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Absurd Irrational Human: Procrastination

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Rational Johnny: I never procrastinate. I do what I consciously consider is best for my long-term success and wellbeing. 

Human Johnny: I procrastinate sometimes. I don’t think it’s that often. But I don’t understand why it happens. I set out to work or study and find myself scrolling Instagram, or playing some game, or even cleaning. It’s frustrating.

Unconscious of Human Johnny: the tasks Johnny wants to do are scary and difficult. I want to avoid risk and conserve energy, so I try to not do them. I also scan the environment all the time to find threats and opportunities. There is so much new stuff that triggers my dopamine. Of course I make him do the pleasant thing instead of the scary difficult one.


The characters

Rational Johnny is Homo Economicus. He is how we imagine we act: rational, conscious, intentional. He always maximizes his gain in the short and long-term while minimizing the risks and costs.

Human Johnny is Homo Sapiens. He is how we act in reality, often irrational. Often he does things which are self-harmful. He is us.

Unconscious of Human Johnny is his unconscious mind. It evolved to maximize our evolutionary fitness in the Paleolithic. As such it has deep algorithms that worked great to predict the immediate future in that time. Often they lead to behaviours that are now irrational and self-harmful. It explains why Human Johnny differs from Rational Johnny. This unconscious is the PaleoRobot because it has algorithms evolved for the Paleolithic.


Why does Human Johnny procreastinate? The PaleoRobot

Algorithm 3 of the PaleoRobot: Avoid pain and pursue pleasure

In the Paleolithic man had not other sources of information than his own senses. Indeed perception evolved to maximize survival and reproduction. It did not evolve to produce the most accurate view of the world.

Pain and pleasure are not random. They evolved to signal if a behaviour is detrimental or beneficial to survival and reproduction. The PaleoRobot knows that whatever feels good is good and should be pursued.

This algorithm supersedes any conscious abstract knowledge. So the PaleoRobot avoids the task set-up by the conscious. This task is painful because it is uncertain and consumers energy.

Algorithm 4 of the PaleoRobot: Conserve energy

Survival came from avoiding risks, but also having more energy than used. Our PaleoRobot is always conserving energy to maximize future survival chances. This is why we prefer to sit on the couch than go for a run.

Johnny’s PaleoRobot is conserving energy by avoiding the energy-intensive task. We procrastinate things that are hard to do at a cognitive, emotional or physical level.

Algorithm 1 of the PaleoRobot: Uncertainty is danger

Homo Sapiens survived depending on how well it predicted the immediate future. Thus any scenario with an uncertain outcome was extremely dangerous. And surprise could be deadly.

Johnny’s PaleoRobot avoids uncertainty like the plague. Any unknown is dangerous even if he knows at a conscious level there is no danger. 

The presentation for the board that he needs to work on has an uncertain outcome. Objectively he knows the risk is minimal. At worst some people on the board would be unimpressed. In the extreme he might lose his job, although the probability is infinitesimal.

But his PaleoRobot treats this unknown like a deadly danger. It tries to avoid the uncertain task. Thus procrastination.

As an aside, this shows that procrastination might have been a life-saving tactic. When Johnny’s ancestor from 100,000 years ago procrastinated, he was avoiding activities with real risk. He would have procrastinated things like going out to hunt in the storm, or crossing an unknown patch of forest. The people who did not procrastinate lived less and made fewer offspring. We are the descendants of procrastinators.

Algorithm 5 of the PaleoRobot: There is no future

All relevant risks in the Paleolithic were immediate. For natural selection it mattered whether Human Johnny survived or died in the next hours. Long-term was irrelevant. 

Human Johnny procrastinates activities with no immediate effect. Not doing that presentation does not hurt. It has negative impact in the future. But for the PaleoRobot this future does not exist. The instant gratification from the procrastination activities is very real however.

Often the tasks procrastinated are not only distant, but also meaningless for the PaleoRobot. It does not care about the presentation. It does not even understand it.


You are not Rational Johnny. You are Human Johnny.
Join me in my journey to create an ideal life for Human Johnny and his PaleoRobot.