The link between procrastination and complexity


neural network failure

Image by onkel_wart via Flickr

Before you read these extracts or go to the full article PLEASE consider this. If complexity is created to facilitate problem-solving we educate (add complexity) to our brain to deal with the tasks that confront us on a daily basis as we go about our lives or in the workplace.

  • We train our body to manage tasks requiring physical exertion
  • We develop our business system to add functionality and create competitive advantage
  • We expand our social and business groups to enrich our lives – and to resolve “bigger” problems together INTERDEPENDENTLY
  • We add to our IT network and computer memory to ensure there is adequate speed and capacity, etc.

I’m sure you get the picture.

What happens when the system, to which we add this problem-solving complexity, reaches the point of “critical complexity” (upper limit), or, as a result of some exogenous or endogenous force, is impaired?

Another gem from Farnam Street.

Our decision-making is such that, according to Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT), unconscious thought is better at dealing with complex tasks. Try using that one in the Boardroom! Although, I have no doubt that “gut instinct” or “intuition” may be more acceptable explanations for a good (lucky) decision and bad luck accounting for an unsatisfactory outcome .

The information required in complex decision-making process may be qualitative and quantitative, relating to many factors, typically:

  • Uncertainty – Many facts may not be known.
  • Complexity – You have to consider many interrelated factors.
  • High-risk consequences – The impact of the decision may be significant.
  • Alternatives – Each has its own set of uncertainties and consequences.
  • Interpersonal issues – It can be difficult to predict how other people will react.
      If our conscious “working memory” can hold between 5 and 9 items, when we are presented with a problem that is more complex than we are able to understand (or manage), either because of the many factors of the problem itself, OR, because, at that moment in time, we simply don’t have the required “capacity”…this could easily result in procrastination…at very least!

Complexity is unavoidable. in which case, so too may be procrastination and other manifestations of “complexity paralysis”.

      On a personal level it’s a bad habit but in a business environment it can become endemic…

I can feel the need for a follow-up item explaining my personal views on the affect of such “complexity paralysis” upon the Public Sector. Watch this space because I think I need to get it off my chest pretty soon and may not consider it something to be widely shared for fear of becoming bogged down in a great debate with beleaguered civil servants (particularly within NHS) many of whom have shown remarkable resilience over many years.        

Nice article in the New Yorker on procrastination. Here are some excerpts:

hyperbolic discounters are able to make the rational choice when they’re thinking about the future, but, as the present gets closer, short-term considerations overwhelm their long-term goals. A similar phenomenon is at work in an experiment run by a group including the economist George Loewenstein, in which people were asked to pick one movie to watch that night and one to watch at a later date. Not surprisingly, for the movie they wanted to watch immediately, people tended to pick lowbrow comedies and blockbusters, but when asked what movie they wanted to watch later they were more likely to pick serious, important films. The problem, of course, is that when the time comes to watch the serious movie, another frothy one will often seem more appealing. This is why Netflix queues are filled with movies that never get watched: our responsible selves put “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Seventh Seal” in our queue, but when the time comes we end up in front of a rerun of “The Hangover.”…

Loewenstein also suggests that our memory for the intensity of visceral rewards is deficient: when we put off preparing for that meeting by telling ourselves that we’ll do it tomorrow, we fail to take into account that tomorrow the temptation to put off work will be just as strong. …

But some of the philosophers in “The Thief of Time” have a more radical explanation for the gap between what we want to do and what we end up doing: the person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person: they’re different parts of what the game theorist Thomas Schelling called “the divided self.” Schelling proposes that we think of ourselves not as unified selves but as different beings, jostling, contending, and bargaining for control. Ian McEwan evokes this state in his recent novel “Solar”: “At moments of important decision-making, the mind could be considered as a parliament, a debating chamber. Different factions contended, short- and long-term interests were entrenched in mutual loathing. Not only were motions tabled and opposed, certain proposals were aired in order to mask others. Sessions could be devious as well as stormy.” Similarly, Otto von Bismarck said, “Faust complained about having two souls in his breast, but I harbour a whole crowd of them and they quarrel. It is like being in a republic.” In that sense, the first step to dealing with procrastination isn’t admitting that you have a problem. It’s admitting that your “you”s have a problem. …

The philosopher Mark Kingwell puts it in existential terms: “Procrastination most often arises from a sense that there is too much to do, and hence no single aspect of the to-do worth doing. . . . Underneath this rather antic form of action-as-inaction is the much more unsettling question whether anything is worth doing at all.” In that sense, it might be useful to think about two kinds of procrastination: the kind that is genuinely akratic and the kind that’s telling you that what you’re supposed to be doing has, deep down, no real point. The procrastinator’s challenge, and perhaps the philosopher’s, too, is to figure out which is which. …

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