Squeakastination: The Opposite of Procrastination

by Venkat on January 4, 2012

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:

  1. Deferred gratification: delaying tasks that attract you
  2. Procrastination: delaying tasks that you are averse to
  3. Indulgence: prioritizing tasks that you enjoy

Squeakastination

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.”

As the idiom suggests, we squeakastinate around tasks that generate thoroughly annoying signals, or trigger hidden fears and anxieties, as long as they remain visibly undone. Some common examples:
  • 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.

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Bill Seitz January 4, 2012 at 4:17 pm

I guess your wife has never been the squeak? :)

Bill Seitz January 4, 2012 at 5:16 pm

Another reason for getting these things done is that you don’t have any attractive little-stones, and getting these things done gives you *some* sense of accomplishment.

Tom Bushell January 5, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Good point.

I tend to get stuck in the Procrastination quadrant, and can sometimes escape it’s clutches with some judicious squeakastinating.

Getting a small task accomplished often helps me muster the required grit to get started on the high value task…

…but sometimes it becomes just another way to procrastinate.

Having a name to hang on the behavior will make it easier to recognize it, I think.

Jarno Virtanen January 5, 2012 at 5:48 am

You said: “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.”

You might find this Scott Aaronson’s blog article (http://www.scottaaronson.com/blog/?p=40) interesting. It starts with a quote from his former advisor in University:

“If you’ve never missed a flight, you’re spending too much time in airports.”

Scott Aaronson: “In a single sentence, Umesh was communicating an entire philosophy of life: concentrate on the high-order bits.” Scott expands this idea to what he calls “Umeshisms” (according to his advisor’s name).

otoburb January 5, 2012 at 9:25 am

I think the middle “a” should be considered silent in ‘squeakastination’. Subvocally, it’s easy to blow past this, but try saying that out loud (using the how-would-I-explain-this-post-at-a-party test) and the awkwardness becomes more apparent.

FYI “Developeronomics” was equally bad to enunciate, even though the conceptual articulation was easy enough :)

As for paying bills as soon as I get them, I follow the same pattern only because I’ve noticed a past history to then leave the bill payments to the very extreme end of last-minute procrastination, often incurring late penalty fees which made me mad later. In that particular case, I’m a welcome squeakastinator of bill payments.

Tom Bushell January 5, 2012 at 1:02 pm

I’d keep the “a” and add an “r” , and maybe a hyphen i.e.

Squeacrastinate
Squeakrastinate
Squea-crastinate

At least it would sound more like “procrastinate” when spoken, which is the main point, I think.

But when I look at what I just just wrote, my reaction is – “yuck”!

Great concept, but wish we could come up with a better name.

Kirk VandenBerghe February 7, 2012 at 5:14 pm

For this meme to have a chance to take off, I think “squeakinating” would work better. I know the Latin word crastinus, meaning “of the morrow”, would be lost, but squeakastination isn’t going to fly; there’s just too much aversion in our culture to mispronouncing words and being ridiculed as stupid.

MFH January 6, 2012 at 12:17 am

“The solution to squeakstination is obvious: turn off the annoying signal [...]”

In a roundabout way you’ve discovered why I don’t typically carry a cell phone.

To mildly abuse your above text:

“The hardest squeakastination situations are one-way adversarial ones. [Callers to your cell phone] are great examples: they want to [interrupt] you, and you want to be kind to them [since they probably know you and are presumably calling you for a reason]. [...]”

“But figuring out coping strategies is crucial, because once [a caller] figures out [that they can force you to interrupt yourself] he/she/it will use it repeatedly, enslaving you.”

Since cell phones don’t have any kind of reservation/schedule negotiation protocol, it’s generally less stressful to be permanently unavailable except via email.

This strikes me as a shame, since the social contract for land lines used to be very different. If you answer, you’re at home and most likely able to talk. If you don’t answer, you’re probably out and about and I didn’t actually bother or interrupt you– no harm done.

But when I get a non-emergency call while I’m trying to pick out a good cantaloupe, it startles me and makes me feel guilty when I ignore it. Then I get angry that I feel guilty. Net result is me leaving my phone at home whenever I go somewhere, unless I’ve pre-agreed with someone to carry it.

The flip side sucks too. Nothing sucks worse than calling someone and they answer on their car bluetooth set. Or when they’re eating a late dinner, etc. You just know those are going to be a shitty call with basically no real meaning exchanged.

It would be nice to optionally use some kind of schedule negotiation algorithm so both parties could talk when they’re both free. But a lot of MB strong E types actually __like__ the excitement of impromptu squeakastination!

A conundrum.

Tim Nichols January 6, 2012 at 1:10 pm

The model would be richer with another dimension, I think: important vs. trivial. You’re focusing on prioritizing (trivial) tasks that you’re averse to in this post, and you’re right: that’s a huge time- and attention-waster. But prioritizing important tasks that you’re averse to is a valuable habit, and it builds resolve that pays off big-time in critical situations.

Kirk VandenBerghe February 7, 2012 at 5:07 pm

Yes, a third “importance” dimension would enrich this model.

Scarhawk January 6, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Seems like a simpler way to describe it is “reacting.” You’re not in charge of your own behavior, you’re merely jumping every time a red light goes on, placating every minor complaint from everyone (or every software bot) who has access to your attention. You never receive gratitude in return, only the joy of silence as the complaints fall momentarily silent.

One of the reasons this pattern is so hard to break is that the more often you repeat a behavior, the more addictive it becomes. Cigarettes are more addictive than coffee partly because they wear off faster. Eventually you may find yourself with a cigarette burning all the time just so you don’t feel the clock ticking down to the next one. My grandfather was known for having more than one smoke going at a time, leaving one smoldering in an ashtray in one room and lighting another if he went into a different room.

Learning to recognize and stop your own reactive behavior, and replace it with active decisions about what you’re doing, is the heart of most self-help training. If you read any self-help book thoroughly, you’ll usually find Buddhism is either hinted at as the next step or will recognize Buddhist themes throughout that have been relabeled in modern language. The same themes have been embedded into other religions, but prescriptively, while Buddhism is more “try it for yourself and see.” Rather than tell you how to behave in life, it tells you how to practice in the abstract and lets you connect the metaphor of practice to real life for yourself.

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