Economics Of Procrastination, Or Where The Word ‘Deadline’ Comes From

During the seventh week of term, the surreal cheer of freshers’ week is dissolving, leaving behind only a realization that the university is not just about making friends. Days become darker, to-do lists become longer, and there you are, in Bill Bryson on a Thursday night, re-reading the same paragraph for the seventh time and not taking information in, because your mind is too busy having inner conversations. It is assumed that we are all rational – no excuse, especially if the paragraph you are reading is in an economics textbook! – so does this mean that we are not able to evaluate the benefits of concentration versus the cost of the time wasted scrolling your newsfeed? Is it a rational decision not to kick the unproductiveness?

A branch of study combining biology and economics, dubbed ‘neuroeconomics’ offers an answer. Thomas Schelling, an American behavioural economist, or an ‘egonomist’, as he called himself, took a somewhat dramatic approach to explaining what can be called lack of willpower, using the term ‘mental war’. In the late 1950s, armed with brain scanners and rational choice theory, his group of researchers studied brain impulses to find supporting evidence for his split-personality theory. From observed reactions to various stimuli, they concluded that one part of the brain, the dopamine system, demanded immediate gratification and easy joy, whereas the other, cognitive, was better able to guide longer-term choices through evaluation of lasting benefits. The imbalance between the two – namely, dominance of the dopamine system, the impatient one – is therefore what makes us prefer slacking off now and postponing all our productivity to the mystical ‘Land of Tomorrow’. Does it feel better to read that paragraph about perpetual life of limited companies, or to watch a vine?

But does it actually? If this was true and biology ruled our concentration disregarding of our willpower, the existence of Durham University would be endangered. There must be an extent to which we rationally allow dopamine system to stay in control – such self-command is present even in heavy alcoholics and smoking addicts, according to a research conducted in the late 1980s by Becker and Murphy. They (the academics, not addicts) have found that with an increase in price of nicotine, a substantial fall in cigarette consumption will occur, with the biggest cuts observed amongst the heavy addicts - contrary to presumably inelastic demand. It’s pushing it to say that low productivity is an addiction; therefore, procrastination must be a rational and deliberate strategy.

So what about the situation when you are sat having a tête-à-tête with your assignment, with no distractions whatsoever, and still daydream? Do you rationally prefer being unproductive to getting work done? Here, attainability of both options can be questioned: namely, due to tiredness, or influence of the dopamine system, focused studying may be temporarily beyond your reach. Thus, effectively, you are facing a trade-off between time spent fruitlessly looking at your book and any other pastime accompanied by acute guilt for not doing work, where you have chosen the former. This does not mean that you strongly prefer your occupation – in reality, you have selected only a lesser ‘evil’ in terms of your personal utility. To support, a recent study carried out by Wilson suggests that the human mind is in fact unable to draw pleasure from entertaining itself with its own thoughts. Within several experiments, Wilson’s subjects were offered to do nothing but remain idle for a quarter of an hour. The majority found the task challenging and rated their enjoyment ‘below midpoint’, or cheated by resorting to listening to music, closely examining furniture in the room or practicing origami. Moreover, some were wired up and were given a chance to receive an electric shock during the time of their idleness; shockingly already, even among those who said they would pay money not to feel the shock again, a quarter of the women and two thirds of the men gave themselves a zap when left with their own thoughts. Thus, if you prefer electrical shocks over remaining idle, and remaining idle over doing work… it is time to re-evaluate your motivation. As the proverb goes, many great things can be done in a day if you don’t always make that day tomorrow. Now, once equipped with some knowledge about your opponent, it is a good time to tackle procrastination. Tomorrow.

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