Procrastination in the Workplace: Evidence from the U.S. Patent Office

Michael D. Frakes, Melissa F. Wasserman

NBER Working Paper No. 22987
Issued in December 2016, Revised in January 2017
NBER Program(s):Law and Economics, Labor Studies, Productivity, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship

Despite much theoretical attention to the concept of procrastination and much exploration of this phenomenon in laboratory settings, there remain few empirical investigations into the practice of procrastination in real world contexts, especially in the workplace. In this paper, we attempt to fill these gaps by exploring procrastination among U.S. patent examiners. We find that nearly half of examiners’ first substantive reports are completed immediately prior to the operable deadlines. Moreover, we find a range of additional empirical markers to support that this “end-loading” of reviews results from a model of procrastination rather than various alternative time-consistent models of behavior. In one such approach, we take advantage of the natural experiment afforded by the Patent Office’s staggered implementation of its telecommuting program, a large-scale development that we theorize might exacerbate employee self-control problems due to the ensuing reduction in direct supervision. Supporting the procrastination theory, we estimate an immediate spike in application end-loading and other indicia of procrastination upon the onset of telecommuting. Finally, contributing to a growing empirical literature over the efficiency of the patent examination process, we assess the consequences of procrastination for the quality of the reviews completed by the affected examiners. This analysis suggests that the primary harm stemming from procrastination is delay in the ultimate application process, with rushed reviews completed at deadlines resulting in the need for revisions in subsequent rounds of review. Our findings imply that nearly 1/6 of the annual growth in the Agency’s much-publicized backlog may be attributable to examiner procrastination.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w22987

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