I recently made up a 2×2 that’s proved rather useful. If you classify behaviors based on whether they relate to unpleasant or pleasant tasks, and based on whether we delay doing them or over-prioritize them, you get four classes of prioritization behaviors.
This post is about our tendency to prioritize certain unpleasant tasks too much. This tendency has no commonly accepted name, so I’ve decided to call it squeakastination for reasons that will become clear in a minute. It is the opposite of procrastination, and in my opinion, far more dangerous.
The behaviors in the 2×2 are not subconscious behaviors. We are usually aware when we are prioritizing or delaying a task based on aversion or attraction rather than rational justification. We usually have some idea of a different optimal time/priority for the task. But we succumb anyway.
Even deferred gratification is not necessarily a rational behavior for all narratives. It may be optimal for the Protestant Ethic narrative, but suboptimal for the “live every day like it’s your last” narrative (see Tempo for more on this idea of “narrative rationality”).
Three of the behaviors have widely accepted names, and as a result, get a lot of attention and analysis:
- Deferred gratification: delaying tasks that attract you
- Procrastination: delaying tasks that you are averse to
- Indulgence: prioritizing tasks that you enjoy
The fourth category though, doesn’t have a common name (technically, squeakastination is a usually a variety of negative reinforcement operant conditioning). These are tasks that are not particularly important or urgent. Tasks that can wait. Yet we do them as soon as we can, the moment they cross our radars. I suspect this is the fastest-growing category. Possibly because we don’t have a name for it. We need to give this dog a bad name and hang it.
The closest label we have is the idiom greasing the squeakiest wheel. So I’ve decided to call the behavior squeakastination. As in, “Yeah, I’ve been squeakastinating all week” or “That can wait, stop squeakastinating.”
- A crying baby
- A cat mewing for food early in the morning (recent research suggests that cats actually evolved to sound like babies, to hijack our attention)
- Unpaid bills: I pay them instantly because of an irrational fear of being late and penalized. Systematically paying bills at the last possible moment is actually smart because the money stays in your bank account earning interest, but the sight of an unpaid bill on my desk sends a slight stab of anxiety through me, every time I glance at it.
- Getting somewhere: I always try to get to airports early because I have an irrational fear of security line delays and traffic, and hate feeling rushed.
- Shooting too soon: As in, a soldier being unable to bear the tension of waiting to “see the whites of their eyes” per the General’s command.
In each case, we end up doing the task to turn off the annoying signal rather than because they need to be done right away. Our language reflects our recognition of our own motivations: “I want to get this over with” or “I want to get this out of the way.”
The Cost of Squeakastination
The cost of squeakastination is really high for a simple reason: squeaky-wheel tasks are often small, easy and plentiful. Which means that if you keep prioritizing them, you may never get to the important things.
Wayne W. Dyer has a neat little visual demonstration of this idea. If you have balls of different sizes and a large container, and you put in the little balls first, they will pack the container leaving no room for the big ones. But if you put the big ones in first, there will still be room in the nooks and crannies for the little ones. This is not just a vague metaphor. It works out this way because squeaky wheel tasks are easy. You can easily do them during low-energy periods when more difficult work is impossible.
Squeakastination in Adversarial Situations
When there is an adversary involved, squeakastination is even more expensive. Showing your hand too early, or lurching into action because you cannot bear the tension of waiting for the right time, can lose you battles. Baiting tactics often rely on squeakastination tendencies.
Often, impatient types rationalize squeakastination as action-orientedness. They accuse more patient types, who can handle more tension for longer periods, of procrastination.
The special advantage presented to an adversary by your squeakastination suggests that many squeastination triggers in the environment are likely deliberately engineered. Like the annoying red alert flags on the iPhone and many websites. Yes, they are your adversaries in the war over your own attention. You feel an irrational urge to make them go away. Cues that use design elements like the color red get at our primal fears in non sequitur ways (there is no blood involved in a UI alert flag, after all).
Dealing with Squeakastination
The solution to squeakstination is obvious: turn off the annoying signal without actually doing the task. This is of course, easier said than done. Passive visual triggers are the easiest to turn off. Just hide them and turn on less annoying alerts. Put the unpaid bills in your drawer and set up a calendar alert for the right date for instance.
If you have the sort of Puritan mentality that abhors time-wasting, bring things to do in waiting situations (a smartphone is the perfect tool for this).
This is particularly effective against adversaries who make people wait as a baiting tactic, to force you into status-lowering squeakastination. It only works if you don’t occupy the time with something else. You can in fact turn the tables on them by making them wait a few seconds when they do show up (“Oh, you’re here, give me a second, let me just finish this email.” They can hardly complain after having made you wait). I suspect CEOs have lost more power to smartphones in their waiting rooms than any other single artifact.
The hardest squeakastination situations are one-way adversarial ones. Babies and pets are great examples: they want to take advantage of you, and you want to be kind to them. You don’t want to actually hurt them or deny them what they need. But you cannot really shut them up. With a cat, you may be able to simply leave the house, but with a baby, you may not be able to.
But figuring out coping strategies is crucial, because once an adversary figures out a technique to make you squeakastinate, he/she/it will use it repeatedly, enslaving you.