Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Economics of Procrastination

Marginal Revolution links to an article that looks for reasons why procrastination may be rational from an economic perspective:

But is it possible that there is also a rational component to our procrastination habits? There are at least three reasons why this might be the case. The first is that there are fixed costs to doing homework. Suppose that in order to do homework you have to run to Kohlberg for a mocha latté...and check your favorite five media outlets as a preemptive distraction. In that case, it makes sense to have longer homework sessions in order to reduce the total number of sessions (and number of fixed costs to pay). Thus, putting things off in order to concentrate the work for a paper in one epic block means that you don’t have to waste time setting up to write again and again.

The second reason is that there may be decreasing marginal costs to doing homework. Suppose that the second hour of doing homework is much easier than the first, and the third easier yet and so on. You get in the homework zone. Then it makes sense to make your homework sessions as long as possible in order to take advantage of these returns to scale in doing homework...

The third reason is that there might be “thick-market externalities” in doing homework. The idea is that if everyone else is doing the same thing that you are, it gets easier and more enjoyable. If all of your friends are procrastinating at the same time, then the opportunity cost of doing work is that you miss an excruciatingly funny episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”... Similarly, when everyone is doing work, the opportunity cost of work is very low. After all, “Curb” is far less excruciatingly funny when watched alone. So it makes sense to do work when your friends do work, and avoid work when your friends avoid work.

It is fitting to make this post now because I am cramming several posts into one post-wrestling match evening, after neglecting this blog for the past several days...

Any other possible reasons why procrastination could be rational?

(Source: Marginal Revolution)


Anonymous said...

The marginal benefit derived from doing work early hardly equals the marginal cost of actually sitting down and committing oneself to the task. Think about it: when you do your work early, especially at Walker, you are not repaid or rewarded with a sudden large expanse of free time or extreme ease in classes, but are only assigned more work to take the place of the completed work. The only benefit derived from not procrastinating is the self-satisfaction of doing your work early. However, the marginal costs--missing out on outings with friends, television shows, etc.--are much greater. Thus, in order to reduce the costs, one decides to merely do the work when it is absolutely necessary. It may be argued that then there would be a huge cost incurred because you have to do something. However, as many of us well know, the cost of doing it pretty much equals the benefit of it eventually being done and then you get to enjoy all the time in between. So, while I think that all the reasons for procrastination are very valid, the overall reason I see is that it simply does not overly benefit you to complete work early, so why should you?

--Sarah O'Donohue

Anonymous said...

Although I absolutely agree with Sarah’s comments, I would like to assert that one may procrastinate purposefully, with the idea that there is a specific benefit (rather than just less cost) attached to the sleepless nights spent cramming. It appears that when students leave a paper or project until the night before, they are “rewarded,” of sorts, with a huge sense of accomplishment when that paper is turned in the next morning, because the amount of effort they invested in it seems bigger than if it was spread out in a bunch of smaller increments. Even though that effort is typically the same in either case, they receive more emotional “benefit” in the end by procrastinating (unless you consider the potential for a sloppier final product, and therefore lower grade, due to extreme time constraints and stress levels). Furthermore, for those of us who are perfectionists, if one starts a project early, they will probably have a longer period of stress about the project--even when, a week before it is due, they declare it finished, they will probably keep making revisions and changes until the night before it’s due. Or, as the author of the article referenced, the source of procrastination may be something as simple as opportunity cost: “I meant to start that paper last night, but my favorite TV show was on…I can always do it tomorrow.” To them, at that moment, the chance to watch the show is too important to give up--although that is a decision they might regret the night before the work is due.
-Nicole O.

Andrew L said...

Most of Nicole's comments are valid, but I can't agree with her comment on the sense of reward people feel by completing projects at the last moment. I consider myself a procrastinator; I never do assignments until the last possible moments, and usually do my best work while under pressure. However, I find there is more satisfaction when assignments are completed early. For example, I managed to finish my college applications over Thanksgiving weekend (I realize this is much later than most, but it seemed early to me). Because I got them done "early," I felt an almost absurd surge of relief. Hearing people complain about how many applications they still had to finish brought a self-satisfied little smile to my face for the last few weeks.

Anonymous said...

A benefit of procrastination could be seen as a way of doing better work. As an example, we are assigned our problem sets many days before they are due. If I attempt to do the problems that very night, I might be able to do only a few if any, but if I wait until the night before they are due, then I will have learned all of the material already and it will be easier to work on. So the quality of work increases with increased procrastination. Also, Andrew made a good point of some people performing better under pressure, and time constraints are surely a source of stress.

Unfortunately, a downfall of procrastination occurs if you are also sometimes forgetful, like me, and therefore I know that I am writing this later than it is due, but I figured that it is worth a try.
-Kate Vanderlip

Anonymous said...

For me, procrastination allows me not only to get my work done in less time, as I am forced to work on it without taking "breaks" every 20 minutes, but also to put out a higher quality of work. By waiting until the deadline for an assignment looms, I get really motivated and can concentrate on what I'm doing. The sense of urgency really allows me to think more clearly. In contrast, when I try to do work ahead of time, I usually zone out because, without having a very limited time in which to do it, there is no substantial cost for doing so. Because of this difference in how I actually do work under different conditions, working ahead of time would actually have more negative effects than positive.
-Jordan Croom

Anonymous said...

Procrastination is something that everyone goes through from time to time. In my opinion, it is always better to do your work ahead of time because you have more time to go over and check your work before the deadline. Therefore there is an obvious benefit from not procrastinating. Although, that is hard for us to realize a lot of the time. Many people work better and faster when they are under the pressure of time constraint. If I go into school early to finish a paper, I tend to do it efficiently. Andrew is right when he says that we recieve a lot more benefit when we finish our work early. When many of our friends are cramming in a paper the night before, and you already finished it, you feel great. Therefore, procrastination, although it may be efficient, doesn't give you a lot of benefit in the end.

Anonymous said...

1. We have to follow the Ceteris paribus. So, we have to assume that quality of the homework is the same either I do it early or late.
2. We have to keep in mind that doing homework has Diminishining marginal return (every marginal hour of homework produce less product - try to write down a homework for 10 hours non-stop and you'll see what I mean!). So, the assumption that "there may be decreasing marginal costs to doing homework. Suppose that the second hour of doing homework is much easier than the first" is just an invalid one.
3. The cost of missing television shows or missing parties etc, is not the marginal cost of doing homework. Is the opportunity cost.
4. The opportunity cost of not going to that party tonight, when I have 2 weeks to accomplish my homework, is very high: I could miss the appointment with that hottie. After a week with the hottie, the pleasure is less. But the opportunity cost of not doing my homework is getting higher (maybe I will not pass, and not to pass means my oldman will be mad at me and so on...).
5. So, what we have here is an application of the old rule to equal the marginal utility of every task to the cost of every task.

Hope that helps