Procrastinating because of uncertainty

post by JonahS (JonahSinick) · 2014-03-21T00:14:59.916Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 14 comments

Contents

  A belief that it's more effective to do the work later on
  A belief that one can't do the work
  A belief that one is poorly suited to the work
  A belief that the work is inefficient or unimportant
None
14 comments

Procrastination accompanied by guilt comes from an internal conflict about whether one should do the activity. Sometimes the conflict comes from partly wanting to cater to one's present self (by engaging in more gratifying short-term activities) and partly wanting to cater to one's future self, or to others (by doing something that's less rewarding in the short term but that will pay for others, or pay off in the long run).

But this is often not the only element present when one procrastinates and is guilty. Often another element present is uncertainty as to whether the activity is what one should be doing, even when considering the indirect consequences. This can be subconscious: one might consciously think "I know I should be doing X, but I just can't motivate myself to do it" while simultaneously believing on some level that one shouldn't be doing X (even when considering indirect consequences). The conscious self isn't always right in these situations – sometimes rather than trying to overcome procrastination, one should instead abandon the activity that one is procrastinating, for example, when the activity is neither interesting nor important. The subconscious self isn't always right either: sometimes it's operating based in false information or insufficient reflection.

If one can recognize and resolve the uncertainty, this can increase one's motivation to do the work if it's the right thing to be doing, and help one decide not to do the work if it's not the right thing to be doing. So determining whether there's uncertainty and trying to resolve it can have high value.

It's not always possible to resolve the uncertainty. When this is the case, recognizing that there is uncertainty may not be helpful. Unfortunately, uncertainty can be demotivating even when completing the task is expected value maximizing. The question of how to stay motivated in the face of uncertainty is an important one that I don't know the answer to in general.

Below, I give some examples of beliefs that can coexist with "I know that I should do the work" that give rise to uncertainty, together with commentary. Some of the beliefs described overlap in character, or can be present simultaneously.

A belief that it's more effective to do the work later on

Sometimes there are higher priority things to do (even if one should do the work later on). Sometimes one is in an unusually poor state to do the work (for example, if one is sleep-deprived and this is not a regular condition). In such cases, procrastination can be rational.

Sometimes one rationalizes procrastination with the justification that there are higher priority things to do in the near term, even when it's not true. Sometimes thinking that one will be in a better state to do the work later on is wishful thinking. So this belief may or may not be good reason to abandon the activity.

A belief that one can't do the work

Sometimes the belief is well-grounded, for example, for most people who are working on solving a famous unsolved mathematical problem or working creating a tech startup. It tends not to be true for people who are trying to do things that many others have done successfully before. Sometimes the belief can arise from it not immediately being clear how to do the work, even though one could figure out how to do the work if one thought about it. For example, if one is having trouble learning to code, one can ask friends for help, or use Google to find answers to questions.

A belief that one is poorly suited to the work

Even if one can do the work, one might procrastinate it because one has the sense that even if one does it, it won't move one forward.

I know a number of former engineering majors who found it very hard to motivate themselves to work on their first year math, science and engineering classes because they struggled to learn the material, decided that engineering wasn't for them, and felt liberated upon coming to this conclusion, feeling much better doing work that they're better at and enjoy more.

Their motivational problems may have been a valuable signal to their conscious selves that they should be doing something else, and their decision to drop engineering may be rational: they could have been picking up on not being good enough at engineering (or find it enjoyable enough) to be able to get good engineering jobs relative to the other jobs that they could get.

They may have underestimated their ability to improve (c.f. How my math skills improved dramatically). They may have been misinformed about the extent to which engineering jobs are similar to learning the material in the required courses. So their procrastination may not have been a reliable signal that they should abandon the path that they were on.

A belief that the work is inefficient or unimportant

All else being equal, we flinch away from work that's inefficient or unimportant. So procrastination can be a signal of this belief.

Sometimes there's a better way to accomplish the goal that a task is supposed to accomplish. For example, it might be possible to write a computer program that automatically carries out a tedious task, whether it be computational, information-gathering or sorting. Also, carrying out the task may not help achieve the goal at all. 

On the flip side:

So here too, it may or may not be rational to act on this belief.

14 comments

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comment by chaosmage · 2014-03-21T09:40:12.018Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I model procrastination entirely differently. When I procrastinate, I seem to be temporarily unaware of my priorities. Whatever I do instead of what I should be doing eats up my attentional resources and pushes out elements of my rational reasoning for why I should be doing what I should be doing.

And this is why forcing myself to go cognitively idle (e.g. five minutes of mindfulness meditation), which frees up attentional resources, helps me stop procrastinating. If procrastination was (always) caused by internal conflict, freeing up attentional resources shouldn't help, but it does.

My personal experience is that things that easily eat up a lot of attention, i.e. reddit, are much more likely to draw me into procrastination mode than highly rewarding things that do not need as much attention, i.e. masturbation.

Replies from: pjeby
comment by pjeby · 2014-03-22T22:14:10.472Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My personal experience is that things that easily eat up a lot of attention, i.e. reddit, are much more likely to draw me into procrastination mode

Are you sure it's not the reverse? i.e., that you procrastinate in order to "eat up" those attentional resources?

Data point: I'm on LW right now in order to not think about something that I'd otherwise have to think about right now. ;-)

comment by RichardKennaway · 2014-03-21T09:41:41.396Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's not always possible to resolve the uncertainty. When this is the case, recognizing that there is uncertainty may not be helpful.

Personally, after having exhausted all avenues to reducing the uncertainty, I prefer to look the uncertainty straight in the face, recognise that I do not know what the best decision is, and make the decision anyway.

Replies from: John_Maxwell_IV
comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2014-03-21T22:13:42.790Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's better to go with your best guess than not even make a guess at all.

Replies from: Brillyant
comment by Brillyant · 2014-03-24T16:21:42.657Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Generally yes. Though not always.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2014-03-23T08:37:16.546Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is basically talking about how to deal with low expectancy / low value in the procrastination equation, so see also the other tricks discussed in the linked post. Also this one.

Replies from: JonahSinick
comment by JonahS (JonahSinick) · 2014-03-23T15:02:31.583Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks Kaj!

comment by buybuydandavis · 2014-03-21T01:28:32.916Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Procrastinating because of uncertainty

Big problem for me, particularly when I'm uncertain about whether some Bad Thing will happen. It's like I'm following a decision tree, and I get stuck at the junction - "What if the Bad Thing Happens?"

A solution that helps me is to assume the bad thing happens - what then? Calculate it out. Unstuck. Now calculate out what happens if the Bad Thing doesn't happen. Then add probabilities of each event, do a weighted sum in the head, and I'm done!

But just uncertainty is a problem. Same solution helps. Got to get past the junction of possible events, and the only way to do it is one at a time.

Replies from: Error
comment by Error · 2014-03-22T01:12:37.859Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have a related issue when there is a Bad Thing I expect to happen, but don't know when it will happen. Maintaining a state of readiness for the Bad Thing is costly; failing to be in a state of readiness when the Bad Thing finally happens is even more costly. I have irritating decision paralysis when looking at such things too closely...so I put it off. Too much.

(the specific Bad Thing I'm thinking of involved slowly dying relatives located on the other end of expensive travel, and for whom we were responsible for all arrangements. There is only so much time one can take off work continuously before you can't pay the rent anymore; but making multiple trips is also extremely expensive)

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-03-21T01:01:05.786Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's not always possible to resolve the uncertainty. When this is the case, recognizing that there is uncertainty may not be helpful. Unfortunately, uncertainty can be demotivating even when completing the task is expected value maximizing.

This looks contradictory. How can you know that it is expected value maximizing when it is uncertain?

Or do you mean it in the sense of later examples that if (the if is the uncertainty) you knew that some precondition on your side were fullfilled, then the task would be value maximizing.

I think to resolve the uncertainty i.e. the inability of the subconscious to provide clear feelings it is neccessary to give your inituition, your subconscious enough information to work on. How do you do that?

My approach is to push as much partial reasoning results into the subconscious as I can. My assumption is that the subconscious cannot to logical inferences i.e. complex symbol processing. But I assume that it can match up and weigh lots of fixed structures (cached thoughts) against each other. To feed this I use structured pondering (to distinguish from worry or rumination which are mostly maladaptive). Positively thinking about the same problem from different sides trying to find out what works, what could be improved and what to get rid off (but not to ruminate what all is bad).

I think this helped me to be balanced and to not get into inconsistency between conscious and subconscious. A problem I think purely logical thinkers have to watch out for.

Disclaimer: Maybe it's just that way for me (brains have variety).

Replies from: RichardKennaway, JonahSinick
comment by RichardKennaway · 2014-03-21T09:04:27.245Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How can you know that it is expected value maximizing when it is uncertain?

Expected value is, by definition, the value evaluated in the face of (quantified) uncertainty. It is actual value that you do not know whether you are maximising. Actual value is what you care about, but expected value is all you know.

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-03-21T09:59:54.548Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I read "when completing the task is expected value maximizing" to mean among the available tasks that maximises expected value conditional on being able to even establish such an expected value.

Thus I felt the uncertainty mentioned was of the kind not being part of the effective value. OK. It was strictly not correct. In the end you theoretically can always smear your uncertainty over all tasks. That what you meant.

But mayby the unease is due to some more uncertain difficult to grasp kind. Like the Radical Uncertainty.

comment by JonahS (JonahSinick) · 2014-03-21T01:12:48.178Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the remarks

Or do you mean it in the sense of later examples that if (the if is the uncertainty) you knew that some precondition on your side were fullfilled, then the task would be value maximizing.

Yes, if I understand you correctly.

comment by diegocaleiro · 2014-03-21T08:33:18.883Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This writing is profoundly related to my Calibrating against undetectable utilons and goal changing events On how to actually reach your goals even if you change or they are in the far future. Uncertainty + Rationalization is surely to cause some amount of postponing.

It is a long writing, and most sections are related: What Significantly Changes Life's Direction (lists)

Long Term Goals and Even Longer Term Goals

Proportionality Between Goal Achievement Expected Time and Plan Execution Time

A Hypothesis On Why We Became Long-Term Oriented

Adapting Bayesian Reasoning to Get More Utilons

Time You Can Afford to Wait, Not to Waste

Reference Classes that May Be Postponing Utilons Into Undetectable Distances

The Road Ahead