Procrastination: Adaptation or Kluge?

By one recent estimate, 80-95% of college students engage in procrastination, with a full ¾ of all students considering themselves to be (habitual) procrastinators. Another estimate says that 15-20% of all adults are chronically affected – and I can’t help but wonder whether the rest are simply lying. Most people are troubled by procrastination, most characterize it as bad, harmful, and foolish. And most of us do it anyway.

It’s hard to see how procrastination per se could be adaptive. The costs are often considerable, the benefits miniscule, and it wastes all the mental effort people put into making plans in the first place. Studies have shown that students who routinely procrastinate consistently get lower grades; businesses that miss deadlines due to the procrastination of their employees can lose millions of dollars. Yet many human beings can’t help themselves, and an article that just appeared in Slate suggests that procrastination may be a cross-cultural universal.

Why, when so little good comes of procrastinating, do people persist in doing it so much?

The problem, of course, is not that we put things off, per se; if we have to buy groceries and do our taxes, we literally can’t do both at the same time. But often we postpone the things that need to get done in favor of things—like watching television or playing video games— that most decidedly don’t. Procrastination is a sign of our inner kluge for the simple reason that it shows how our top-level goals (spend more time with the children, finish that novel) are routinely undermined by goals with considerably less priority. (If, that is, getting caught up on Desperate Housewives can be counted as a “goal” at all.)

People need their down time and I don’t begrudge them that, but procrastination does highlight a fundamental glitch in our cognitive “design”: the gap between the machinery that sets our goals (off-line) and the machinery that chooses (on-line, in the moment) which goals to follow.

The things we procrastinate the most on are tasks that meet two conditions: we don’t enjoy doing them and we don’t have to do them now; given half a chance we put off the aversive and savor the fun, often without really considering the ultimate costs. Procrastination is the bastard step-child of future-discounting (that tendency to devalue the future in relation to the present) and the use of pleasure as a quick-and-dirty compass.

We zone out, we chicken out, we deceive. To be human is to fight a life-long, uphill battle for self-control. Why? Because evolution left us clever enough to set reasonable goals, but without the willpower to see them through.

[The text of this blog entry is adapted from Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind]