The war inside your brain
May 18, 2011 3 Comments
As part of a spring-cleaning of things I’ve been meaning to share, allow me to draw your attention to this wonderful article on procrastination from You Are Not So Smart, “a blog devoted to self delusion and irrational thinking.”
Procrastination is everywhere in all our lives. I don’t know about you, but any email I receive that is more than two paragraphs long gets labelled ‘to read’ and forgotten, and any that requires a reply more substantive than ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘LOL’ gets similarly buried under ‘to reply to’. The increasing proportion of communication that comes in through Facebook can’t be filed in the same way, so messages just get marked as unread and wall posts often just forgotten. In the last year I’ve transitioned from printing off endless magazine articles and never reading them, through saving endless magazine articles to Instapaper and never reading them, to sending endless magazine articles to my Kindle and never reading them.
But the post, by journalist David McRaney, explains that procrastination isn’t merely laziness, it’s the result of complex flaws in the way we ‘think about thinking.’
Many studies over the years have shown you tend to have time-inconsistent preferences. When asked if you would rather have fruit or cake one week from now, you will usually say fruit. A week later when the slice of German chocolate and the apple are offered, you are statistically more likely to go for the cake…
This is sometimes called present bias – being unable to grasp what you want will change over time, and what you want now isn’t the same thing you will want later…
Present bias is why you’ve made the same resolution for the tenth year in a row, but this time you mean it. You are going to lose weight and forge a six-pack of abs so ripped you could deflect arrows.
You weigh yourself. You buy a workout DVD. You order a set of weights.
One day you have the choice between running around the block or watching a movie, and you choose the movie. Another day you are out with friends and can choose a cheeseburger or a salad. You choose the cheeseburger.
The slips become more frequent, but you keep saying you’ll get around to it. You’ll start again on Monday, which becomes a week from Monday. Your will succumbs to a death by a thousand cuts. By the time winter comes it looks like you already know what your resolution will be the next year.
Procrastination is a result not of laziness, but of the same impulse that leads to us buying treats we can’t afford or breaking diets – the temptation of short-term pleasure over long-term benefit. It’s easy for us to blame ourselves for this. But it turns out avoiding the temptations of short-term pleasure is actually very, very hard.
Walter Mischel conducted experiments at Stanford University throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s in which he and his researchers offered a bargain to children.
The kids sat at a table in front of a bell and some treats. They could pick a pretzel, a cookie or a giant marshmallow. They told the little boys and girls they could either eat the treat right away or wait a few minutes. If they waited, they would double their payoff and get two treats. If they couldn’t wait, they had to ring the bell after which the researcher would end the experiment.
Some made no attempt at self-control and just ate right away. Others stared intensely at the object of their desire until they gave in to temptation. Many writhed in agony, twisting their hands and feet while looking away. Some made silly noises.
In the end, a third couldn’t resist.
The bad news is, and you might have heard this as it mentioned in a New Yorker article last year, the kids who didn’t manage to wait five minutes to get two marshmallows went on to have, well, measurably worse lives.
But McRaney has good news, too: the kids who succeeded in waiting for the marshmallow? They weren’t spartan ascetics, or zen-like Buddhas. They were just good at tricking themselves into forgetting the marshmallow was there.
They watched the wall instead of looking at the food. They tapped their feet instead of smelling the confection. The wait was torture for all, but some knew it was going to be impossible to just sit there and stare at the delicious, gigantic marshmallow without giving in.
Basically, McRaney explains, “ the problem isn’t you are a bad manager of your time – you are a bad tactician in the war inside your brain.” Those who avoid procrastination aren’t saints – they simply know how prone to procrastination they are, and take steps to pre-empt themselves from doing it. They remove distractions from their workspace; they unplug the damn internet. (When I found out even Jonathan Franzen has had to glue up the modem port on his laptop to write, I felt better.)
The more I think about it, the more I realise this is true in almost all of the many areas in which we succumb to temptation: the most effective people don’t simply ignore temptation, they avoid it. They stand in another room to the buffet at a party; they go to the same restaurant where they know there’s lots of healthy options and few unhealthy options. We think of the steps alcoholics go to stay miles away from alcohol as only necessary because of addiction; but we’re all addicted to doing things that aren’t in our long-term interest for short-term pleasure, aren’t we?
Anyway, you should read the whole article, it’s fascinating. Or you could just print it out and leave it on your desk for six months. Whatever.