Procrastinate is Another Word for Too Optimistic

    I wish I could say that procrastination is a crucial mechanism we have been socialized to think is evil. Instead, I learned that procrastination is common, and a sign of foolish optimism about our future selves.

    In a 1999 study conducted by Read, Loewenstein and Kalyanaraman, researchers told people to pick three movies to watch either back-to-back, or spaced out over three days. When subjects thought they could space out the movies, they usually picked a lowbrow movie (say, “Speed”) to watch first, then a highbrow one like “Schindler’s List” (which they “should” be watching) for later. When they had to watch the three movies back-to-back, they just gave up. In these cases, highbrow movies like “Schindler’s List” were 13 times less likely to be picked at all.

    In other words, we delude ourselves into thinking that we’ll have the willpower to finish that thesis later, so let’s play games now. We’re too optimistic, thinking that one week from now we will chose thesis-writing over video games, kale over Pringles, and “Schindler’s List” over “The Hot Chick”—so we procrastinate on things we “should” be doing at this moment. Yet one week from now, we will, statistically speaking, still be just as unmotivated.

    Another study, conducted in 2002 by Wertenbroch and Ariely, is even more bleak. The researchers worked with three groups of students, who all needed to turn in three papers. Class A turned in all three papers on the last day. Class B had to pick (and stick to) their own deadlines. Class C turned in one paper each week.

    To the eternal sadness of everyone who claims the “I work better under pressure” defense, the students in C (forced to turn in a paper each week) had the best grades. Class B, who tended to space out their deadlines like Class C, did moderately well—but there were always the overly optimistic slackers who choose end-of-quarter deadlines and whose last-minute papers, fueled by Red Bull and desperation, brought down the class average. Class A, with complete freedom, did the worst.

    There may be a weak light at the end of the tunnel. A 2005 study by Choi and Moran suggested that certain types of procrastinators actually did as well as non-procrastinators. Good news, until I read further and realize that these high-achieving procrastinators are the people who “actively” decide to procrastinate—and not those, like myself, who vow every week to get caught up and never miss an assignment again. No such luck.

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