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Procrastination and Decision Writing: Finding the Way

“Sometimes it’s important to stop whatever break you’re taking and just do the work” – New Yorker Cartoon by Bruce Eric Kaplan

“Why, then, do so many experts insist that they’ve found the one true and right way? It’s a fact about human nature: when getting advice, we love to receive a precise, standardized template for success, and when giving advice, we love to insist that the strategy that works so well for us will surely work for others. But each of us must find our own way”.

Gretchen Rubin, Outer Order, Inner Calm

The working life of an adjudicator seems simple – hear cases, then write decisions. The hearing of cases is done in front of the parties. Although the parties may not always appreciate the amount of work that goes into conducting a smooth hearing, at least they can see you doing the work. Decision writing, on the other hand, is done behind a closed office door. Most adjudicators will tell you that writing decisions is the hardest part of their work. And one of the occupational hazards, just like in any job, is procrastination. I am mindful of Gretchen Rubin’s advice that each of us must “find our own way”. I cannot give any worthwhile advice on how to combat procrastination. What I find helpful in finding my own way to combat procrastination is knowing its root causes.

Procrastination has been receiving more attention recently due to the pandemic and the challenges for many in working from home. There is a possibility that procrastination has been intensified by the pandemic, but it has always been a prevalent issue among knowledge workers. Most of the academic studies have focused on students and I have not been able to find any studies on procrastination of decision writers. However, there is some similarity between writing essays under a deadline with an assessment by a professor and writing quasi-judicial decisions.

Before we look at the causes, it is important to have a working definition of procrastination. Procrastination is quite common – with 70 to 90% of people reporting some procrastination and 20% of people experiencing chronic procrastination. Procrastination is a type of delay in action. The Latin roots of the word mean to “put forward to tomorrow”. Not all delay is procrastination, however. For example, delaying in writing because you are waiting on further submissions or information, is not procrastination. Also, delaying in writing because you are dealing with urgent matters – work-related or not – is not procrastination. Procrastination is also not, in my view, taking the time to think through issues as suggested by Adam Grant. Procrastination also does not mean that you are lazy or goofing off. “Busy” work can be its own form of procrastination. As put by Gretchen Rubin, “working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination”.

Professor Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University has written extensively on procrastination. In his book, “Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change”, he provides a useful definition of procrastination:

Procrastination, in contrast to other forms of delay, is that voluntary and quite deliberate turning away from an intended action even when we know we could act on our intention right now. There is nothing preventing us from acting in a timely manner except our own reluctance to act.

Professor Pychyl was interviewed by Michael Enright on CBC’s Sunday Edition last year and he noted that working harder or smarter is not the answer to procrastination since procrastination is a problem of emotion regulation. Procrastination is avoiding negative emotions – emotions such as anxiety, confusion, or boredom. (There is also a link between depression and procrastination as well as with ADHD. I will not address these conditions in this column.) Procrastination is also part of a human tendency to discount future rewards and favour short-term rewards.

David Rasch and Meehan Rasch in a detailed article, “Overcoming Writer’s Block and Procrastination for Attorneys, Law Students, and Law Professors”, note that procrastination frequently occurs in alternation with intense and desperate episodes of rushed writing under deadline:

The varieties of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with procrastination are among the enduring challenges of human experience and operate like a heroin addiction: procrastination fixes our immediate discomfort while leading us to a host of other problems.

The Rasch’s talk about procrastination as a cycle or “wheel of suffering”. Although each person’s style and cycle of procrastinating is different, the central experience is one of suffering: a writer with “writer’s block” does not write despite being capable of doing so, and they suffer because they are not writing.

What are some of the challenges of decision-writing that can lead to procrastination?

Sometimes you think you are ready to write a decision, but you are not. This is not procrastination but a failure to organize the evidence and your thoughts before writing. Before you start writing a decision, you need to have a good handle on the evidence and on the applicable law. Ideally you should have an outline of where you want to go in your decision. No outline is final, and sometimes your decision can change while you are writing or after a first draft. However, if you don’t have a preliminary idea of what the decision will look like, you can spend an awful lot of time summarizing evidence with no end purpose in mind. This not only can take up an inordinate amount of time, it also results in decisions that read like hearing transcripts.

Most decisions become public documents that are assessed or judged by others – the parties, your colleagues, and maybe even by a judge on judicial review. If you lack self-confidence, this kind of scrutiny can lead to paralysis. Related to this is perfectionism. It is normal, and expected, that you should have at least two drafts of a decision and perhaps a couple more. However, for decision-makers with heavy workloads, perfection is not possible. And, the Supreme Court of Canada has stated in Vavilov, a reviewing court “must bear in mind that the written reasons given by an administrative body must not be assessed against a standard of perfection”. However, decision-makers need to be aware of evolving expectations of judges on judicial review. For example, judges used to consider implicit (or unwritten) reasons in a decision, and this no longer will be sufficient after the Supreme Court’s decision in Vavilov (see for example, Farrier v. Canada (Attorney General), 2020 FCA 25 at paragraphs 12-13).

Another common problem in decision writing relates to optimism. We all tend to be optimistic about how much time it will take to write a decision. Even though we may have written dozens or even hundreds of decisions, we still tend to underestimate the time it takes to complete one. This is known as the “planning fallacy”. Perhaps it is a self-defence mechanism – because if we accurately predicted how long it would take us to write a decision, we might never begin! Without necessarily calculating the hours of work ahead of you, it is helpful to know that your estimate of the time that it will take will almost always be wrong.

Although I have not given much guidance on combating procrastination in decision writing in this column, I will leave you with one piece of advice flowing from the research of Professor Pychyl and others: self-compassion and self-forgiveness can be critical in combating procrastination. If you forgive yourself for procrastinating, you are less likely to procrastinate in the future.

Comments

  1. Ian, I so appreciate this application of Dr. Pychyl and others work on procrastination to the writing process and decision writing in particular. You have indeed presented the path to shifting from stuck into action.

    To offer a summary of the path out of procrastination , if you are planning to get down to writing a decision and find yourself stalled, before turning away to another task, and procrastinating… pause and reflect. “Why don’t I feel ready to start writing?” In the words of Dr. Pychyl “what’s the next small step?” Ian, you have provided many next step options in this article that are useful.

    In short, notice, “I am stalled on this.” Ask, “what is something, a simple, small step, I can take on it?” And act.

    Dr. Pychyl and I are are presenting to the CBA National Solutions Series on April 7, 2021 on procrastination… please join us!

  2. Thanks Ian,
    There’s an entertaining and informative Ted Talk by Tim Urban on this topic, link below. Worth a few minutes of your time.

    Essentially, setting a deadline is helpful for some types of procrastinating behavior, but there are more insidious procrastinating behaviours which haunt us out whole lives.

    https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_urban_inside_the_mind_of_a_master_procrastinator/up-next

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