Dan Ariely on Overcoming Procrastination

Question: How can we overcome procrastination?

Dan Ariely: As a university professor, procrastination is one of my favorite things, of course because I view it every time. And every semester I see the good intentions of my students. And toward the end I see, you know, that relatives, and fevers, and all kinds of creative excuses. So . . . And procrastination is not just about procrastination. It’s about a fundamental dilemma between what is good for us now and what is good for us in the long term. So right now I feel like watching television, not working. So I delay work for tomorrow. And tomorrow comes I again feel like watching television and not working, so I delay it again. That’s the same thing about savings; about healthcare. It’s the same thing about drug abuse, right? I want to do what’s fun now, not what’s necessarily good for the future. So one year . . . or actually a couple of years I offered the following treatment to my students. I said, “This semester you owe me three papers. You can hand it to me anytime you want, but you have to commit today when you’re going to submit each of them. If you’re late, you’ll lose a point of grade for each day you’re late. So there’s a huge penalty for that. And now please submit your dates.” Now what would the rational student do? The rational student would say, “I’ll submit everything at the end. I can always submit early. There’s no problem. Why should I commit to this costly . . . potentially costly deadline?” But what if a student knows they have a self-control problem? And if they keep all of the papers until the end, the last week of the semester would just be hell. They wouldn’t be able to sleep. They will . . . They will produce bad work and so on. If the students know that they have a self-control problem and they understand it, they might pre-commit to earlier, spaced deadlines, and they might actually do better. And the experiments we’ve done in this show that this is the case. When you give people a mechanism to do it, they actually do it better. Now it’s interesting that in the years after that, I’ve given students in my class the paper. None of these people ever come to me and say, “Professor Ariely, can you please make the deadlines earlier? And here is my pre-commitment for this and deduct it.” People on their own behalf don’t come and propose these mechanisms. But the good news is if you give them the mechanism, they seem to be taking it. Think about something like fat farms. I’m not sure what’s the politically correct way to say it. People can eat lettuce at home basically for free, but they go to expensive places to force them to eat only lettuce. Why? Because they know at home they’ll be tempted to do other things. Now I don’t think that somebody would go to somebody and sat, “Look, I’m paying you $200 a day to take everything away but lettuce from me.” But if we create this mechanism, people would recognize it under some condition and accept it. And that for me is the opportunity for free lunches, and here is how I view it. In standard economics, everything is at equilibrium. Everything is perfect. There’s no reason to change anything. The world is fine. Everybody is pursuing their ideal. In behavioral economics, the sad news is we’re irrational. We make mistakes. We’re foolish, myopic, emotional, and so on and so forth. With this bad news comes good news, and the good news is free lunches. It means that if people are mistaken, myopic, and so on, we can also offer mechanisms and solutions that would actually get them to behave better. And Weight Watchers and those kind of things are examples of those; 401k another example of those. How much money do you think people would save if we left it to people’s own decision at the end of the month to decide how much they are going to send to their retirement plan? Very little. But the fact that it comes out automatically from your paycheck at the beginning of the month really helps move it along. And that’s really the easiest way to improve our well being – is to understand what the opportunity are for free lunches, and to encourage businesses and the government to do more of that.

Recorded on: Feb 19 2008


Procrastination is not just about procrastination. It’s about a fundamental dilemma between what is good for us now and what is good for us in the long term, says workplace psychologist Dan Ariely.

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