Aug 30

The Magic of Procrastination

Oscar Wilde once said, “I never put off till tomorrow what I can do the day after.” As a university professor, I constantly see Wilde’s words put into action. Each fall students arrive to the first day of class determined to meet deadlines and stay on top of their assignments. And each fall the human weakness to procrastinate gets the best of them. After a few years of witnessing this behavior, my colleague Klaus Wertenbroch and I worked up a few studies hoping to get to the root of this problem. Our guinea pigs were the delightful students in my class on consumer behavior.

As they settled into their chairs that first morning, I explained to them that they would have to submit three main papers over the 12-week semester and that these three papers would constitute a large part of their final grade. “And what are the deadlines?” asked one student. I smiled. “The deadlines are entirely up to you and you can hand in the papers any time before the end of the semester,” I replied. “But, by the end of this week, you must commit to a deadline for each paper. Once you set your deadlines, they can’t be changed. Late papers,” I added, “would be penalized at the rate of one percent off the grade for each day late.”

“But Professor Ariely,” asked another student, “given these instructions wouldn’t it make sense for us to select the last date possible?” “That’s an option,” I replied. “If you find that it makes sense, by all means do it.”

Now a perfectly rational student would set all the deadlines for the last day of class—after all, they could submit papers early, so why take a chance and select an earlier deadline than absolutely necessary? From this perspective, delaying the deadlines to the last day of he semester was clearly the best decision. But what if the students succumbed to temptation and procrastination? What if they knew that they are likely to fail? If the students were not rational and knew it, then they might set early deadlines and by doing so force themselves to start working on the projects earlier in the semester.

You would most likely predict that the students would succumb to procrastination (not a big surprise there)—but would they understand their own limitations and would they commit to earlier deadlines just to overcome their procrastination?

Interestingly, we found that the majority of students committed to earlier deadlines, and that this ability to commit resulted in higher grades.  More generally, it seems that simply offering students a tool by which they could pre-commit publically to deadlines can help them achieve their goals.

How does this finding apply to non-students? When resolving to reach a goal—whether it is tackling a big project at work or saving for a vacation, it might help to first commit to a hard and clear deadline, and then inform our colleagues, friends, or spouse about it with the hope that this clear and public commitment will help keep us on track and ultimately fulfill our resolutions.