Tragedy of the free time commons

Procrastination often seems a bit like an internal tragedy of the commons.

In a tragedy of the commons, a group of people share something nice, like a shared pasture on which to raise their cows. If they together refrained from overusing it they would all benefit (e.g. because it doesn’t become a mud pit), but if any one person alone refrains (e.g. by having a smaller herd of cows), they expect to see little of the benefit themselves, and they probably expect someone else to use more resources (e.g. by adding an additional cow to another herd), so that there isn’t even a shared benefit to the group from the person’s selfless action.

Suppose you have a paper due on Friday, and it is going to take 60 minutes to finish it. Think of yourself over the preceding day as 960 you-minutes. Each you-minute would much prefer the paper be done than not done the following morning, but would somewhat prefer to not work on it themselves. Because these time-slices make their decisions about whether to work one after another, and know what decisions were made in the past, the final N you-minutes in the day will definitely work, if there are N minutes of paper left to write. This means for you-minutes where there are fewer minutes of paper left to write than you-minutes left who might write them, working doesn’t help—it just relieves a later you-minute of working which would otherwise be forced to. And that is certainly worse for the you-minute deciding. So the 60 minutes of writing is done in the last 60 minutes. Which doesn’t destroy any value in this model, so all is good.

But let’s make it more realistic. Suppose that there are better and worse times to work, and which are which is not known ahead of time. Working during a worse minute either produces less than a minute of work, or incurs other costs to the relevant you-minute (e.g. extra suffering). Then instead of everyone doing nothing until exactly sixty minutes before the deadline and then working full time after that, work becomes more worthwhile as you move toward the sixty minute mark, because it becomes increasingly likely that the bad minutes later will not be able to fulfill the work demanded of them. So relatively good you-minutes begin to work sometimes and then less good ones and then close to the deadline even the worst you-minutes work. The you-minutes still mostly work to avoid failing, they don’t mind much if they force bad you-minutes later to work, even if several of them have to work to get a minute’s worth of work done, or even if they endure private suffering as a result. So the early good minutes still don’t work much, and toward midnight many bad minutes work and suffer. This is more of a tragedy of the commons: most minutes freeride, because if they didn’t, someone else would. And all the free-riding causes massive costs.

I think this matches pretty well some elements of procrastination that I see.

This is more complicated than the most straightforward kind of tragedy of the commons—for instance, it involves sequential play—but I don’t know if there is a name this exact kind of game.

4 responses to “Tragedy of the free time commons

  1. I think that procrastination seems like this but it’s actually something totally different. When you’re back let’s talk.

  2. The sequential play reminds me of the Pirate Booty puzzle ( ), which has a similar naive model, where the majority of the booty goes to the first pirate. Here, the majority of the work goes to the last you-timespan.

    I think it could be worth some extra thought. Not that we need an exact model of procrastination, but it could help visualize some phenomena. Thanks for this post!

  3. There is a phenomenon that occurs in a number of games that’s like this. If players take turns, and one player is about to win, but each other player can do something costly to stop the win, then generally the only one to do anything will be the last player with a chance to.


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