing is that the excitement remains.

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