The Truth About Procrastination

To all my friends at EPRZ, I am back!

I have been intending to write this article for months, ever since I published my first in June 09. But why didn’t I write it? Because I have to practise what I preach. I have to do the things that I advise my readers to do. Today’s article discusses the benefits of good procrastination and there is no better way to validate its credibility than to use myself as the test subject. Here are the facts of my research.

As children, we were told by our parents to stop procrastinating and start working on our household chores. As students, we were told by our teachers to stop procrastinating and start working on our school assignments. And they would always use this popular saying, “the early bird catches the worm”, to support their argument. Fair enough. But what happens to the early worm? Doesn’t it get eaten? The truth of the matter is that procrastination can be good or bad depending on how you use it. So the important issue is not how you should avoid procrastination but how you should use procrastination to your advantage.

There are many activities that you could be doing now. All these activities are competing for your time and attention. How do you decide which activity to begin and which to postpone? Through objective evaluation, you will have to rate each activity in importance. After that, you will have to practice the principles of good procrastination- to learn when to do the right things and to postpone the wrong things. It means choosing to avoid lesser activities in favour of greater goals. If you have just been struck by a brilliant inspiration, for example, then you should work on that new idea and postpone the thought of running an errand for your parents. Learning to prioritise is, thus, the key to good procrastination.

During my absence from ERPZ, I have completed my National Service, organised several grassroots events, and earned my driving license among many other completed tasks. I have been using procrastination to my advantage by avoiding the less important activities to do the real work. And even though I have sacrificed the cleanliness of my room, the well-being of my stomach, and of course the welfare of the readers at ERPZ, I have accomplished much by practising good procrastination.

Most people will tell you that procrastination is bad and that you should avoid it or cure it. Their ill advice is predicated on the false belief that procrastination means doing absolutely nothing. Author Paul Graham writes that “there are three types of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on a) nothing, b) something less important, c) something more important.” The last type, good procrastination, is what you should strive for.

A Quick Thinking Kiwi

Kiwi
Good Fruit

A Kiwi working for Tesco London

A man in London walked into the produce section of his local Tesco’s supermarket and asked to buy half a head of lettuce. The boy working in that department told him that they only sold whole heads of lettuce. The man was insistent that the boy ask the manager about the matter.

Walking into the back room, the boy said to the manager, “some old bastard wants to buy a half a head of lettuce.” As he finished his sentence, he turned around to find that the man was standing right behind him, so he quickly added, “and this gentleman kindly offered to buy the other half.”

The manager approved the deal and the man went on his way.

Later, the manager said to the boy,” I was impressed with the way you got yourself out of that situation earlier, we like people who can think on their feet here, where are you from son?”

“New Zealand, sir,” the boy replied.

“Why did you leave New Zealand ?” the manager asked.

The boy said “Sir, there’s nothing but whores and rugby players there.”

“Is that right?” replied the manager, “My wife is from New Zealand!”

“Really?” replied the boy, “Who’d she play for?”

Thinking Strategically

Thinking Strategically
Think, think, think...

As I was mentioning a couple of weeks back, I have been reading Thinking Strategically by Avinash Dixitt and Barry Nalebuff. This is a pretty old book, being first published in 1991 and the version I was reading is the 1993 paperback re-issue – there was no more revisits to this book by the authors since then but it’s been in print until now. I believe it’s largely used as readings for undergraduate economics students as well as students of business or management schools.

The 2 authors are great teachers of Game Theory in Princeton and Yale and have often adapted the principles this somewhat mathematical subject to the less mathematical real world. Thinking Strategically is a great attempt at discussing strategic thinking that follows from game theoretical analysis for the layman.

The good thing about ideas on strategic thinking is that their principles hold even when the examples they are attached to often become obsolete or arcane – that is not to say that Thinking Strategically features arcane examples. Most of the examples used to bring ideas across in the book are simple, often bordering trivia but they illustrate the essence of the concepts and can be used to explain the principles for similar but more complex issues. One of the case studies brought up that I particularly love is the one about a three-way duel where we have 3 shooters of varying abilities.

Each shooter fires at someone (or something) each round; there’s is fixed order as to who gets to shoot first. The one who’s allowed to shoot first is a poor shooter with an accuracy of only 30%, the second has an accuracy of 80% and the last is a sharp shooter who shoots with an accuracy of 100%. The question is that if you’re the first shooter and allowed to go first, who would you choose to shoot?

An analysis of this “game” gives us a surprising but convincing result. If you choose to shoot the average shooter, and succeed, you will definitely lose because the next in line would be the sharp shooter and he would shoot you. If you choose to shoot the sharp shooter and hit, the average shooter will shoot you, leaving you with a 20% chance of survival. And even if you survive, you only have 30% chance of hitting him later. You might say, this mediocre shooter is so lousy, he’ll probably have to lose anyways. But you can actually raise your chances of winning by choosing a more intelligent strategy: To fire into the air.

This way, the average shooter will get his turn and attempt to shoot the sharp shooter since shooting you and succeeding mean he’ll have to die when the sharp shooter’s turn comes. If he succeeds, the mediocre shooter gets to try his hands at killing the average shooter. If he fails, the sharp shooter will immediately kill him and that once again, leaves the mediocre shooter with a chance of 30% to kill the sharp shooter. The somewhat counter-intuitive strategy of shooting at no one raise the chances of the mediocre shooter winning substantially.

The principle alluded by this example is that if you’re a weak player; it is wise to allow the stronger players to make their moves and get rid of all each other before making a move and fire your best shot at the one left standing. Now that we surface the principle, the logic of such a choice becomes more intuitive.

Thinking Strategically is a great read for students who likes to think and don’t mind re-reading some of the statements in the book a couple of times to understand the explanation behind some strategic moves. It teaches an important skill of looking forward and reasoning backwards and shows you the power of its application in all sorts of “games”. The book might make you feel like you’ll become smarter but trust me, it’s not that easy to apply strategic thinking that quickly in real life and often, we need a degree of foresight that we would almost definitely lack.

Vertical Thinking

Lateral Thinker
Lateral Thinker

I finally found a copy of Edward De Bono’s Lateral Thinking, published in 1970s. It collects his earlier insights about Lateral Thinking and reflects his more original ideas about the subject. The books he published much later are more or less repetition of these earlier ideas, presented in alternative means – some acting as encouraging creativity, others at simplicity of thought and some plainly about motivation and happiness.

I’m not exactly a fan of De Bono – I think he exploits his authority in the area of lateral thinking pretty well and have managed to set himself apart from the general ‘creative thinking’ bunch. I think his Six Thinking Hats programme made him quite a lot of money and his success in trying to frame his concepts into thinking in the business realm means more money. Still, he offers much valuable ideas that are untapped by the masses.

He highlights some problems with Vertical Thinking that we traditionally use to think about problems and perceive our world; these problems are intricately woven with the advantages of this system of thinking so the point is to be aware of these inadequacies and counteract them with Lateral Thinking. Here are some of the problems with our thinking system I would like to share and explain how they might impede us in our daily thinking:

1) Our thinking creates patterns that helps create an efficient system of memory that relies of amazingly few details to trigger the recollection of an entire experience. Unfortunately, they become established ever more rigidly since they control our attention; we’re constantly searching for patterns to fit into our experience to make sense of things. These patterns are also difficult to change once they become established.

This is the case of conspiracy theorists who see patterns in places people don’t and form elaborate theories of conspiracies even when they are just a series of coincidence. The pattern that these conspiracy theorists establish in their minds direct their attention to particular details that reinforce their beliefs in their theories. It’s difficult to convince them that their ideas are flawed.

2) Our system of thinking tends towards ‘centering’ (a term used by De Bono), which means that anything which has any resemblance to standard pattern will be perceived as the standard pattern. Because the information that is arranged as part of a pattern cannot be easily used as part of a completely different pattern, it is hard to change the way one perceive the same set of information to interpret them differently.

This is a case of stereotyping on steroids, best exemplified by the character Mr “Everything Comes From India” in the BBC Sketch Comedy, Goodness Gracious Me. Here’s an Youtube clip showing how he makes his arguments that frustrates his poor son.

3) There’s also marked tendency to ‘polarize’ in our system of thought, moving to either extreme instead of maintaining some balanced point between them. This implies that even when the choice between two competing patterns are very fine, one of them would be chosen with another being completely ignored.

Using the above example of Mr “Everything Comes From India”, we notice that his thinking is such that there’s only the two extremes of ‘Indian’ and ‘Not Indian’. He thinks little of the effects of globalization and the influence of culture on each other or the possibility of overlapping rituals between different cultures.

Finally, patterns that we accumulate can get bigger and bigger, resulting in declarations like, “There are only 2 kinds of people in this world…” People package a whole lot of individual patterns and lump them within a bigger pattern, that immediately trigger off other perceptions that are unreal or not observed. Of course, there are advantages to this system, with it’s roots in instinctive fight-or-flight responses when efficiency of generating a response is more important than producing a precise/correct response.

The idea is to know when we should make use of what sort of thinking. In pondering over important issues in life and generating ideas for a project and such, one should suspend our typical system of thought in favour of lateral thinking that has the advantage of proliferating more ideas even if they don’t appear to be quality on first impression.

Another Week

Another Week Mail
Another Week Mail

The weeks seems to be passing faster as the entries on ERPZ becomes more frequent. The one-entry-per-day rate now is not exactly very sustainable without additional support from guest writers and contributors so I’m once again calling out for interested parties to leave a comment with your emails so I might be able to contact you and get your contribution up.

This week’s reading delves into some less-read areas, namely consumer choice. Knowledge@Wharton recently ran an article about How Assortment Size Influences Healthy Consumer Choices. Earlier, they discussed how environmental cues influence consumer choice too.

The linked article mentioned about the ‘paradox of choice’, which is the topic of Barry Schwartz’s talk on TED.com. He explains the disadvantages of being offered too many choices and the problems associated with the implications of having too many choices in the first place on the psyche of the person after making the decision, citing Dan Gilbert’s presentation in the same TED conference.

Barry is another great speaker, mixing humour consistently throughout his talk with a steady flow of cartoons. The point he makes in our escalating expectations is very real and worth pondering over for anyone who wants to exert discipline on their thinking to keep their mind healthy. He claims he wrote the book, The Paradox of Choice to explain to himself why he felt worst when he got a better jeans than he previously did.

Making Judgments

Go on and strike!
Go on and strike!

Just a few days back I was discussing how we have to hold contradicting ideas as social science students; and it dawned on me that some students after training themselves to do just that, fails to make a judgment using the ideas. To them, it seems that everything is equally right and there’s no quantitative means of assessing which side is better. I hate to say this but then you actually have the power to decide what is right. After all, politicians, social scientist, economists and such are always at loggerheads and as I mentioned in that earlier post, no one is exactly right – at least we’ll never know what is truly right. We can only be sure of approximations to the right thing but then again there are high estimates, low estimates, depending on how things turn out.

The fact is we all make many decisions these way. There’s no way to know for sure that a plan will carry through and we have default positions, knowing all well what they rest upon and how they might change. We might wake up at 10am every Sunday Morning but then we adjust accordingly when we have appointments around that time on that day. You know that your priority is with the appointment and not with sleep; so unless your priority is the other way round, you’ll compromise. Likewise, when confronted with the question as to whether a Monopoly is harmful to consumers you might have to consider your priorities. You might be concerned with net transfer of wealth from consumers to the monopolist and thus against the theoretical supernormal profits. In that case you’ll argue that while the firm might be a natural Monopoly and the only one serving the market, it is harmful as long as it’s not taxed such that it only earn normal profits (with the tax revenue redistributed to the consumers).

On the other hand your sympathy might lie with consumer choice and welfare so you believe that as long as the monopolist exhibit some sort of dynamic efficiency, innovating and proliferating the market with variety then you’re fine with the Monopoly. After all, it is giving the consumers what they want that earn them the profits. But in an event when it becomes complacent and exhibits some sort of inefficiency (not in the P=MC sense though) then it needs some competition injected. Following that line of argument, some might choose to take side with competition right from the start and argue that as long as the market is a rather contestable market, with huge players ready and able to enter anytime (despite high barriers to entry), then the Monopoly need not be too closely regulated. The above arguments would all make sense and they could well be right answers for economics essays but then the question is whether you’ve presented your case convincingly by showing what are your priorities or principal considerations.

In other words, you do not make judgments when you’re analyzing or dissecting the ideas but when called upon, you’re able to demonstrate your principal concerns and judge the ideas in accordance to them. You should be comfortable with changing your stand when you adjust your judging guidelines and not cling on too hard to your positions. Karl Albrecht, author of Practical Intelligence believes that the open-mindedness so essential to learning and the path towards intelligence require this ability to see opinions/positions and separate from ourselves. So learn to pick up opinions from making judgments but readily drop them and learn to justify what prompted you to do so (new information input, changing circumstances, difference in judging guidelines).

Insuring Nothing

Nope, not insured against kids
Nope, not insured against kids

Tyler Cowen mentioned something about product insurance at one part of his book, Discover Your Inner Economist. He says that one should not argue with his wife when she insist on buying product insurance even when you know that the results are economic analysis are at your favour. Presumably, there are some other cost-benefit analysis taking place, at the level where the cost of winning the argument greatly overwhelms the benefit (which of course is the cash saved on the product insurance). The Economist asked why people continue to buy them even when products are unlikely to fail, which means that these product insurances are immensely profitable for the electronics retail sector. The researchers who examined purchase data from a big electronics retailer for over 600 households from November 2003 to October 2004 concluded that the purchases were linked to the shopper’s mood. Of course, a less-than-rational wife might be the explanation, but even the wife has a sound explanation for that:

[…] the emotional tranquillity that comes with buying a new warranty is not in itself without value, even if “rationally, it doesn’t make sense”.

But I find an ingredient missing in this story; the researchers probably falsely assume that all the shoppers have got the same level of perceptiveness. And I believe perception have all to do with the purchase of product insurance. Think about it, when was the last time you had a product which failed and the warranty period was just over and you blame yourself for not buying additional coverage? But how about the last time when you did buy the product insurance and it didn’t fail at all within the span of its usage, not once? Just like the belief that we’re unlucky enough to always join the slowest queue in the supermarket; our erroneous perception of the frequency we get unlucky can make us more frustrated with a product insurance unextended than a product which didn’t fail after we bought the coverage despite the fact that they probably inflicts the same cost on you. Obviously it actually hurts you more when you think back and regret not extending coverage; you probably won’t even think back on how stupid you were to buy product insurance for a reliable product since you’re using it happily.

This creates a bias for purchasing product insurance. Our faulty perception supplements our faulty memory in suggesting that buying product insurance would be the wise choice, going by the seemingly sound argument of ‘if the product fails, I’m protected; and even if it doesn’t, I get a peace of mind plus the retailers deserve the reward if they recommended me the durable kind of good’. You could very well have realised that if the product was that durable the manufacturer would already have taken a cut for that on the retail price and that if the product ran a high chance of failure the retailer wouldn’t even offer you the product insurance in the first place. And if your wife has anything to say about that, it’ll probably be “Must you be that calculative?”

Holding Ideas

All at the same time...
All at the same time...

Some students struggle with social sciences and humanities like Economics, Geography and History because they think they can’t hold two contradictory ideas at the same time and not take a side. Economist are somewhat famous for being able to do that and often criticized for being that way. As a matter of fact, humans are remarkably capable of doing that; we overrate our consistency of thought and the need for ideas that don’t contradict. When we demand scientific proofs for certain claims yet openly express faith in certain religious claims, we’re adopting contradictory frameworks of proof.

The reason why these subjects require that we hold contradictory ideas or for us to withhold judgment of these ideas is the lack of a proper quantitative approach to evaluating them. We might be able to come up with pros and cons but we are unable to assign a positive figure to denote the value and significance of the pro and a corresponding negative figure for a con and then evaluate them in an accounting matrix that will tell you which is better and how much better. Any attempts at that will be subjective and arbitrary anyways. As a result, it is important that students of these subjects hold on to them without judging but maintain the ability to dissect and analyse these ideas, zoom into certain features and investigate different aspects of it when necessary. More importantly, we’ll have to master our language and internalize the nuances of the typical jargons used in the field to discuss these observations we make.

As humans, we will definitely have preferences for some explanation over others as well as some outcomes over others and this is a reason behind all the disputes that social scientist usually have with each other, including high profile ones by economists. And worst, unlike sciences where there are experiments everyone can agree on to check their ideas and theories to discover ‘the truth’, the search for truths in social sciences have often ended in vain because of the dynamic nature of the field. Scientists might not agree before a discovery is confirmed (Linus Pauling, a super-Nobel laureate with 3 Nobel prizes famously believed that DNA’s structure should be a Triple Helix) but once it is confirmed, we find little delusional souls continuing with their false beliefs unless they are ignorant of the confirmation. Economics had its share of control experiments that happened in the world, often by chance. Unfortunately, they can never be repeated perfectly and their results are never agreed upon by experts in the field.

This is not to say that the subjects offer little value to the world; in fact the dynamic nature of these fields mean that there is always questions to answer and things to explore readily. And that is why we need more people to be able to hold different ideas at the same time and have different opinions on the same issue under different sort of circumstances and be able to see the world this way.

Practical Intelligence

Not Acting Smart
Not Acting Smart

I got to know about this book through a friend who was exploring topics that ranged from manipulating personality test results to acting smart in front of employers. It’s a great boon that this is not the kind of book that teaches you to act smart. Karl Albrecht writes realistically about how we can go about making ourselves more intelligent in practical situations. There are many ideas in the book I’ve thought about previously but failed to put into concrete concepts as he did. I must say Karl did a wonderful job.

Like most of the other books on thinking, Karl discusses the make-up of the brains, the way different lobes on the brain controls different stuff and how they work together in concert and then he draws some meaningful speculation on the way we think. There are many speculations which are largely unproven in neuro-sciences but are well known in the field of psychology. Never mind the actual theories, Karl shows us how they might be useful for aiding us discover our mind’s potential. He firms up the concept of ‘Affirmative Thinking’, which I think is a very important idea in our lives. We’ve cease to be gatekeepers of our mind in this media age, often pushed around, influenced by the people who are in turn controlled by others around as well as prevailing culture and fads. To accept that we are often being bombarded by thoughts and ideas of others and we often take them as if they’re our own is the first step to controlling our thinking and helping us steer ourselves towards healthy thinking and mental habits.

Karl recommends simple methods to help us regain control of our minds and direct our attention so that we can tap on our mental habits, thinking preferences and styles to aid us with daily thinking, problem-solving and just plain existing in our complex world. I’m interested in the implication of Karl’s ideas on education and learning. He has another book I’m looking forward to read, Social Intelligence, which he actually wrote before this book.