Two interesting bits I’ve been meaning to share some thoughts on but, well, putting off for one reason or another. One was a splendidly comprehensive piece in The New Yorker about procrastination that’s worth a full read but especially good at this part, describing experiments around a phenomenon called ‘hyperbolic discounting’:
“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.”
The lesson of these experiments is not that people are shortsighted or shallow but that their preferences aren’t consistent over time. We want to watch the Bergman masterpiece, to give ourselves enough time to write the report properly, to set aside money for retirement. But our desires shift as the long run becomes the short run.”
Not only did this hit home for me particularly (I’ve recently been reprising my personal “Mile and a Movie” challenge in which I walk or run at least a mile, and also watch a movie — preferably off my Netflix queue — every single day for a month), but I’d never seen the temptation to procrastinate so clearly outlined and labeled with a sciencey-sounding term.
We all like to think we’ll do grand things, make big changes, become better people, or even just do the things we should be doing already. But it’s much easier to take the path of least resistance and keep doing what we’re used to doing. It’s probably true of most people in their professional lives as well as the ho-hum day to day stuff.
I, the career-oriented planner, should be undertaking big juicy projects that will make me a lot smarter and better, but it’s easiest to just crank out quick Powerpoint slides as needed. Just as the people we’re trying to reach might really like to get involved in some big, juicy program or event or web experience we’ve put together for them, but it’s a lot easier to just check Facebook and watch football. (Which makes it seem not entirely unrelated — in that it’s a question of motivation, really — to Gladwell’s point about Twitter in the previous post).
But hey, not to say that I’m all lazy. Not only am I exercising AND catching up on serious classic films, I also take the time to tweet, tumbl, and blog; which may be slightly less juicy but does make me smarter and better, honest. It’s just that I can’t share the really juicy stuff on the web.
On the other hand, there are times when putting things off is a good thing, in that saving them for later can make them easier to properly enjoy. Case in point, Instapaper, about which I’ve read a couple great articles recently and am thinking about investigating now that I have a Kindle. The idea of taking some of the best writing from online sources, many of which I skim through over a sandwich during a lunch at my desk, and being able to carry them offline to digest with fewer (digestion-related) distractions? Marvelous. I especially love this quote from its creator, Marco Arment, in Wired:
“People love information,” Arment said. “Right now in our society, we have an obesity epidemic. Because for the first time in history, we have access to food whenever we want, we don’t know how to control ourselves. I think we have the exact same problem with information.”
I’ve heard no better term for what the web can easily do to us — especially people whose job it is to ‘stay on top of what’s happening in culture’ — than information obesity.
It’s easy to load up on RSS feeds, whip through them at the beginning and end of every day, maybe tweet a few out into your social sphere, but there will always be something to be said for sitting down away from the screen to truly engage with ideas with some focus and depth.