Gizem Saka Ph.D.

The Decision Lab


To prevent procrastination, watch your friends

What should a friend/colleague/my sister do?

Posted Dec 08, 2010

Economists look at choices we make over time, and if they see any inconsistency, they are alarmed. For instance, if I ask you today whether you'd like $10 in 30 days versus $11 in 31 days, most of you would choose the latter option. If, on the other hand, I ask you whether you'd like $10 today instead of $11 tomorrow, some of you would change your mind and choose the first option. Your preferences would be sensitive to when you are asked the question. Of course in our everyday life, an economist would rarely come up to us and ask us to choose between arbitrary dollar amounts. What happens in real life is a variation of this problem, which is the costly delay of effort. In other words, procrastination.
What is interesting about procrastination (other than that almost everyone we know is susceptible to it) is that when asked earlier in time, we believe that we won't be procrastinating. Similar to the example I just gave, if the task is in the future, we believe we'll complete it. Will you finish your paper/clean the attic next week? Yes. Do you want to do it now? No. Apparently the wishful thinking when it comes to our future hardworking selves never goes away. Luckily, our realistic side sees this trick.
One way to prevent procrastination is to use commitment devices. These are costly actions we take now so that in the future the person we will become will not be able to shirk. For example, imagine a student having to submit three research papers during the semester. A researcher asked students in his class to choose from one of the two options. One, you can choose to bring all papers at the end of the semester. Two, you can choose the early-deadline option: Bring the first paper at the end of the first month, the second paper at the end of the second, the third at the end of the third month. By the end of the semester, all students would have handed in all three assignments. And here is the catch: If you choose the second option today and choose to commit to earlier deadlines, you cannot change your mind later on. When the first month ends, and your friends who have chosen to bring their papers at the end of the semester are going to the movies, you cannot call your professor and ask for an extension. Any delay from the self-imposed deadlines will be penalized.
Think about what you would do. After all, there are very rational, sensible ways for why you might want to bring all papers at the end of the semester. Within the three months, you might have to incur delay due to medical problems, family responsibilities, etcetera, and choosing the last-day option will give you more flexibility. After all, you can finish the first assignment at the end of the first month without telling your professor you would do so, dodging potential penalties. However a part of you knows that there are also insensible ways for why you might want to delay effort, and it is the existence of the penalty that will force you to work. People who think this way have less trust in their future selves, and for the better. Researchers find that those who commit to earlier deadlines also perform better and have higher earnings in tasks.
Then our question becomes: Is there a way to teach ourselves the benefits of commitment (provided that we need it in the first place)? Can we increase our willingness to commit to better future behavior?
For a research study, I used the exact same procedure as my colleagues have used: I gave students three tasks and asked them to choose one of the two options. Again, option 1, you can bring everything at the very end. Option 2, you can send me your work in timely intervals. But this self-choice wasn't what I was interested in. I wanted to see how people chose commitment opportunities for others. Therefore, I asked the first group of students (Group 1) to choose among options 1 and 2 for their own submission deadlines. To Group 2, I told them a different story. I asked them to imagine another student sitting in another classroom, reading and learning similar material, probably having a similar work load. I then said: "I will match you with another student in that other classroom. What option do you choose for the other person? Should he submit all his assignments at the end of the semester, or should he commit to earlier deadlines?"
What you are suspecting held true: People made better commitment decisions for others. When I surveyed the participants at the end of the experiment, most said they chose the commitment option for the other student because "the other person is a student and is likely to procrastinate." Of course what I didn't say to them, since we are not to direct participants in any way, was "You are a student as well and probably as likely to procrastinate." People believe that others are more susceptible to biases in general: Others are more likely to be affected by framing, they are more likely to remember incidents favoring their self-image, and so on. The same phenomenon apparently holds for the bias for immediate gratification. Others are more likely to procrastinate, and therefore the other person should commit. Me? I'll be fine (or at least, finer).
How can we use this knowledge to our benefit? The discovery that we see others as more likely to procrastinate hardly helps. After seeing the results of the self-versus-other discrepancy in the choice of commitment, I ran another study where I asked participants, once again, to first choose the commitment option for the random other person, and then for themselves. (A control group first chose commitment option for the self, then for a fellow student). What happened is that, those who were asked to think about someone else's procrastination likelihood first, before thinking about their own, made better commitment decisions for themselves.
I think what goes on here is very similar to what we experience when we think about the future. We assess future possibilities differently because we can remove our present selves from our future selves (like in a Woody Allen movie), and make decisions away from the heat of the moment. Something similar is going on when we thing about others: We are removed from self-serving biases, the cosmetic improvements we make on our self-image.
So the next time you have to make a commitment decision, ask yourself the question: "What should a friend/colleague/my sister do?" If you decide that that other person should commit, then you will find yourself committing more.