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Congress’ debt delay may be counterproductive, but it’s not procrastination

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Stacey Vanek Smith: Congress is taking things right down to the wire — and that’s a pretty familiar feeling for many of us. Cable bills, term papers, taxes. So is Congress just a bunch of procrastinators? Timothy Pychyl studies why we put things off at Carleton University in Ottawa. Good morning, Timothy.

Timothy Pychyl: it’s my pleasure.

Vanek Smith: As an expert in procrastination, what do you think of what’s going on with the debt ceiling in Washington? Is this the same thing that used to go on when I would be putting off term papers in college?

Pychyl: I’ve been watching this discussion with a lot of interest because the term procrastination’s been used a lot, and President Obama said that his girls get their work done a day earlier, and kind of insinuated that what’s going on in the House and Congress is procrastination. I don’t believe it fits the definition of procrastination at all.

Vanek Smith: So what is going on and how is it different than procrastination?

Pychyl: Procrastination is always delay, but not all delay is procrastination. In this case, what we have is people using delay strategically to make political points.

Vanek Smith: Both sides have said we can’t default on our debts, so is this potentially procrastination in that way?

Pychyl: Doing something at the last minute — when you plan on doing it at the last minute is not procrastination. We like to think that procrastination is weakness of will. We know what the right thing to do is and we delay doing it. In this case the debate is the right thing to do. If I see any procrastination in this issue at all, it’s not with the government right now, but it’s the self-regulation failure we’ve seen that brought this debt crisis. Procrastination is just one form of self-regulation failure. And the self-regulation failure here has always been to have more than I can afford.

Vanek Smith: Can this kind of delay ever be a productive thing in a negotiation? Is there every anything good about a delay, or procrastinating?

Pychyl: There’s lot of things that are good about delay. We use delay all the time. Everyday you and I will delay things in our lives as we strategize and optimize our schedules and prioritize. Procrastination is that one form of delay that is negative by definition. Delay has lots of use in negotiations like this. Procrastination doesn’t — and I think we’re all yelling you’re procrastinating because we can’t stand the stress.

Vanek Smith: Timothy Pychyl is with the department of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa. Timothy, thank you so much for joining us.

Pychyl: It was my pleasure.

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