On Rational Procrastination

On Rational Procrastination

The FINANCIAL -- One of the most fundamental assumptions in mainstream economics is the rationality of humans. Yet, as argued by Timothy A. Pychyl, professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada, frequently observed procrastinating behavior, i.e. the “needless voluntary delay” (Pychyl), cannot be reconciled with the rational man paradigm. 

Pychyl claims in his book The Procrastinator’s Digest that procrastinators violate a most fundamental axiom of rationality, namely the so-called transitivity of preferences. If a person prefers dogs to cats and cats to hamsters, transitivity implies that this person also prefers dogs to hamsters. Yet, a procrastinator behaves differently, says Pychyl. Having a deadline on Wednesday, they may on Monday prefer to do the job on Tuesday, and on Tuesday, they would typically prefer to work on Wednesday. Once Wednesday has arrived, however, working under extreme time pressure becomes a real agony, and they would wish that they had done the job on Monday. Hence, a procrastinator prefers Monday to Tuesday, Tuesday to Wednesday, and Wednesday to Monday. 

Secondly, Pychyl believes that not doing what one wants to do is irrational in an even more fundamental sense. Economists assume that people act on their preferences, and without reason not doing something one wants to do is therefore incompatible with this most basic tenet of economics. Pychyl says that a procrastinator becomes their “own greatest enemy” – in game theory, we are used to analyze situations of conflict that include multiple adversaries, but a situation where somebody is their own adversary is entirely alien to economic theory. 


There are other voices. In his book The Art of Procrastination, John Perry, professor of philosophy at Stanford University, states that “the procrastinator can acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done”. In his view, there may be deeper reasons for not doing certain things, and these reasons may not be entirely irrational. For example, he says, if one has something like “Learning Chinese” at the top of one’s priority list, it may be quite rational to delay that task, maybe forever. Moreover, he suggests that “structured procrastinators” finally do things in a highly efficient manner, even if (or because) they do it shortly before the deadline. Too long before the deadline, on the other hand, people delve in perfectionist fantasies of how greatly they want to do the job, wasting a lot of resources elaborating on unimportant aspects. Waiting for the moment when we feel the heat of the deadline can be what economists call a commitment device, saving us from wasting time on inessentials. 

On his popular blog waitbutwhy.com, Tim Urban makes a similar point. He identifies three benchmark types of procrastinators, and only two of them are clearly irrational. There are those he calls the successinators. They procrastinate, but when it is neck or nothing and the “panic monster” shows up, they do act, and they usually get the job done in the remaining time that is left. He considers himself to be a successinator, and he says that one can arrange one’s life around this character trait, using external deadlines, agreements with others and the like as commitment devices. The other two types, however, are incompatible with the rationality paradigm.  An impostinator is always busy but never does what is really required. You are an impostinator when you start cleaning your apartment one day before you need to submit your term paper. Such weird prioritizations are in conflict with one’s own preferences and would qualify as irrational according to Pychyl’s second argument. Even worse, there are the disastinators. These are the really critical cases who may be in a pathological condition and require professional help. Disastinators do not react to the “panic monster” anymore, and even when pressure mounts and a situation is about to go awry, they remain idle. 


Here at ISET, we think that at least one of two criteria must be fulfilled to call procrastination irrational. Everyone may decide for themselves whether according to these criteria their personal procrastination is rational or not. 

Procrastination is irrational for a person who finds it unpleasant to work shortly before deadlines. It is important to realize that through procrastinating, one does not work more than one would without procrastination. The only thing one does is to choose an order of doing things that leads into time trouble. By simply rearranging the order in which one processes tasks, one can do exactly the same work without suffering from pressure. However, if one is a person who enjoys operating in the run-up of deadlines, if one seeks the adrenaline and the energy that is released when time is running out, it may be quite reasonable to not do things too early. In the end, today’s work is not hunting mammoths anymore, and if one sits in front of a computer screen for most of the day, some deadline thrill may be quite welcome.

The second criterion is the effect of procrastination on the quality of work. If the time pressure is recognizable in the final product, this is a good reason to do things earlier – in the end, success requires not just to do certain things but to do them well. Yet, someone who can work accurately and reliably when it is high time does not have this incentive.

A few weeks ago, ISET hosted Maria De Paola, associate professor at the University of Calabria, who presented an empirical study on procrastination and its effects on student performance (De Paola and Scoppa (2015): "Procrastination, Academic Success and the Effectiveness of a Remedial Program", Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 115, pp. 217–236). Her experimental subjects were students from her university, and as a measure of procrastination served the number of days students needed to complete their enrollment procedures after they were admitted to Calabria University. It turned out that on average those who waited longer to finish their enrollment had lower grades and were less motivated in their studies. 

Inspired by Maria De Paola’s presentation, we decided to explore the relationship between procrastination and academic performance among ISET students. We based our analysis on the average grades (GPA) of 119 alumni who graduated from ISET between 2012 and 2015, and, like in De Paola’s paper, we took the time needed to fill out the application form after they were notified about admission as a proxy for the tendency to procrastinate. While our results are statistically not significant, we found that those who submitted their application forms close to the beginning of the time window had better grades than those who did it close to the end – by mere 0.021 points, which corresponds to not even one tenth of a grade step (the difference between, say, a B and a B+ is 0.33). Somewhat more strikingly, procrastinators were overrepresented among those students who moved downwards in the ranking of students during their studies at ISET (the ranking is an important parameter that determines, among others, the eligibility for scholarships and financial support).  Most interesting is that we could replicate an earlier result of De Paola, namely that “being exposed to time pressure exerts […] a strong negative impact on female’s performance, while there is no statistically significant effect on males.” (De Paola and Gioia (2014): "Who Performs Better under Time Pressure? Results from a Field Experiment," IZA Discussion Paper 8708). We found that the academic success of male ISET students is not at all correlated with procrastination, and the whole effect was caused by the female students. 

Our findings are in line with a rational view on procrastination. In Figure 1, one can see that the heavy procrastinators are predominantly male. Figure 2 shows that the average grade of the heavy procrastinators, if they are male, is considerably better than the average grade of the male non-procrastinators (while they are doing a little worse than the moderate procrastinators). Male behavior looks like an optimal response: as their performance does not suffer from procrastination, they do not avoid it. For females, on the other hand, the situation is completely different. The more they procrastinate, the more their performance suffers. Hence, we find few procrastinating females and many who do their tasks early in time. 

Having said all of this, it is time to send off this article. It is Saturday, 11:07 pm, and the editor of The Financial is waiting impatiently. Perhaps, also the reader should now stop reading this newspaper and go back to work.