Procrastination and the Extended Will

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Procrastination and the Extended Will
Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc
alternative interpretation of the findings. What experimental game theorists may have
Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson
demonstrated is not that people are systematically irrational, but that human rationality is
To be published in Chrisoula Andreou and Mark White (eds.), The Thief of Time:
Philosophical Essays on Procrastination (New York: Oxford University Press).
heavily scaffolded. Remove the scaffolding, and we don’t do very well. People are able to get


on because they “offload” an enormous amount of practical reasoning onto their
Abstract: In this paper, we develop an externalist understanding of procrastination and,
in particular, of our how our distributed will and its supportive social scaffolding enables

environment. As a result, when they are put in novel or unfamiliar environments, they
us to keep procrastination in check (to the extent that we are able to). Thinking about
perform very poorly even on apparently simple tasks.
procrastination in this way has several attractive implications. It provides an explanation
of individuals’ ability to stave off procrastination that is compatible with what we are


This observation is supported by recent empirically informed shifts in philosophy of
learning about the limits of human cognition and rationality. It provides a framework for
thinking creatively about new kludges and scaffolding that can improve individuals’

mind toward a view of cognition as (to cite the current slogan) “embodied, embedded,
wellbeing, without needing to rely on unrealistic and illiberal therapeutic strategies that
enactive, extended.” Andy Clark, for example, has argued that “advanced cognition depends
involve changing individuals’ personality or cognitive style. And, finally, it opens up a set
of important and neglected issues within public policy, social ethics, and political

crucially on our ability to dissipate reasoning: to diffuse achieved knowledge and practical
philosophy, having to do with the collective responsibility for maintaining public (and
perhaps even unchosen) forms of scaffolding.

wisdom through complex social structures, and to reduce the loads on individual brains by

locating those brains in complex webs of linguistic, social, political and institutional

Less than a decade ago, “rational choice theory” seemed oddly impervious to
constraints.”2 Clark and others have made a very plausible case for the idea that a proper
criticism. Hundreds of books, articles and studies were published every year, attacking the
assessment of human cognitive competence must include environmental components. To
theory from every angle, yet it continued to attract new converts. How times have changed!
limit our attention to what lies within the skin-skull boundary is, in effect, to miss the big
The “anomalies” that Richard Thaler once blithely cataloged for the Journal of Economic
story on human rationality. Insofar as we are rational, it is often because of our ingenuity at
Perspectives are now widely regarded, not as curious deviations from the norm, but as
developing “work-arounds” to the glitches in the fast-and-frugal heuristic problem-solving
falsifying counterexamples to the entire project of neoclassical economics. The work of
capabilities that natural selection has equipped us with.3 And these work-arounds often
experimental game theorists has perhaps been the most influential in showing that people do
involve a detour through the environment (so-called “offloading” of cognitive burdens). This
not maximize expected utility, in any plausible sense of the terms “maximize,” “expected,” or
is an instance of the now widely accepted view that the evolutionary success of humans is the
“utility.” The evidence is so overwhelming and incontrovertible that, by the time one gets to
result not merely of adaptations in our biological endowment but also – and perhaps more
the end of a book like Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational,1 it begins to feel like piling on.
significantly – in our linguistic, social, and material culture.
The suggestion is pretty clear: not only are people not as rational as decision and game

When it comes to practical rationality, things are no different. Yet in many
theorists have traditionally taken them to be, they are not even as rational as they themselves
discussions of the “the will,” there is still a tendency to put too much emphasis on what goes
take themselves to be.
on inside the agent’s head. For example, the self-controlled person is usually seen as one who

This conclusion, however, is not self-evident. The standard interpretation of these
has a capacity to exercise tremendous willpower, not as one who is able to organize his life in
findings is that people are irrational: their estimation of probabilities is vulnerable to framing
such a way that he is never called upon to exercise tremendous willpower. This internalist
effects, their treatment of (equivalent) losses and gains is asymmetric, their choices violate
and mentalist bias is liable to make the various “glitches” in the structure of the will – such as
the sure-thing principle, they discount the future hyperbolically, and so on. Indeed, after
the temporary preference reversals induced by hyperbolic discounting – seem much more
surveying the experimental findings, one begins to wonder how people manage to get on in
threatening to the coherence of the agent’s plans than they actually are. For example,
their daily lives at all, given the seriousness and ubiquity of these deliberative pathologies.
everyone procrastinates on occasion. Yet only 15-20% of adults describe themselves as
And yet, most people do manage to get on, in some form or another. This in itself suggests an

2 Andy Clark, Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again, p. 180. See also, for example,

Donald A. Norman, Things that Make Us Smart.
1 Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions.
3 Gary Marcus, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind.

Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc
Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc
“chronic procrastinators,” or find that the tendency to procrastinate interferes with their
when trying to characterize human beings as computational systems, the difference between
ability to achieve major life goals.4 This is actually lower than one might expect, simply from
“person” and “person with pencil and paper” is vast. It is only when we are embedded in our
looking at the psychological literature on discounting.
familiar system of artifacts that we can do even moderately sophisticated arithmetic.

Our objective in this paper is to articulate this conception of “the extended will” more

In this respect the “offloading” metaphor is slightly misleading. When we “dump” the
clearly, using the strategies that people employ to overcome procrastination for the central set
contents of our working memory onto the environment (e.g. by writing things down) we are
of examples. Procrastination, in our view, constitutes a particular type of self-control
not just doing so for purposes of storage. We park them in a form in which we are still
problem, one that is particularly amenable to philosophical reflection, not only because of the
capable of performing computations upon them. Thus features of the environment in which
high volume of psychological research on the subject, but also because of the large quantity
this information is embodied become an active component of our cognitive system. Of
of “self-help” literature in circulation – a literature which provides an invaluable perspective
course, once we become properly habituated to using an external system, it may become
on the everyday strategies that people use in order to defeat (or better yet, circumvent) this
internalized, so that we can perform the relevant transformation inside our head, much in the
type of self-defeating behavior pattern. In general, what we find is that the internalist bias
way that children learn first to speak out loud and only later become capable of thinking
that permeates discussions of the will gives rise to a set of practical recommendations that
things through silently, in their heads.5 For example, older Chinese merchants who have
overemphasize changing the way that one thinks about a task, while ignoring the much richer
been trained in the use of an abacus are often able to do extensive computations without the
set of strategies that are available in the realm of environmental scaffolding. In the
benefit of the device – although you can often see them moving their fingers slightly. Having
concluding section, we highlight some of the policy implications of this, particularly
used the abacus for so long, they are able to picture it clearly in their mind and feel the
regarding social trends involving the dismantling of support structures.
position of the beads with their fingers so well that they no longer need the actual piece of

equipment. The movement of the fingers is the vestigial trace of the external origins of the
From Extended Mind to Extended Will
cognitive competence. The scaffolding is not so much removed as absorbed.

To begin with a familiar example, most of us can do multiplication “in our heads”

The abacus actually provides a wealth of examples of ways that external artifacts can
with numbers up to 10, but cannot go beyond that – this despite the fact that we have all
be used to provide “work-arounds” or “kluges,” that help us to circumvent limitations of
mastered a procedure (so-called “long multiplication”) that transforms the larger problem
what lies within the skin-skull boundary. First there are the beads. As physical objects, these
into a set of smaller problems, each of which we are capable of solving in our head (e.g., to
have the attractive property of staying put. Thus, when arranged into a configuration that
multiply 43 by 87, first you multiply 7 by 3, then you multiply 7 by 4, etc.) Each of these
represents a number, they can overcome limitations in our working memory (the central
subproblems we can easily solve in our heads, but the reason we can’t solve the problem as a
problem being that so little stays put there). The second major feature is that it allows the
whole is that the solution to these four subproblems must be kept in working memory in
operator to replace the set of primitive arithmetic computations with a set of finger
order to resolve the final subproblem, which involves addition of the four products. Most of
movements. Thus adding and subtracting become like positioning one's fingers on the frets of
us are simply not able to remember four multiple-digit numbers like this, in order to perform
a guitar in order to produce a note – something that quickly becomes second nature, and so
a final operation on them.
can be accomplished with little or no attention. Finally, the “uprights” or bars are used to

Hence the most common form of “offloading” we perform is to transfer segments of
represent orders of magnitude, making it possible to perform operations like “carrying the
our working memory onto the environment. We write things down. Obviously, the ability to
one” in a very simple, tactile way. This provides an easy way to deal with the rather
encode things symbolically for this purpose constitutes the major mechanism through which
unintuitive character of the notation that we use for numbers, viz. the “base” numbering
language (and a number-writing system) enhances our innate cognitive abilities. Indeed,


5 Lev S. Vygotsky, Thought and Language - Revised Edition; See also Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning: Four
4 Piers Steel, “The Nature of Procrastination,” 65.
Lectures on Mind and Culture; and James Wertsch, Mind as Action.

Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc
Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc
system. (Think of the way that a bank teller, counting out a large sum in $20 bills, will count
standard than theoretical rationality. After all, if one puts no constraints at all on the content
out five bills, then make a stack, count out five more bills, then make a second stack, and so
of preferences, then it becomes possible to construe any action as rational (in a rather
on.)
undemanding sense of the term) simply by positing a preference for doing it.7

In each case, what the inventor of the device has done is take a cognitive operation

Yet even if one says nothing at all about the content of preferences, there are still
that we find very demanding and, through clever colonization and manipulation of objects in
defects in our practical reasoning that can be specified at a purely formal level. The most
the environment, replace it with one that we find relatively easy (or that can become quite
obvious examples involve self-control problems – where individuals, upon due reflection,
easy through habituation). In particular, cognitive operations that must be performed
formulate an intention to perform some action, fail to perform it when the time comes, and
consciously are mapped on to a set of physical motions that can, with practice, be performed
subsequently regret this failure. What makes this type of situation noteworthy and
without paying attention. Computational outcomes that must be represented linguistically are
problematic is the subsequent regret. It is not merely that the agent fails to follow through on
mapped on to configurations of objects that can be visualized. All of this amplifies our
the intention – this could be described simply as a change of mind. It is the fact that the agent
cognitive abilities. But it also means that, when thinking about these abilities, it is important
subsequently regrets the failure that suggests that she maintains a constant preference, in
not to focus too narrowly on what happens in our brains. The central lesson of the literature
some sense, for the initially intended action throughout.
on the “extended mind” is that we should not think of these external artifacts are merely aids

An example of this is the everyday phenomenon of procrastination. A quick definition
to cognition, they are often a proper part of the cognitive system. They are, in this respect,
of procrastination would be to say that it occurs when:
more like prosthetics than tools. And, as has often been remarked in the case of the blind
1. an agent delays initiation of an action that is associated with some level of
person's cane – the tip of which is actually the terminus of the person’s sense of touch –
disutility, even though
many prostheses are so well integrated into how one makes one's way through the world, that
2. the agent knows now that doing so will increase the level of disutility at the time
we can say we "use" them only in the sense that we can say that we "use" our fingers to type.
that the act must ultimately be performed, and
In fact, we simply type. Similarly, we simply "add the numbers," whether it is in our heads
3. the agent has reason to believe that she will subsequently regret having delayed the
or on paper.
action.


The Case of Procrastination

This definition is intended to capture the sense in which the procrastinating agent

When it comes to tasks like arithmetic, the limitations of our cognitive system are so
chooses the larger-later evil over the smaller-sooner evil (procrastination is thus the converse
obvious and solved in such familiar ways that no one dwells on the remarkable fact that most
of intemperance, in which the agent chooses the smaller-sooner good over the larger-later
of us are unable to remember a set of four double-digit numbers for long enough to carry out
good). The qualifications are there in order to exclude a couple of cases in which the agent
long multiplication. Our dependence upon environmental prosthetics is self-evident. When it
delays initiation of an aversive task, but where this is not genuine procrastination. First, it is
comes to practical rationality, on the other hand, many theorists have either ignored or denied
not procrastination to put something off when something else comes up that one considers
the presence of any systematic defects. Rational choice theorists have been front and center
genuinely more important, and which must be attended to first. In that case, the agent has no
in this campaign. Gary Becker’s analysis of addiction as a consequence of straightforward,
reason to regret, ex post, the choice that he made. Second, even when one has nothing more
unproblematic utility-maximization represents perhaps the apogee of this tendency.6 Partly
urgent to do, merely delaying a task is not procrastination, unless things can be expected get
this is due to the noncognitive (or subjectivist) conception of preference that typically
worse somehow as a result of the delay. Sometimes we put things off just because we don’t
informs rational choice theories, which results in practical rationality being held to a lower
feel like doing it now, and from a certain rigorist standpoint, this might be thought to be a


6 Gary Becker and Kevin M. Murphy, “A Theory of Rational Addiction.”
7 Joseph Heath, Following the Rules.

Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc
Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc
failing of some sort. But if the delay has no significant repercussions, it is hard to see how it
agents not only have preferences with respect to various events that can occur, they also have
merits the label of procrastination, since it lacks the quality of perverseness that has made
a time-preference, which (all things being equal) leads them to experience delay as aversive,
procrastination seem mysterious to so many people. Finally, it should be noted that it is the
when it intervenes between the present and a positively valued event, and as attractive, when
reasonable expectation of future regret that is the important element of procrastination.
it intervenes between the present and a negatively valued event.8 The common way of
Whether the agent actually regrets the task later does not matter (e.g. sometimes unpleasant
expressing this is to say that individuals discount future satisfaction. The second component
tasks actually do just go away, when they are deferred for long enough, even though we have
is the claim that there is a “warp” in this aversion toward delay, such that agents find a delay
no reasonable expectation that they will).
of a given length less aversive, the further removed it is from the present, above and beyond

A simple example of procrastination would be leaving the dishes to stack up in the
what can be attributed to the mere fact that the experience of this delay is delayed.9 This is
sink, even though it is easier to clean them right away, before the muck on them hardens. The
typically expressed by saying that individuals discount future satisfaction in a way that is
behavior induces regret because, when the individual finally does settle down and perform
highly exaggerated in the near term – hence “hyperbolic” discounting.
the task, he will be aware that it is now more unpleasant or difficult than it would have been

The most important feature of hyperbolic discounting is that it leads individuals to
had he done it right away. A more serious example would be someone who puts off having a
rank near-term and long-term events very differently. Hyperbolic discounters have a
colonoscopy and therefore may miss having colon cancer diagnosed at an early stage. In this
preference ordering over distant events that is almost exactly the same as the atemporal
case, the colonoscopy does not become any more unpleasant as a result of the delay, but the
ranking that could be derived from the “payoff” value of these events, but their ranking of
individual's anticipated health outcome becomes worse (and thus the delay "makes things
more proximate events frequently deviates quite significantly from a strictly payoff-based
worse").
ranking. As a result, the passage of time can lead individuals to change their preference

If “utility” is defined in terms of payoffs – with respect to how much satisfaction or
ordering, in such a way as to make “smaller-sooner” payoffs more attractive than “larger-
dissatisfaction a sequence of events ultimately generates for the individual – procrastination
later” ones. This subsequently induces regret, at the time at which the “larger-later” reward
foreseeably fails to maximize the individual’s achieved utility level (i.e. as seen from an ex
could have been obtained. (“If only I had waited,” the agent will say.) When the payoffs are
post perspective). It is because the delay in some sense makes things worse that the agent can
negative, the same phenomenon occurs in reverse. Long before the dishes are dirty, the agent
expect to subsequently regret the delay, and therefore can be said to suffer a failure of self-
may see that it makes sense to wash them right away, thereby minimizing the negative
control. However, one of most noteworthy features of procrastination is that the agent does
payoff. Yet she waits, only to regret the decision later, once the disutility of the payoff has
not suffer from any loss of intentional control throughout this period. Thus the individual
grown. (“If only I had done this sooner,” she will say.)
who fails to do the dishes promptly is nevertheless choosing not to do the dishes at the time at

There are two things that should be noted about this in passing. First, hyperbolic
which he forgoes the opportunity to do them. He is not the same as someone who gets drunk,
discounting is introduced here as a model that can be used to represent the dynamics of
or angry, or into some other state in which executive function is impaired, and does
procrastination, not as an explanation for why individuals procrastinate. Indeed, there are a
something that he subsequently regrets. People often procrastinate under that description (i.e.
variety of theories that seek to explain the psychological underpinnings of hyperbolic
if you ask them what they haven’t done something yet, they’ll say “I’m procrastinating.”)
discounting, in particular, why there is the “warp” in our attitude toward delay. For our
This is one of the reasons why a hyperbolic discounting model provides the most perspicuous
purposes, it does not matter why there is a warp, only that there is this warp.
representation of the phenomenon. It offers a rationalizing account of procrastination, yet one

that is still able to account for the preference reversal and regret that characterizes such
8 The most important exception is “dread,” which occurs when the delay of an aversive event is also
experienced aversively. This can lead people to want to “get it over with” sooner rather than later – a
failures of self-control.
phenomenon that is capable of generating the opposite of procrastination. Consider a patient who opts to
have a painful dental procedure done right away, by a less experienced practitioner, rather than later, by a

The hyperbolic discounting model has two central components. The first claim is that
more experienced one.
9 George Ainslie, Breakdown of Will.

Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc
Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc

The second thing to notice about the hyperbolic discounting model is that it provides
many pathologies of the will – or, indeed, that it ever has been enough. To begin with, there
an account of procrastination and other forms of giving in to temptation without invoking
are many unanswered empirical questions about how such self-discipline is possible and what
what philosophers call “strict akrasia,” or intentional counterpreferential choice.10 Although
the limits of it are. Several recent studies suggest that although willpower is like a muscle,
there is a whiff of irrationality about the dynamic inconsistency in the agent’s preferences,
and can be trained, it can also become exhausted. In experimental studies, Roy Baumeister
the fact remains that, at the time at which she acts, she is acting in accordance with her
and colleagues have shown that (human) subjects who resisted a temptation for a period of
occurent subjective preferences – not contrary to them. Formally speaking, there is no logical
time were less able than control group members to resist a temptation that followed closely
inconsistency in changing one’s preferences over time, or in changing them back. Indeed,
thereafter.13 If the demands of individuals for processing decisions and resisting various
there are occasions on which we might quite easily sympathize with the agent’s
temptations is on the rise in increasingly complex societies, these individual capacities might
“intemperate” self, the one who wants to change the decision, even knowing that he will
easily become overtaxed – if pure willpower were all that people could rely on. It is,
subsequently regret having done so.11 Given how wide open our eyes typically are about
however, unclear to what extent the average person actually relies on individual self-
what we are doing when we procrastinate, it seems unlikely that the most effective strategies
discipline to avoid or to limit procrastination. Our suspicion is that its role is greatly
for reducing procrastination will focus on simply understanding how counterproductive it is.
exaggerated. Much of the time, what looks like sheer willpower is the result of more-or-less
Rather, we are likely to be helped most by kluges, work-arounds, and scaffolding.12
well-orchestrated attempts by individuals to arrange their lives in such a way as to economize

on willpower, by avoiding situations that call for its exercise. We refer to this as distributed
Self-Control Strategies
willpower, since it involves individuals creating more than one locus of self-control.14

In some cases, avoiding procrastination is a matter of just buckling down and doing it,

Self-control strategies can usefully be thought of under four general categories, as part
a straightforward exercise of willpower. An agent who opts for such a strategy simply
of a progression that involves movement away from the purely psychological toward the
resolves to perform a certain action and holds steadfastly to that intention, resisting whatever
environmental.
inclinations may arise to revise his or her plans (along the lines of a "New Year's

resolution.") We often describe people who are able to do this as having a lot of "self-
Direct psychological strategies
discipline." There is no doubting that individual willpower, whatever it turns out to be, is a
There are many effective strategies that involve shifts in one's cognitive approach to
good thing to have in the struggle to avoid making unpleasant tasks worse by delaying them.
an aversive task. These are ways of re-conceptualizing or re-framing tasks so as to inhibit
The more complex and individualized societies become, the more individuals will need self-
negative tendencies, or more often, to help individuals tap into motivational resources that
discipline if they are not to suffer disadvantages in both competitive and non-competitive
would be otherwise uninvolved. The system of “mental accounts” that many people use to
contexts.
control household spending (e.g. distinguishing “retirement savings” from “rent money” and

But there are reasons to doubt that "simply buckling down" will be enough to solve
“spending money,” for instance) is a well-known example of this.15 These sorts of
psychological techniques differ from "pure willpower" in that the individual is not simply

10 Alfred Mele, Irrationality: An Essay on Akrasia, Self-Deception and Self-Control.
forcing herself to do something, but is somehow modifying the construal of the task in such a
11 Consider Jay Chirstensen-Szalanski’s, “Discount Functions and the Measurement of Patients’ Values:
Women’s Decisions during Childbirth,” a study of the behavior of women who had chosen, prior to labor, to
way as to decrease the level of "forcing" that is required. We refer to such techniques as
refrain from using any pain control. He found that a majority reversed this decision after active labor pains

had begun. He also found, however, that almost all of those who reversed their position drifted back to their
13 Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister, “Self-Regulation and Depletion of Limited Resources: Does Self-
original view – that pain control was undesirable – within three months postpartum. Thus their “standing”
Control Resemble a Muscle?”
preference was for childbirth without pain control. It was only when they were actually experiencing the
14 The parallel here is with “distributed cognition” within cognitive science discussions. See for example Edwin
pain that they were fully appreciated the merits of pain control. In this case, one might easily identify with
Hutchins, Cognition in the Wild. See also, Don Ross, David Spurrett, Harold Kincaid, and G. Lynn
the preference at the moment of decision, and suspect that there is an element of self-deception in the
Stephens, Distributed Cognition and the Will.
“standing” preference.
15 Richard H. Thaler, "Mental accounting and consumer choice"; Richard H. Thaler, “Saving, fungibility and
12 For a related discussion, see Heath, Following the Rules, 228-234.
mental accounts."

Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc
Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc
strategic reframing.
times more often when participants had furnished them with implementation intentions."19

A general approach to the analysis of such strategies can be found in "Temporal
For related reasons, techniques involving visualizing the steps to be taken tends to create the
Motivation Theory" (which is, essentially, an approach to procrastination derived from the
impression that the results are even more proximate.
hyperbolic discounting model).16 This model identifies three items as central to the dynamic

of preference change, and hence procrastination: expected utility, delay, and sensitivity to
Self-management strategies
delay. Thus one way in which individuals can avoid their own tendency to procrastinate is to
The reframing techniques described above are still relatively direct, in the sense that,
manipulate one (or more) of these three variables.
when successful, they actually fix the problem, eliminating the underlying tendency to

To begin with, take the (dis)utility associated with boredom. People are most likely to
procrastinate. A person who persuades himself that cleaning up the dishes is fun is no longer
procrastinate before performing boring tasks (and people who are easily bored are more
tempted to procrastinate, because he no longer finds the task aversive. He may have engaged
likely to procrastinate).17 The natural explanation is that boredom increases the aversiveness
in all sorts of artful self-manipulation in order to convince himself that it is fun, yet the end
of a task (thus diminishing expected utility). One way to avoid procrastination is therefore to
result is an actual elimination of the inclination to procrastinate.
try to find something interesting about the task, or to embed it within some larger construct

Apart from these direct strategies, there are also an enormous number of
that makes it more appealing (e.g. turning it into a game, or timing one's performance and
psychological "kluges" that people employ. Rather than trying to resolve or eliminate the
then trying to beat that time). One might think of this as the Mary Poppins strategy: “For
underlying problem, here the individual simply tries to work around it. In many cases, this
every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. Find the fun and, snap, the job's a
involves taking some other defect in our nature and using it to counteract the defect that leads
game.” In some cases, a mere redescription of a task can be effective in enhancing
us into temporary preference reversals. For example, a major limitation of the re-framing
motivation, since preferences over actions have been shown to be sensitive to the language in
strategies just discussed is that they require quite a bit of active purposefulness, such as
which the action (or associated outcome) is described.18
maintaining conscious attention, and this is often precisely what individuals are lacking in

Similarly, to overcome the tendency to put off initiating a task with a distant pay-off,
cases of procrastination. As a result, individuals may find it useful to develop automatic
one can set a sequence of intermediate goals. This strategic re-framing involves the tried-and-
processes that are set up in advance and can channel their behavior in cases where their
true time-management strategy of breaking down an intimidating task into its component
attention lapses. The classic example of this is good habits. In a sense, if you have good
parts, each of which is much more doable. By shifting one's focus from the ultimate goal to
habits, you don't need willpower.
specific intermediate steps, one not only turns an intimidating mountain into a series of

Closely related to this is the strategy of "psychological bundling" of tasks. The idea
doable molehills, one also reduces the delay between effort and reward (whether that reward
here is to take something that you don't particularly like doing and to combine it with
be an intermediate treat or simply the confidence-building sense of accomplishment). So,
something that you do like. "Singing while you work" is perhaps the best example of this,
while the reward of having written a book may be so far off as to have little motivational
although unfortunately it's a technique that only works well with manual labor. Another
pull, the satisfaction associated with having written a chapter, or better yet, having met one’s
example would be keeping track of how much money you're making, as you perform some
target of three pages per day, is likely to be much more effective. Empirical support for this
employment-related task. (This is particularly effective when working on piece rates.) Once
reframing strategy is found in research on "implementation intentions" by Gollwitzer and
the two activities become habitually conjoined, then the psychological bundling may
colleagues. In one study, it was shown that "difficult goal intentions were completed about 3
diminish the aversiveness of the package. And since a daily routine can itself become a
source of gratification, building the performance of certain chores into a routine can amount

16 Steel, “The Nature of Procrastination.”

17 Steel, “The Nature of Procrastination.”
19 Peter M. Gollwitzer and Veronika Brandstätter, “Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit.” (See
18 Yaacov Trope and Nira Libennan, “Temporal Construal and Time-Dependent Changes in Preference.”
also the chapter by Frank Wieber and Peter Gollwitzer in this volume.)

Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc
Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc
to a form of psychological bundling.
same way, when it comes to overcoming weaknesses in our memory, the mnemonist's bag of

A related strategy involves recruiting strong preferences from another domain to
tricks seems quite exotic and recherché, when compared to the simple expedient of writing
motivate self-control in a problematic domain. Many self-reward schemes exploit the fact
things down.)
that we are usually capable of different levels of self-control in different areas of life. A

Looking inside someone's office, their kitchen pantry, their bedroom, or even on their
person who is rather miserly, for instance, may find it easy to refrain from spending money.
computer 'desktop', what one sees is an entire structure of cognitive and volitional
He might therefore coax himself into performing an unpleasant task by promising to buy
scaffolding, a system that this person uses in order to accomplish (with varying degrees of
himself something he has long wanted, once the task is complete. In this case, the willpower
success) routine tasks. Many aspects of the way this environment is organized are intended to
he is able to exercise in one domain is "leveraged," through the self-reward strategy, into self-
facilitate self-control. People who are good at environmental manipulation try to organize
control in another.20
their affairs in such a way as to make certain activities easier and others harder. We can

Another example of self-management is what is known as "structured
distinguish three general types of environmental kluges: triggers, chutes, and ladders. Each
procrastination."21 The basic idea here is to use one's own capacity for self-deception as a
of these represent features of the environment that either assist or discourage one from
way of combating procrastination. Most people, when they procrastinate, do not chose simply
initiating and persevering with an intended task. They may have emerged by more or less
to sit idle. A person who is putting off doing the dishes, for instance, typically will not just
adaptive happenstance, or they may have been intentionally designed, whether by the
stare at the wall, but will do something else, like watch television. John Perry has observed,
individual or someone else.
however, that many people, rather than performing the highly aversive task that is being

“Triggers” are environmental cues that, when appropriately placed, set automatic
avoided, will perform some other mildly aversive, perhaps even marginally useful, task. Thus
processes in motion (or bring them to a stop). Suppose you intend to go running every
a person who hates a particular household chore may put it off by doing some other chore,
morning first thing, but once you've poured yourself a cup of coffee and opened up the
one that is somewhat less useful, but at the same time less unpleasant (e.g. light dusting).22
morning paper, the idea of a run seems like an unpleasant interruption. Putting your running
Thus a person who has trouble washing the dishes might persuade himself that he really
shoes in front of the coffee maker can trigger the intended routine of going for a run, before
ought to clean the oven as well, and then put off doing this by washing the dishes.
other routines kick in. Triggers can also work in tandem with other strategies, for example,

by periodically reminding one of various promised rewards, thereby activating those
Environmental strategies
motivational resources. In addition, triggers can function as warnings, alerting one to
Many of the examples given so far involve a certain degree of cleverness and
impending temptations or calling for a quick check of whether one is on track (such as nag-
manipulation on the part of the individual. In part, this is a reflection of the relative poverty
screens that pop up every time one switches to one’s browser).23
of the psychological resources that are available to us, when it comes to dealing with self-

Many environmental features help with task completion by making certain desirable
control problems. When we turn to environmental strategies, by contrast, the field of
courses of action particularly smooth and effortless. These "chutes" are setups that make it
possibilities opens up considerably. Indeed, the use of environmental manipulation by
easier to slide into doing something. To take a variation on the early-morning run case: by
individuals as a technique for enhancing self-control is absolutely routine and ubiquitous –
laying out, the evening before, everything one needs, the threshold to “just doing it” is
indeed, it is so commonplace that we are often in danger of overlooking it completely. (In the
lowered. You step out of bed, the chute takes over, and the next thing you know you are

running out the door. Another example comes from the literal design of one's environment.
20 See Andreou’s chapter in this volume. See also Ainslie, Breakdown of Will.
The architect Gerrit Rietveld's premier 1924 "Schröder Huis" includes, next to the entrance, a
21 John Perry, “Structured Procrastination.”
22 In many cases this is undoubtedly connected to the fact that the temporary preference reversal associated with
procrastination is rationalized; see Lennart Sjoberg and Tommy Johnson, “Trying to Give Up Smoking: A

Study of Volitional Breakdowns.” This rationalization is easier to sustain if one is doing something mildly
23 See, for example, Merlin Mann’s “Right now, what are you doing?” nag-screen at
unpleasant, as opposed to straightforwardly pleasurable; see Perry, “Structured Procrastination.”
http://www.43folders.com/2008/09/01/what-are-you-doing.

Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc
Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc
fold-down chair and desk with storage for stationary, pens, envelopes, and postage, so that
bad actually happens if the deadline is missed, other than that the deadline is missed. And yet
Frau Schröder could answer mail immediately upon opening it, without even leaving the
deadlines are often motivationally quite effective, even when everyone is aware of their
entryway.
artificiality. A closely related strategy is the time-honored techniques of overcommitment. If

Just as chutes lower the threshold to doing the right thing, “ladders” can be positioned
Parkinson's Law is correct ("work expands to fill the time available for its completion"), then
to raise the threshold to undertaking wasteful actions, especially when it comes to
the best way to ensure that one is working at a reasonably high intensity level is to take on
procrastination. By structuring one's environment effectively, one can reduce the distractions
too much. This makes it easier to meet deadlines, in part because it deprives one of certain
and temptations behind much procrastination. Again, it is often sufficient just to introduce a
rationalizations that are often used to excuse procrastination. "I'll get to it tomorrow"
delay in the initiation of the time-waster. If email, instant-messaging, Solitaire, or web-
becomes far less persuasive, if the workload is such that there is literally no slack in the
surfing are sources of procrastination, then simply removing bookmarks and other shortcuts
schedule (so that leaving it until tomorrow is as good as not doing it at all).
or regularly shutting down the programs may provide enough of a threshold to keep one from

Teamwork is another closely related strategy. Like deadlines, working on a task
"just checking" too often. A more extreme option is to install a product called “Software
jointly with other people brings a variety of social motives (such as the individual's norm-
Time Lock,” which allows the user to “set blocks of time during which you cannot access the
conformative disposition, desire to avoid disapproval, unwillingness to "let down the side,"
Web, set blocks of time during which specific programs cannot be used, set blocks of time
concern over social status) into alignment with his or her instrumental work objectives. Many
during which you cannot use the computer at all, set limits on how long you can access the
people find that they can only bring themselves to exercise by playing team sports. In the
Web each day,” and so forth.24
same way, many people work far more effectively in groups. Many of the direct

Given that distractibility and impulsiveness are strongly correlated with
psychological strategies outlined above are also far more effective, and much easier to
procrastination, this sort of environmental management is crucially important. Even
implement, when carried out in a social context. "Making a game of it" can require
something as simple as closing the office door or working in an environment without an
considerable imagination, when carried out in solitude. But in a social context, it is always
internet connection, telephone, cell phone reception, or what have you, can dramatically
possible to make a game out of any task, often quite literally. The most obvious way is by
improve task performance.
introducing a competitive structure into the group relations, for example, by giving a prize to

the person who performs best (think of the way companies give out bonuses, or even
Social strategies
“employee of the week” awards). In a social context, it is possible to change the incentives
Finally, the most obvious way to exercise self-control in the event of an anticipated
governing a particular task in a way that is often not possible at a purely individual level.
failure of willpower is simply to preauthorize some other person either to act on your behalf
Relatively feeble "self-rewards" can be replaced by actual rewards.
or to impose control upon you. The locus classicus for this strategy is Ulysses’s ordering his

People in long-term intimate relationships often develop a very advanced division of
sailors to tie him to the mast and then to ignore his subsequent instructions. There are,
labor between themselves. This extends to both cognitive tasks, such as remembering names,
however, a multitude of far more subtle strategies that we use, in order to offload (or perhaps
but also to practical, volitional ones. One can often see a division of self-control tasks in the
one should say outsource) one's self-control onto other people.
way that household labor is divided up (e.g. the person least likely to buy junk food is the one

When it comes to procrastination, the most obvious example of this is the social
who does the grocery shopping, the one who is most likely to pay the bills on time is the one
institution of deadlines. By accepting a deadline, the individual essentially makes a
who looks after the finances, etc.) More informally, couples may employ the "license to nag,"
commitment to another person that a particular task will be accomplished by a certain time. It
whereby they essentially authorize one another to complain, criticize and even punish them
is often not the case that this deadline coincides with any objective requirement, i.e. nothing
for failures of willpower. They may also begin to rely upon the other person's complaints as a

cue for initiating action.
24 See http://leithauserresearch.com/software_time_lock.html

Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc
Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc

Perhaps the most subtle mechanism of self-control is selective association. Imitation
could easily be lost in the transition to college. Furthermore, they are no longer under direct
and conformity provide very powerful motives. In particular, we rely upon imitation to
parental supervision, and so are cut free from what has typically been their most important
establish what Ap Dijksterhuis and John Bargh refer to as "default social behavior."25 Thus
social self-control mechanism.
one way to avoid self-control failures of a particular sort is to avoid the company of those

who suffer from such failures. Being around prompt, hardworking, high-achievers is one of
Moving Beyond Mentalistic, Individualistic, and Voluntaristic Assumptions about
the best ways of becoming prompt and hardworking as well. Associating with slackers is a
Rational Action
good way of becoming a slacker.

One could view the foregoing discussion of “externalist” strategies simply as

Even from this quick survey of the available set of strategies, it is evident that they
elements in a diverse toolbox for reducing procrastination. But we believe that coming to
become richer and more numerous as one proceeds down the list. There is not all that much
appreciate the prevalence of distributed willpower has wider implications for our
we can do, using our "onboard" resources, when it comes to controlling procrastination.
understanding of rational human agency. On what one can call the “standard model,” what is
When one moves into the domain of the environment, on the other hand, especially the social
needed to avoid irrationality is largely understood in mentalistic, individualistic, and
environment, the set of available strategies becomes less restricted. The latter seems to be
voluntaristic terms. Being rational, on this view, is a matter of correct thinking, engaged in
limited primarily by human imagination, not any inherent limitations of the medium.
by individuals, along with the ability to exert one’s will decisively. But looking at how we

The importance of these environmental strategies can be seen in the phenomenon of
are able to avoid procrastination suggests that rationality is, at least on that domain, achieved
“college procrastination” – the fact that college students, particularly during first and second
rather differently.
year, experience much higher levels of “problem procrastination” than the general public.

Traditional time management advice has been mentalistic in assuming that solutions
What is particularly interesting about this phenomenon is that it has little predictive
will come from individuals thinking more rationally about how best to achieve their goals.
significance, when it comes to determining work habits in other contexts.26 From an
The focus is on cognitive accomplishments that are within the intentional control of the mind;
internalist perspective this is perhaps mysterious, but when seen from the perspective of
they are, indeed, operations of the mind that are thought to flow directly into action. Much of
environmental scaffolding it is entirely unsurprising. College students are given a fairly high
the self-help literature also focuses on internal psychological factors, such as “fear of
degree of autonomy, when it comes to determining a plan of work for themselves, yet they
failure,” that may discourage people from working as effectively as they might; for example,
are deprived of all the scaffolding that they have used, in the past, to offload motivational
one popular book claims that “procrastination may be protecting a fragile sense of self-worth
resources. Often they are living away from home for the first time, and so are missing
that is shaken by threats of judgment, control, closeness or distance.”28 Rather than
whatever “system” they had developed for the timely completion of tasks. For example,
restructuring the temporal dynamics of choice, or changing their external incentives,
merely studying in the same location has been shown to decrease procrastination among
individuals are encouraged simply to focus more clearly on the goals that they hope to attain,
college students.27 This is a habit that many high-school students would have, but which
and the negative consequences of delay.29 Consider, for instance, the following list of “tips”
for overcoming procrastination:

25 Ap Dijksterhuis and John A. Bargh, “The Perceptual-Behavior Expressway: Automatic Effects of Social
Figure out what has the biggest payoff and do that first.
Perception and Social Behavior.” See also John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand, “The Unbearable
Be your own biggest fan.
Automaticity of Being.”
Start sooner.
26 Simon M. Moon and Alfred J. Illingworth, “Exploring the Dynamic Nature of Procrastionation: A Latent
Stop busywork.
Growth Curve Analysis of Academic Procrastionation,” 307. For a sample of the voluminous literature on
college students and procrastination, see Mera M. Kachgal, L. Sunny Hansen, and Kevin J. Nutter,
Set aside hopelessness and other forms of negative thinking.
"Academic Procrastination Prevention/Intervention: Strategies and Recommendations;” Timothy A. Pychyl,
Richard W. Morin, and Brian R. Salmon,"Procrastination and the Planning Fallacy: An Examination of the

Study Habits of University Students;” Laura J. Solomon and Esther D. Rothblum, “Academic
Procrastination of Studying.”
Procrastination: frequency and cognitive-behavioral correlates.”
28 Jane B. Burka and Lenora M. Yuen, Procrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do About It, 83.
27 Harold A. Jr. Ziesat, Ted L. Rosenthal and Glenn M. White, “Behavioral Self-Control in Treating
29 Burka and Yuen, Procrastination, 119.

Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc
Procrastination and the Extended Will (Heath and Anderson).doc
Forgive previous mistakes and expect new ones.30
persons as they are in particular contexts, with the requisite scaffolding. The further

implication of this is that, although individual differences in personalities and skill sets
While this author does eventually get around to making environmental recommendations,
clearly make a difference, some of the most important resources for overcoming
these typically occur last, after a lengthy set of purely psychological recommendations. There
procrastination are not portable, individual assets but shared goods – and goods that are being
is no "offloading" here, nothing that reduces the motivational burden on the individual. These
dismantled even as individual competition becomes more cutthroat.
are all either direct psychological or else self-management strategies. As we have emphasized

A related but perhaps more controversial point can be made about the assumption of
throughout, however – and as the empirical data suggest – avoiding procrastination is
voluntarism, that is, the view that what is needed for avoiding forms of counterproductive
typically not a matter of these forms of cognizing. And this idea is beginning to be reflected
behavior is a matter of our setting up systems, adopting practices, arranging our environment,
in some approaches to time management. It is highly instructive, for example, to consider
and so on. The reality is that many of the most effective support structures – especially the
that the approach that has gained perhaps the most significantly following among knowledge
social ones – are not built by us but built for us, part of an institutional and material heritage.
workers and other professionals, found in David Allen’s Getting Things Done,31 is resolutely
And they are much more difficult to bring about intentionally than to dismantle. When a
“externalist” in its orientation. At the core of the system of personal organization and time
traditional institution such as the relatively early “last call” for drinks at British pubs is
management is the insistence that absolutely everything that it not immediately being worked
abolished, it is of course possible for people to institute, perhaps with friends, various
upon be offloaded into an external physical system that one trusts, and pre-processed into
strategies for avoiding procrastinating about getting to bed on time. But such arrangements
“next action” chunks that are easily initiated, in response to contextual cues. Getting things
are typically effortful and fragile, relative to taken-for-granted structures. To take just one
done becomes then a decided non-mentalistic matter of turning amorphous responsibilities
example, consider the sleep-deprivation that has become a source of complaint in our society,
into a much less intimidating pile of “widgets to be cranked.”
which can plausibly be attributed, at least in part, to a tendency to procrastinate going to bed

Even approaches to avoiding procrastination that understand the importance of
on time.33 It used to be the case that TV stations would end their broadcasts at around
material scaffolding still tend to focus rather individualistically on personal tools and habits.
midnight, bars and restaurants would close, subways and buses would stop running – the
While these are important, we have seen how many of the supports that enable us to avoid
clear message being sent was: “time to go to bed.” These institutional arrangements also
procrastination are part of the social and built environment. This is clearest in the breach. As
made it much easier to go to bed on time, since there was little else to do after a certain hour.
traditional offices, with their doors for shutting out distractions, have been replaced with
Now individuals must exercise more self-control about when to go to bed.
open offices of cubicles, people have come to realize how much harder they have to work to

There is, we acknowledge, a danger of this point being seen as licensing paternalistic,
keep on-task in the face of constant distractions.32 These and other changes in the "built"
authoritarian or traditionalist approaches. There are complex challenges here regarding how
environment have changed in the past few decades, in a way that has forced individuals to
to balance a commitment to autonomy and freedom with the recognition that there are often
rely ever more upon their "onboard" resources. Much the same can be said for the social
real benefits of volitional supports being unchosen. And these complexities come into
environment, where freelancers and telecommuters find that working out of the home office
particularly sharp focus as one looks at the effects of their dismantling on those who have the
leaves them without the supportive peer pressure of colleagues who will notice when they
fewest resources for handling the new individual responsibilities. This brings us to some
linger in the cafeteria or turn on a TV. What becomes clear is that, in such cases, “being self-
concluding remarks about the political and public policy implications of this more externalist
disciplined” is a contextualist property – not simply a personality trait but rather a feature of
understanding of how to counter irrational human tendencies.



30 Lynn Lively, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Success, 20-27.
31 David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of