Procrastination can be a serious problem leading to job loss, high anxiety and even significant psychological disability and dysfunction (according to wikipedia). To avoid excessive procrastination, most researchers grow a sense of professional urgency.

Most people rely on extrinsic pressures. In Computer Science—for example—we often organize our work around a few conferences with fixed submission deadlines. Others will compete with fellow researchers for funding or a specific research goal.

I prefer intrinsic motivation. I avoid fixed deadlines and competition. I choose problems that I want to solve, for myself. In this intrinsic mode, you find that you cannot get yourself to work on some problems. For example, you ran some experiments or derived some results, but you cannot begin or finish writing the paper. After all, there is no deadline, no competitor to beat, so why bother if you do not feel the urge? In some instances, you are merely lazy. But what happens if you make good progress in other, similar projects? Simply put, procrastination becomes an indicator for uninteresting problems.

Whenever I procrastinate too much, I start to question the importance of the work. Often, I find that it is better to drop the work entirely.

Further reading: Structured Procrastination and Procrastination and Perfectionism by John Perry.

5 Comments

  1. Dear Prof.Lemire,

    I cannot agree more with you. There is no doubt that external deadlines create a sense of urgency, but that is at a compromise of a lot of fundamental things & often result in negativity. E.g. “If you don’t submit the paper by this date, you will lose your chance.” The brain works in a much more knowledge receptive and thoughtful way when the motivation is intrinsic & drives positivity. E.g. “If you submit the paper by this date, you can get a chance to organize your sightseeing activities in the host city.”

    I have been experimenting with various working styles and it appears that rather than working on creating external pressure to motivate self, it’s a much better idea to motivate self around different parameters which can drive positivity. You might find this theory proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, quite interesting:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_%28psychology%29

    Thanks for all the articles and twitter updates – envy your students!

    Best wishes,
    –Vaibhav

    Comment by Vaibhav — 11/11/2009 @ 9:08

  2. I might agree with you. Once I have a permanent position. That’ll be three more years of extrinsic motivation, then…

    Comment by Julian Togelius — 11/11/2009 @ 10:15

  3. @Vaibhav Except maybe for my graduate students, I do not think that my students read my blogs and tweets. You see… it is not part of the assignments. Interestingly, my most active readers are people with important full time jobs who should be doing something else beside reading blogs… are they procrastinating?

    @Togelius How could you ever be denied tenure with such a cool research program? ;-)

    http://julian.togelius.com/Togelius2009Super.pdf

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 11/11/2009 @ 10:47

  4. Dear Prof.Lemire,

    I can happily call myself your student (pretty one sided relationship though :) ). I must confess your thoughts were one of the key contributors in my conversion of faith (I am a recent convert) – from being a non interested CS guy (looking forward to doing an MBA and climbing up the conventional corporate ladder) to a super interested CS guy (interested in Machine Learning and Programming). I am now virtually going back and reading the awesomeness that I missed during my bachelors.

    And my apologies that I never thanked you for that! Still I envy your students :)

    Thank you so much!

    Comment by Vaibhav — 11/11/2009 @ 13:56

  5. C’est un indicateur intéressant de l’importance de nos projets et de nos tâches… Comme nous sommes souvent sollicités dans le monde universitaire, il faut apprendre à dire non. Malheureusement, j’ai encore de la difficulté à bien choisir et à me limiter. Je constate que certains projets ont tendance à ne pas avanbce par manque d’implication ou d’engagement. Après quelques temps je décroche. Je vais faire attention à cela (la procrastination) dans le futur. Juste pour vérifier si ça semble bien s’appliquer à mon cas. Je crois que ça pourrait m’aider à décider quels projets je dois abandonner et les mauvais choix que j’ai fait. bref, votre petit billet m’a été utile je crois.

    Comment by pgiroux — 17/11/2009 @ 9:15

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