By Steven G. Mehta

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Daily Journal was kind enough to publish an article that I had written on procrastination.  Hopefully you will like it.  Just make sure that you don’t put 0ff reading it.

Why We Procrastinate

By Steven G. Mehta

Last week, I found out that this week was National Procrastination week.  I thought this would be a good thing to write about.  However, for some reason, I kept putting off writing the article and delayed working on this article until today.  Despite my procrastination, the reason we procrastinate is an interesting topic that is relevant to dispute resolution and law in several ways.

Let’s address why we procrastinate.  According to Timothy A. Pychyl, a Professor of psychology and leading expert on procrastination at Carleton University, there are several reasons why we procrastinate.

First, the brain is built to minimize danger, before maximizing rewards.  “This alone accounts for a great deal of our procrastination as we avoid tasks that threaten the self, and we discount future rewards in favor of immediate gratification. A little more focus on emotional intelligence can help here. Too often, feelings trump reasons, and we give in to feel good,” says Pychyl.

Second, too much uncertainty feels painful, and as such we try to avoid that uncertainty.  The possibility of a painful event makes us want to delay the pain.  This is like when you have to give yourself a shot.  You hesitate and give the shot slowly because you don’t want the pain.  This for me is always the case, even if someone else is giving the shot.  I cringe and time comes to a standstill.

Third, our conscious processing capacity is small, which makes us terrible at a lot of things, including predicting what might make us happy.  In fact, people are very poor judges of accurately predicting their emotional states in the future when a certain event could happen.  This applies to both good events and bad events.

Fourth, People have limited emotional willpower and have a limited ability to control their emotional desires.  When placed under even the slightest of stress, people are more likely to give in to their emotional desires or weaknesses.  This concept allows them to defer dealing with these issues because of lack of willpower.

Finally, there is a big gap between intentions and actions.  Look at the number of failed new years’s resolutions.

These reasons help us understand many things that happen in the legal and dispute resolution context.

For example, many people ask why do people put off estate planning until the very last minute?  My wife, who happens to be an estate planner, asked this just yesterday, when she was rushing to a hospital to do an 11th hour trust/will signing.  It is not that people don’t want to plan for their estate, but it appears that the first two reasons regarding procrastination play a role in why many people wait until the last minute to do estate planning.  The thought of dying can be very disconcerting and very painful.  The certainty of death, but the uncertainty of the timing can create a mixed bag of feelings which people would rather avoid.  In addition, people discount the value of that proper estate planning in favor of immediate gratification of other needs and desires today.

I think that the issue of procrastination really comes to light when dealing with dispute resolution and mediation.  All too often people are faced with the uncertainty of what could happen with the pending litigation.  I have seen many people ignore the reality of the litigation.  Those seemingly irrational decisions make sense when you view them in the context of procrastination.

Many of those people are procrastinating the decision to terminate the litigation.  The uncertainty of possibly losing is too painful currently that the litigants delay making a decision so as to avoid the possibility of feeling the pain now.   Indeed, many litigants are willing to experience the likely (but not definite) prospect of more pain in the future simply to avoid that small pain now.  I have seen many litigants say, “I know I will probably have to pay a larger sum later, but I would rather face that when the time comes.”

Moreover, many people do not properly evaluate their state of being in the event that they lose the litigation or if they win the litigation.  I have seen many people say that if they could only win the case, everything in their lives would change.  The problem is that in most cases, litigation won’t change “everything.”  People place too much reliance on the litigation to fix it all; and when the litigation doesn’t meet their expectations, they end up  disappointed.

Attacks on willpower can also affect the reason why people defer making a critical decision in litigation.  Sometimes, the immediate gratification of “sticking it to the other side,” outweighs the long term rewards of resolving litigation.  As such, many litigants “procrastinate” making the difficult decision to resolve the lawsuit.

Often when parties have been in litigation for many months or years, the litigation becomes the status quo.  It becomes increasingly more difficult to make the decision to shut down the litigation because as time goes on people can get more entrenched in their positions and it becomes even more painful to change that position.  As such, it becomes harder for the parties to change away from the status quo.  They – in essence – procrastinate the decision to have final resolution.

Finally, one other reason that people often defer their decision regarding settlement – even despite everyone indicating that the case should be resolved – is the fact that some people may feel that ending the litigation will also put an end to the relationship.  For example, in the divorce context some spouses don’t want to let go even faced with overwhelming reasons that they should.  Other people also don’t want to let go of the past.  For example, in the employment and wrongful termination setting, a plaintiff may be unwilling to settle a case because she would then have to admit to herself that she is no longer connected with a company that she may have been employed by her whole adult life.  The fear of letting go – which is combined with the fear of the pain associated with letting go – can be a very powerful factor in preventing people from settling cases.

Understanding why and how people make decisions and why people procrastinate decisions can help attorneys and mediators to better address the concerns and the underlying emotional issues that the clients may have in making critical legal decisions.

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