Science in Action: Procrastination (evidence or anti-evidence?)

Evidence is the raw fuel of science: We collect data, it pushes forward our understanding. But there is also anti-evidence: observations that have the effect of holding back our understanding. The clearest example I know comes from experiments that supposedly “tested” mathematical learning theories in the 1950s and later. The observation was that the theory could fit the data. Theorists wrote papers to report this observation. In fact, the theory was so flexible it could fit any plausible results. The papers, which were taken seriously, retarded the study of learning because they wasted everyone’s time. They gave the illusion of progress. Hal Pashler and I wrote about this.

Another example of anti-evidence, I think, is the sort of data that linguistic theorists have been fond of: Observations that this or that sentence or sentence fragment strikes the theorist as grammatical, i.e., possible. Not studies of how people actually talk; the observation that a speaker of English or whatever could say this or that. The theorist’s judgment based on introspection. I’m not saying that this isn’t actual data of some sort; I just suspect that the value of these sorts of observations has been overrated and the net effect has been to keep linguists from collecting data that would push theorizing forward.

Months ago I blogged about how I found that when I made playing a game contingent upon clearing off my kitchen table, I was able to clear off the table. Which had been messy for quite a while. My question: is this evidence or anti-evidence? If I think about this, and try to understand it, will I be deluding myself, as the mathematical learning theorists and the linguistic theorists deluded themselves? On its face, it seems like a very ordinary, very narrow observation, much like the observation that “George played with the game Dave brought over” is a possible English sentence. On the other hand, it is something unusual and helpful that actually happened, unlike an observation that this or that is a possible English sentence.

When someone says “the plural of anecdote is not data,” you can be sure their grasp of scientific method is weak; lots of important discoveries have begun with accidental single observations. But those productive single observations are always surprising. My table-clearing observation was slightly surprising…

4 Replies to “Science in Action: Procrastination (evidence or anti-evidence?)”

  1. Procrastination is a tricky subject to study, precisely because the word itself is misleading. It describes a symptom rather than defining a disease — like trying to improve medicine by figuring out a treatment for “death”. There are many causes of procrastination, just as there are many causes for death.

    It is also difficult to investigate treatments for procrastination in self-experimentation, because it can be hard to be sure whether testing one’s idea is adding just enough novelty and interest to make the target activity motivating! To be sure, I have to find out if a method will work when I’m not interested in testing it. 🙂

    When I first worked with clients who were procrastinating, I had a few simple theories of what caused it. Now I know there’s little point in theorizing; I just help them figure out what’s causing it in the specific case and address that.

  2. Broad-based, chronic procrastination (long term, across many subjects) in my experience is usually linked to one or more pervasive negative emotions such as despair (e.g. “what’s the use of trying?”), fear (e.g. of being found inadequate), anger (e.g. “I shouldn’t have to do this”), or rebellion (e.g. “I don’t want to and you can’t make me!”). These are the easiest to get rid of, since they involve a strong feeling and there are plenty of simple techniques that only need to be applied once to get rid of them.

    Sometimes, though, chronic procrastination is just the result of a poor motivation strategy. For example, some people motivate themselves by thinking about what disaster will result if they don’t do something, and others motivate themselves by thinking about what it will feel like to *do* the activity (which means they’ll be motivated to do fun and enjoyable things, but nothing else). There’s an audio sample about some of this at if you’re interested.

    Subject-specific and situation-specific procrastination are a lot more varied, though. I’ve worked with a person who put off their own projects simply because they didn’t put them on their calendar, which was reserved for what *other* people wanted. I’ve had a person who put off learning new things because he would always think about what *else* he had to do. These sorts of things are also pretty straightforward to solve with one-time thought replacements.

    Then we get to self-image and identity conflicts: a person who can’t consistently exercise because they got picked on in the past by people who were fit and liked to exercise. Thus, actually *liking* exercise would make them like the hated group. A person who has trouble being organized because of jealousy of organized people — and another who has trouble being organized because they can’t bear to be near the chaos they’ve created.

    There are a whole bunch of procrastination causes that could be called “fear of success”, but just like procrastination might be compared to “death” as an explanation, “fear of success” might be compared to “cancer” in how broad it is. The identity fears of success I just mentioned are one kind, but anything that creates a conditioned link between pursuing pleasure and receiving pain can produce avoidance behaviors that you could call “fear of success” without being in any danger of actually learning something about the problem. 🙂

    The approach that I use with my clients could be compared to guided self-experimentation: I have them think about a recent, specific situation where they experienced a block or problem, and to note their spontaneous responses: thoughts, images, feelings, etc. Then I begin having them work backward through their thought process so I can figure out what their brain is actually *doing* to produce those images or feelings or whatever. Then I try various techniques, and have them think about the original situation again, to observe what change(s), if any, have occurred in the spontaneous response.

    The idea of testing against the spontaneous response is that anybody can use willpower to override their conscious response to something, at least *once*. So it’s not very useful to test whether they can *make* themselves act differently, especially since in the long term that just creates feelings of alienation and restriction, not freedom.

    Oh, anyway, I’m digressing a bit, as there are still *more* forms of procrastination that are situation-specific. For example, not having a clear enough idea of what it is you intend to do, or having a clear idea about some problem with what you want to do, but no clear idea of how to solve it and no *commitment* to try solving it anyway.

    In short, “procrastination” is a pretty useless word: it simply describes the action of not doing something that’s intended, without giving any useful information as to *why* or *how*. So, despite the fact that I sell a course called “The Procrastination Cure”, there is really no *single* cure for procrastination, because procrastination is not one single thing.

    (The course deals almost solely with chronic feeling-based procrastination and chronic motivation strategy failures, as these forms are usually the most debilitating, and also the easiest to give straightforward procedures for fixing, that most people can use. In contrast, subject-specific and situation-specific procrastination varies so widely from person to person that it’s easier for them just to have me spend 20 minutes asking questions to find out what’s going on, than to try to learn about all the different possibilities.)

    By the way, I find it interesting that psychology works tend to have by far the *least* useful information about procrastination, when compared to say, economics papers. That is, economists seem to understand procrastination better than psychologists… and good direct marketers understand it even *more*. See, e.g.:

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