Understanding Procrastination

Feb. 20, 2017

Like every blog author, I found myself inexorably drawn to writing about why we procrastinate. It starts from an indirect angle, but it gets there!


Not having the Internet has an interesting way of focusing the mind. Out here in a gazebo in Malang, the Internet is so slow that it’s almost not even worth using. Which means that all I can really do is write.

Every couple of months, when I don't have anything else to think about and I'm in the mood to go into a tailspin of contradictory thoughts, I ask myself the following question:

Is the Internet a net positive or a net negative on productivity?

From a global perspective, the Internet has accelerated productivity of the entire world. The rapid access to information of all sorts save us staggering amounts of time. It's kind of hard to really understand, because the Internet is such a facet of daily life that I don't know what the world was like without it.

I read an article that unearthed a todo list by Leonardo DaVinci. It was filled with "meet X person, and have them teach me about [some subject]. Meet Y and have them teach me about [other subject]". It's amazing to me that before the spread of the printing press, books were rare, and the easiest (and sometimes only) way to access information was to travel to and ask a relevant expert.

The Internet has had a similarly transformational effect on information access. I suspect people in the future will be similarly staggered by how we used to have to go to the library and search through books for hours to find relevant facts. In comparison, the Internet is blazing fast.

But from a personal perspective, the Internet goes too far. Information in 100 milliseconds is a little too fast.

One of the hardest things to do with the Internet is to deeply focus on a single topic. This is by design.

The Internet is engineered around bite-sized chunks of information. Twitter requires 140 character Tweets. Facebook updates are short. Comment threads on any website rarely exceed a few paragraphs. All this seems standard until we compare it to a book, which requires hours and hours of focused attention. I don't know of a single website which requires hours of focus. You can spend hours of time on a single website, but you'll bounce between different topics.

I feel, often when I begin working on a task, or after working on it for a while and encountering a difficult section, the tug of the immediate entertainment that the Internet provides.


Of course, it's not immediate entertainment, is it? No one enjoys spending time on Facebook or Reddit. Maybe you disagree. Okay: When is the last time that a website like Facebook has brought you to tears in the same way that, say, film or music does? Or has made you feel elated? Isn't it a little weird that although we see the Internet as entertaining, the websites that dominate our procrastination do not make us feel strong emotions?

Here's an alternative argument for why these websites are not entertainment: How often do you choose to go on Reddit or Facebook to entertain yourself? Now, how often do you end up there when you should be doing something else?

Let's take it further. Pay attention to your mood before you start browsing Reddit, then during and then after. You'll notice something weird - it doesn't improve at all. At best, you might watch a hilarious video and feel a bit better. But my guess - and what happens to me - is that you will feel a little worse! The obvious reason is the creeping guilt towards whatever you are procrastinating on. But there's something else here as well.

In prehistoric times, evolution taught our ancestors to love sugar because it gave them a burst of energy. This is great in general, and especially great if you're being chased by a sabre-toothed tiger[1]. So everything with sugar started tasting delicious. We never evolved to dislike lots of sugar because in prehistoric times it was very difficult to find a consistent source. It's only in modern times that we've been able to aggregate the stuff. Then suddenly people started getting obese...

I wonder if bite-sized information that does not require deep focus is the same way - our brain never had an evolutionary reason to realize it was bad for us. To be clear, I'm not railing against the Internet here. (That would be pretty dumb to do on a website.) It's instead the lack of deep focus.

You can't tell while having it that sugar is bad for you - it tastes delicious - but you can tell by proxy that sugar because our health declines when we have lots of it. Similarly, we can't tell that rapidly switching our focus isn't good for us, but we can tell by proxy when it doesn't really improve our mood afterward.

So these websites aren't entertaining at all - and that's pretty interesting! What's happening is we have conflated two things - enjoyment and addictiveness.


A couple of years back, psychologists ran a study. They took a bunch of normal people, gave them a survey, and then divided them up into two groups. The first group was told that they had been singled out because their survey had shown them to be more politically active than average. (The second group was the control group.) The whole thing was made up, and the survey had in fact indicated that both groups' political interests were the same. Nevertheless, after researchers told the first group they were more politically motivated, they began to act in ways to align with this.

When we conflate enjoyment and addictiveness, we're doing a similar sort of thing. People spend a lot of time on these websites because they're addictive. Then they wonder why they spend so much time on them and conclude "It must be because they're enjoyable websites!" This is classic cognitive dissonance, where we do something for reasons we don't fully understand, and then backfill a reasonable justification when asked for an expanation. I did the same thing until started mindfully watching my mood when using the Internet, which led to some pretty weird conclusions. (Mindfulness generally does.)

When you find yourself on Facebook or Reddit, it's not because the pull of these websites is herculean. Reddit isn't going to provide a life-changing or mind-blowing experience. If you were pulled in the direction of the most dopamine, instead of reading this article, you'd be shutting your laptop in order to skydive or have sex or something. (It's a bit of a bummer that this isn't the world we live in, come to think of it.) Yeah, you get a little burst of dopamine when you open the site, but it's a trivial amount compared to even simple activities like talking with friends.


So, why do we procrastinate? Especially with such mundane websites? It boils down to three things.

First, it's the task that you're working on.

If you search around the Internet, some of the most common advice for fighting procrastination is to break down your task into smaller subtasks. But why should this work? The reason is that finishing a task gives you a little rush of dopamine. If you have a massive task that takes hours, your brain will only reward you once, when you finish it. But if you break it down into many subtasks, you'll get that dopamine every time you finish a subtask.

(Ever wonder why I subdivide my articles into sections? Ever wonder why books are subdivided into chapters, sections, and paragraphs? Why games are subdivided into levels? Why albums are subdivided into songs?)

But even if you don't follow the advice of the productivity gurus, things should still work. For the most part, you'll naturally segment the task into chunks and feel rewarded when you finish them. You start to procrastinate when you work on a task for a very large time without making any progress. Your brain starts thinking, Huh, I haven't gotten dopamine in a long time. I wonder if there's another way to get it? And then wham you're on Reddit for some reason.

This is one reason why you feel like you take to some skills and not others. Every time I hear someone say, "oh, I was never very good at [blah]," I wonder if that person just never learned the proper way to subdivide [blah] into small, enjoyable tasks.[3]

Second, it's how accessible the dopamine is from whatever you end up procrastinating on.

The fact that Facebook is so accessible is what makes it the place you end up whenever you start procrastinating. Your brain is trying to find something that will provide dopamine more readily than whatever you were trying to do beforehand. That's why Facebook - which is hundreds of milliseconds away - is a much more appealing option to your brain than, say, skydiving.

Third, it's the content of the websites.

If you're wondering, Why Facebook and Reddit, and not a website that requires deep focus, like we were talking about earlier? Well, first of all, I have to thank you for making such an excellent segue with your question. It's almost like you can see into my mind...

To understand, we have go to back in history to meet a psychologist named Skinner. Skinner took rat cages and outfitted them with levers that would either dispense food pellets or nothing. For some of the rats, the lever would always dispense a food pellet. For others, the lever would only randomly dispense a pellet. Most of the time, it would dispense nothing.

The rats in the 100% reward lever boxes would hit the levers enough to eat comfortably, and then go to sleep, or do whatever rats do. The rats in the random reward box hit the lever interminably, continuing even when they had more food than they could need. The way that it was understood was that the rats were doing this to stockpile food in case of future random droughts.

Whenever I find myself refreshing Reddit, I feel a bit like the rat in the second scenario. Reddit is a beautiful Skinner box of random rewards - maybe I'll have a new notification! Maybe there will be a cool new post! Or a funny gif! It feels a bit like a bug in human behavior - vestigal remains from when comprehension of random behavior had to be hardwired into the unconscious mind because the conscious mind didn't exist or couldn't understand.

When I said (about 20 paragraphs ago - you have been paying attention, right?) that the addictive nature of the Internet was by design, I meant it. The way for websites to be most addictive is to tap into that random reward mechanism that we and rats love so much. Imagine your Reddit frontpage of 25 items like a rat hitting a lever 25 times - some of the links will be hits you like, but most won't.[2]


If you've drawn a conclusion here, I hope it's not "The Internet is addicting and a waste of time."

What's I hope you realize is that the Internet is at the focal point of a bit of convergent evolution. People gravitate towards sites that are more addictive, and webmasters want people to use their sites, so we end up with sites like Facebook which are incredibly addictive but have few other redeeming qualities. That doesn't mean the Internet is bad. That's like saying all food is bad because sugar can be abused.

Which brings us all the way back to what I started with. The problem with these sites aren't that they're merely addictive. The problem is that they're trivially addictive. They're right there, all the time, immediately, always. There's nothing else like that in the world! That is the unique property of the Internet. And that's why I said (like 25 paragraphs ago - you definitely started paying attention now, right?) that 100 milliseconds is a little too fast. If the Internet took 20 seconds to load Facebook, that would be much better for everyone's sanity.

Why only 20 seconds? It has to do with a weird quirk of the brain. Consider this. How often are you likely to procrastinate on Facebook when you're working on the computer? Pretty often, I suspect. Now, how often are you likely to procrastinate when the computer is a minor distance away - say you're working on something in one room, and your laptop is in another. Probably almost never.

But why? Intuitively, it makes perfect sense, but when you think about the mechanics, it's baffling that the brain would discount such easy access to dopamine when it's only been moved a trivial distance away. Essentially, the reason is that the brain's expected value of a reward is nonlinearly related to the amount of time it'll take to receive that reward, so as the distance grows linearly, the reward decreases hyperbolically. If you're curious about the specifics, I recommend reading about hyperbolic discounting to understand this process in more detail.

xkcd said he finally cured himself by essentially doing the same thing, though he attributes it to his own laziness. I don't think it has to do with laziness at all, though. :-)

For my case, here in Malang, I don't really have an option. And hey, look, deprived of choice, this blog post appeared out of thin air. And I've historically been phenomenally productive on airplanes, where I don't have any Internet to distract me...

Let's start a new movement! Slow Internet! It's like slow cooking, but with the Internet instead.

[1] johnfn's blog - your source for anachronisms since 2017

[2] It's not unimaginable that a website could be a Skinner box of deep focus, but the lack of any website that is this way right now is at least an econmical argument that this is very difficult to do. The closest examples I can think of are protracted video games, like slow RTSs, Civilization or SimCity. Even then, long games are not successful in the browser, or on the phone, when they would be forced to compete directly with Facebook or Reddit. I wonder why not? The more I consider it, the more I feel that this is tapping into some deeper rule, but I don't have enough space in this article to explore it fully.

[3] There are other reasons, as well. Feel free to read my series on my life philosophy.

As you may have noticed, I don't have comments on my blog. Instead, I do coffee-comments! Email me at johnfn@gmail.com and ask to meet up for coffee and discussion. Coffee is on me for the first 5 emails that convert into meetups. :)