Monthly Archives: August 2004

Procrastination — Premack’s principle

M&Ms cannot be relied on to be rewarding. Premack’s principle provides a better guide. Photo:

M&Ms cannot be relied on to be rewarding. Premack’s principle provides a better guide. Photo:

Today I am going to focus on how to make use of the list you compiled after my previous posting — how to make it a stepping stone to overcoming procrastination. Basically, I am going to suggest that you use “reward” as a means of increasing the amount of work you do on your thesis. But before you get to saying “Ho, hum! I’ve already tried that and it didn’t work,” read a bit further. You might find a different take on “reward” from what you’ve attempted in the past. I’m also going to suggest, and describe what I mean by, becoming task focussed rather than time focussed.

When most people talk about “reward”, in the context of rewarding various behaviours, they think of things like chocolate, beer, clothes and so on. So they might work a while on their thesis, for example, have some chocolate, work a bit more, get themselves a coffee (usually the disgusting kind that you can find on campus), finish the chocolate bar, and try to write a for another couple of hours. Then at the end of a week or two they try and figure out if the amount they have written is worthy of a really big reward, and maybe go to a movie or buy some new clothes. They also wonder why they are not making much progress.

In the late 1950s, David Premack was struggling with what was then the standard conceptualisation of “reward” and “punishment”. Something was, by definition, rewarding of a particular behaviour, if its delivery following the behaviour led to an increase in that behaviour. So, for example, if I gave you an M&M every time you wrote a word in your thesis draft, and your rate of writing increased as a result, then we’d say that the M&Ms were rewarding. But what if you didn’t write any faster. Unfortunately, the definition of “reward” and “rewarding” was circular so that we’d be able to say that chocolate wasn’t a reward after all, because it didn’t increase your writing rate, but it would give us no clue as to what was rewarding. As a way out of this circular definition, Premack noted that if you made high frequency behaviours contingent (dependent) upon low frequency behaviours, then the low frequency behaviours would tend to increase. Lost?? I hope not, but here is an example. Let’s say Sally, spends a lot of time with her friends (high frequency behaviour) and not much time doing her homework (low frequency behaviour). Then if you tell Sally that she can visit her friends only when she’s done her homework is done, the homework (low frequency behaviour) is likely to increase. Every parent knows this, but we tend to forget the principle when we want to change our own behaviour.

So here are the suggestions.

First, look at your list you made last week, and rank order the activities on the list according to the amount of time that you spent on them on the day of your recording. At the top of the list, put the activities on which you spent the most time, and work down from there. Now you can use the list, together with Premack’s principle, to devise a strategy for yourself which should result in an increase in the amount you get done on your thesis.

First, locate a couple of activities on which you did not spend much time and over which you’ve been procrastinating. We’ll call these activities “PA”, for “procrastination activities”. Next, locate some other activities on which you spent a lot of time. We’ll call these “RA”, for “reward activities”. Take particular note of the following — it does not matter at all whether you think the RAs were pleasurable or not. Pleasure doesn’t figure in our definition of reward! The fact is, that when faced with a choice of things to do, you chose to do the RAs rather than the PAs, and that is enough to be able to use Premack’s principle.

The second part of what you need to do is to lean to become task oriented, or goal oriented, rather than time oriented. By this I mean that you need to learn to set yourself goals phrased in terms of product, rather than time. For example, you might set yourself the goal of writing 50 words of your thesis Introduction, rather than demanding that you work on it for a specific time.

Now we can put the two parts together, and come up with the following approach to working on your thesis during the Olympics. Say that your list indicates that you are watching 10 hours of televised Olympics per day (so the Olympics is the RA), whereas you have hardly done anything on your thesis (the PA). Then you could approach writing by saying to yourself, “I am going to write 50 words on my introduction. When I have written 50 words, then I get to watch the Olympics for 15 minutes.” Now you might say to yourself that 50 words is not going to get your PhD finished, but if you were to follow this schedule, and you’re watching 10 hours of the Olympics each day, then you will have written 2000 by the end of one day. You can adjust the ratio of words to TV-time (this is technically know as the “reinforcement schedule”) depending on how you are going. It is better that you are able to get something done on the PA, followed immediately by some RA than it is to spend the whole day getting frustrated. So if you are like me, where 200 words per day was a tremendous success, then you might begin with what seems like too small a task (!) and set yourself a schedule which requires two sentences followed by 10 minutes of the Olympics. You will be surprised at how much better this works than setting yourself Herculean tasks.

It might seem counterintuitive to work the PA in task-oriented units rather than time units, but there is a lot of evidence to show that this approach works well. On the other hand, the reinforcement schedule will work best when the RAs are time limited. That means that instead of saying “When I’ve written 50 words, I’ll call up my girlfriend,” which has the potential result of you talking for hours, it is better to say “When I’ve written 50 words, I’ll get to talk to my girlfriend for 15 minutes” … even if you have to call her back later, after the next 50 words! Of course, you might find, if you set your reinforcement schedule this way, that you quickly start writing more. You’ll then be able to change your reinforcement schedule to 100 words of PA followed by 30 minutes of RA.

Good luck.

Contributors: Mark R. Diamond

Thesis procrastination — first lessons for the would-be professional

The procrastinator’s strategy is to delay to the last possible moment. Photo: Mark Diamond

The procrastinator’s strategy is to delay to the last possible moment. Photo: Mark Diamond

Having dithered around for the better part of a week before making a second post to this part of the blog, the topic has been more or less decided for me. Procrastination! I could tell you all the reasons for my dithering, amongst which were (a) thoughts about determining what did, and what did not, constitute procrastination, (b) discovering the etymology of the word “procrastinate” [from the Latin procrastinare, from pro + crastinus, belonging to tomorrow], and (c) thinking that perhaps I ought to tell you about Oscar Wilde. But I have decided instead on a lesson in procrastination. A brief “how to” manual for the inexperienced procrastinator.

First, however, the story about Oscar, especially as it relates to the etymology of our important word, as well as delaying, for me, the really hard work of writing! You probably know the story of Oscar Wilde at the New York Customs House saying, “I have nothing to declare except my genius,” but did you also know that he said, “I never put off till tomorrow what I can do the day after.” I have tried in the last week to find out the Latin for that whole saying, but I regret to tell you that I have been unsuccessful. However, my efforts did take the best part of two hours, which is come consolation.

I don’t want to appear boastful, but I believe that I can claim some authority in speaking about the practicalities of procrastination. From start to finish (that is, from when I first enrolled to when I handed my thesis in for examination), my PhD took me exactly 6800 days. So if you are serious about procrastinating, and not about just wasting a year or two, you can afford the extra few minutes it will take you to read the rest of this post and come up to speed on the methodology of time wasting. The following suggestions are in no particular order, and you might find that some of them don’t work for you. But worry not; there is sure to be something you can use.

  • Read blogs.
  • Check out interesting but irrelevant facts, like how many days exactly you have been struggling with your thesis.
  • A serious procrastinator must never allow herself or himself to be uncontactable, so make sure your mobile phone is turned on. If it were switched off, you could miss out on an important interruption.
  • Remember to have your mobile telephone, Yahoo messenger, email accounts and telephone answering machine all set to notify you at a moment’s notice if there is a message for you on any of the other systems.
  • Ensure that you are notified by email whenever there is a new post to one of the blogs you like to read.
  • Make a list of everything you still need to do to finish your thesis.
  • Recognize that a scrappy piece of paper is not going to serve you very well as a list. You really need a nice neat book in which to make your list of important chores.
  • Not got a book? That’s great, we’re really getting started on this time wasting. Perhaps a short trip to the stationer to check-out the notebooks is in order. But be sure you don’t do anything else that is useful while you are there.
  • Oh yes; a pen. You really do need a good pen in the correct colour to help you make the list of things you need to do to finish that thesis. Actually my own preference was for pencils, preferably one of those neat click-pencils with a 3B lead. It is important not to accept cheap substitutes, like the regular HB lead that comes with most pencils, or you could find yourself having to start that list sooner than you ought.
  • Time for another trip to the stationer.
  • You should probably also look at what research has been done on methods of overcoming procrastination before you invest too heavily in some half-baked method that has no experimental support.
  • Can you really say that you are well enough informed to start the introductory chapter of your thesis? Are you sure you are up with the latest literature in your area? I doubt it! If you honestly think you’ve already checked every journal and that you are going to have to start writing, ask yourself this, “Might there not be something published in Urdu, or Icelandic, or Swahili?” There, you see, you’re a long way off being able to begin!
  • My own thesis supervisor once remarked that photocopying articles has become a substitute for reading them, but I think he failed to recognize the enormous economic value of his observation to the professional procrastinator. It lies in this … Photocopying and reference checking are truly great activities because they can be expanded to fit however much time you need to fill, whether it be an hour or a month. And photocopying is almost effortless. Far easier than reading. And there are so many articles for you to photocopy.
  • Last, but far from least, question the value of what you are doing. This last strategy will enable you never to hand your thesis in. Ever. You will be able to get to the point of putting the last full-stop on the page, getting your thesis printed and even bound. And you will still have the opportunity to ask yourself, “What is the point of this? Am I really going to add anything of importance to the sum total of human knowledge? In ten years time, or even in a year, is one word that I have written going to make any difference to anything or anyone, or am I just chewing up the precious resources of the world?” You see, serious procrastination can lead you into some really interesting and depressing philosophical questions!

I was thinking of expanding this list, and I might do so in the future although in a different context. For now, however, I shall make a more serious suggestion, and one which I shall assume you have actually followed by the time I next post.

For one day only, keep a diary of the activities you actually do. Note down the start and finish times, and do it for everything. Reading, going to the toilet, making coffee, reading your email, visits to the library, eating dinner, watching TV, sitting starting at your thesis wondering what on earth to write, playing Minesweeper, or whatever. No activity is too small. And no, you do not need a special notebook, a timestamped leather-bound diary or a great pen. Use any large (A4 or letter size) piece of paper. Deliberately choose a rather grungy piece of paper so as to overcome any excuse about not having a “good” piece. And the same with a pen or pencil. And don’t think that because you miss out on writing something down that that will provide an excuse for not continuing the list. I already know that ploy. You say things to yourself like “I’ve stuffed up today’s list. I’ll start again tomorrow and try to do it properly!” For my next blog posting, almost any information you have collected on your activities will be good enough, even if it is to discover that you didn”t make this list.

See you in a week.

Contributors: Mark R. Diamond

The purpose of The Minnow

Cyprinidon variegatus, the Sheepshead minnow. Masthead picture for the name of the original blog where Minnow entries appeared. Picture: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Cyprinidon variegatus, the Sheepshead minnow. Masthead picture for the original blog where Minnow entries appeared. Picture: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Simply stated, the purpose of The Minnow (the name under which this section of the blog was originally published) is to offer practical advice and encouragement aimed at helping doctoral students to complete their theses. But that doesn’t really explain why anyone would create such a publication. The explanation lies in my own experience in completing a PhD, and in the experience of watching others complete theirs.

When I started my PhD, I intended to complete it in what would literally be record time. The rules of my university required that one be enrolled for a minimum of three years before being eligible for the degree, but I intended to complete mine in two and a half years and apply for an exemption from the strict requirements. Six years later, with only half a chapter written, I applied for a one year suspension of candidature with the aim of finally killing the beast which refused to die.

During the total seven years of my candidature, my motivation went from middle level (before I had decided on a thesis topic), to high (when the topic was decided and my proposal had been approved), to something approximating zero as the years dragged on. Distractions were one problem; difficulty in seeing any progress, whether or not I had actually made any, was another; a lack of structure was a third. A serious dislike of poverty, grunge and grind even managed to provide a fourth problem, rather than motivating me to hand my thesis in more quickly. There are numerous additional devils that beset any aspiring PhD. Perfectionism, self-criticism, procrastination, money, depression, boredom, a sense of futility about one’s work, writer’s block, writer’s block, and more writer’s block, are probably just a few of them.

It is now two years since I completed my PhD, and I recently discovered two things. First, that a friend of mine was actually being paid money (real money), by a university, no less, to help people who were struggling with their theses as I had struggled with mine. Second, I discovered blogging. Some people obviously discovered blogging years ago; but years ago I had my head buried in a PhD and “blogging” was not a word that appeared in the technical vocabulary of my thesis area. Anyhow, it was those two things, blogging and the discovery that even some universities recognized the difficulties their students had in completing what they had started, that set me to thinking that a regular motivational and advice column might made the apparently interminable PhD struggle a little less hard.

So here it is. The Minnow. One of three publications of [a now defunct publication at Blogspot]. I hope that there will soon be other contributors to The Minnow, as well as to its sister publications, but for the time being, I will be the writer. My intention is to make frequent postings, but not to a fixed and rigid schedule. I will probably post about once every week.

Once I’ve figured out more about how blogging works, I shall enable comments, feedback, and a means of allowing readers both to make suggestions about future content and to ask for advice.

Contributors: Mark R. Diamond

Choosing how you wait for a call centre

1896 Swedish telephone. Photo:

1896 Swedish telephone. Photo:

Call centres, and other businesses, often seek to minimize their costs by using as few staff as they can without losing (too many) customers. There is a trade-off between the theoretical cost of a lost customer, and the actual cost of employing sufficient humans to answer the calls that are received. Because the employed human results in a known cost, whereas the lost customer presents only a theoretical cost, it is more than likely that in the first instance, a machine will answer your call to a call centre. If you are as unfortunate as I am, then after listening to never ending lists of instructions about pushing the buttons on your telephone, you will still not speak to a human. Instead, you will wait; and while you wait, you will probably end up listening to advertising messages, muzak, or talkback radio, according to the whim of the call centre.

Now consider the following alternative scenario. You would still have to wait, but you would have a choice of options which no call centre currently appears to provide.

The message would say something along the lines of “While you wait, you have a choice of things to listen to. For silence with a connexion confirmation tone every 30 seconds, press 1; for information on our products, press 2; for classical music, press 3; for heavy metal, press 4 … ”, and so forth. There might even be an option such as “By pressing the star key at any time, you can change your choice and obtain information about both your position in the call queue and the expected waiting time.” That way, you, rather than the call centre, would be able to determine your activity while you wait. The advantages for you are obvious. The advantage for the call centre are less obvious, but nonetheless real.

Firstly, interested customers would listen to product advertising, and other customers would not be annoyed. Secondly, there is extensive evidence from the psychological literature which indicates that when people have a sense of control over their environment, many of them will accept conditions (advertising messages, for example) which they would otherwise reject. In other words, if you ask me whether I would like to listen to some product information, I might well say, “Yes”; but were you to force me to listen to the advertising without first asking me, I would be more likely to reject your products, and become annoyed with your company.

Contributors: Mark R. Diamond, Angela O’Brien-Malone, Daniel D. Reidpath

Proposal for a Citation Weighted Influence Measure

The value of the “impact factor”of a journal (which we will term the ‘reference journal’) in any particular year is usually defined as the aggregate number of citations made in that year (in any article in any journal) to articles published in the reference journal within the preceding two years, divided by total number of articles published in the reference journal within the preceding two years. By way of a concrete example, consider the highly cited publication known as The Halibut. Four hundred articles were published in The Halibut in 2002 (just kidding—we weren’t around then), and 335 articles were published in 2001. Furthermore, in 2003, articles from the 2002 issue of The Halibut were cited 11650 times, and articles from the 2001 issue were cited 13280 times. The impact factor for The Halibut in 2003 can then be calculated as

Impact Factor = (11650 + 13280) / (400 + 335) = 24930 / 735 = 33.9

Now to give you an idea of just how good an impact factor that is, you should know that only a few journals, like the New England Journal of Medicine, for example, have impact factors anything like that. Most journals have impact factors less than 1, meaning that most articles published in most journals are not cited at all within two years of publication.

Academic publications tacitly compete with one another to gain the highest “impact factor”, while authors, especially those living by the motto, “publish or perish”, seek to have their articles published in journals with high impact factors.

For reasons that are obscure, ill-considered, and possibly irrational, the funding that is provided to a university might become partially dependent (as in Australia) on the impact factor of the journals in which the staff of the university have published their articles. But the impact factor often doesn’t tell one what one wishes to know, which might be something like “How much influence did such a such an article, as opposed to the journal, have on the world as we know it?” Of course, it might be a bit much to expect a single numerical value to provide an answer to that question, but it would nonetheless be handy to have an indicator of some sort.

The contributors therefore propose that a Citation Weighted Impact Measure be developed as an indicator of the importance of an article and to help resolve questions such as the following. Is my article, published in an obscure journal (impact factor 0.1) but cited four times in the prestigious imprint The Halibut (impact factor 33.9) less important than an article published in The Halibut but only ever cited in journals that no one reads or cites? How should two such articles be compared? Is a paper published by Isaac Newton in 1678, and cited only four times in the subsequent two years, to be considered unimportant even though people still cite the paper today?

Surely there must be a way of sensibly weighting variables like (a) the journal in which an article is published; (b) the total number of citations of that article to date; (c) the distribution of citations of the article in the years since publication; and (d) the journals in which the various citations have appeared, to arrive at an informative measure of the influence and importance that an article has had.

We think it unlikely that such a measure is going to be developed without reference to people’s views, opinions and beliefs about how important different (actual) articles and journals are. In other words, I think that the measure must be developed empirically and that a purely theoretical approach is doomed to fail. Multi-attribute Utility Theory [Ref. 1] might well provide an appropriate framework within which to develop the weights used in a Citation Weighted Impact Measure. Furthermore, the measure might make use of some of the results of graph theory, especially as the process of citation can be seen to map easily onto the notion of a directed graph. Journals, contain volumes and issues, in turn contain articles, so that one might consider each journal to represent the root node of a tree, and the volumes, issues and articles to constitute the deeper level nodes of the tree. The citation by one article of another article would be represented by a directed edge of the graph connecting one (article) vertex with another. Similarly each author of each article would be connected by an edge to the articles that he or she had written. While MAUT might lead to the development of appropriate weights, graph theory could provide the basis for developing a method of aggregating the values and weights associated with each article-vertex.


  • Winterfeld, D. von, & Edwards, W. (1986). Decision Analysis and Behavioral Research. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Contributors: Daniel D. Reidpath, Mark R. Diamond, Angela O’Brien-Malone