Admitting to another irrationality

My own worst enemy: procrastination and self-control

My problem with “Just Say No”

One of the main difficulties I face on a daily basis is an inability to say “no.”  Sometimes my difficulties bring me back to the song in Oklahoma! Where Ado Annie sings “I’m just a girl who can’t say no,” and it looks to me that I’m basically like her (granted, she and I are responding to quite different propositions).  I have always had this problem, but it used to be that nobody really asked much from me, so this weakness didn’t pose a real problem.  But now that behavioral economics has become more popular, I receive invitations to speak almost every day. Accordingly, my inability to say “no” has turned into a real challenge.

So why do I (and I suspect many others) suffer from what we might call the “Annie” bias? I think it is because of three different reasons:

1) Avoidance of regret: Regret is a very interesting, uncomfortable feeling.  It is about not where are, but where we could be. It is too easy to imagine that things could have been better. Imagine, for example, that you missed your flight either by two minutes, or by two hours: under which of these conditions would you be more upset?  Most likely, you will feel more upset if you missed your flight by two minutes. Why?  After all, your actual state is the same:  in both cases you are stuck at Newark for five hours waiting for the next flight, watching the same news report on CNN, responding to email on your smartphone, and munching on expensive and not very good food. They key is that having missed your flight by just a few minutes, you continuously think about all the things you might have done to get on the plane on time – leaving the house five minutes earlier, checking your route to avoid traffic jams, and so on. This comparison to how things could have been, and the feeling of “almost” makes you miserable.  By contrast, a two-hour delay is not as upsetting because you don’t make these kinds of regretful, “woulda, coulda, shoulda” comparisons. (Comparing your current state to some other idealized one, by the way, is a huge source of general unhappiness, especially when comparing yourself to your likeminded peers.)

Now think of a circumstance in which you don’t feel regret at the moment, but want to avoid feeling regret in the future. Let’s say you are buying an expensive new flat-screen TV. As you are whipping out your credit card to pay for it, the salesperson offers you an extended warranty for an additional 10% off the sticker price. You don’t relish the thought of paying more for this extended warranty, but the salesperson asks you to imagine how would you feel if, six months down the road, the TV stopped working and you had passed on the opportunity for the extended warranty. To make the moment even more salient, the salesperson adds that the offer is only available to you now (and only now!). With this final push, you go ahead and purchase the extended warranty – paying a premium in order to avoid the possibility that in the future you will hit yourself over the head and tell yourself that you should have purchased the extended warranty when you had the chance.

What has all this got to do with my own inability to say “no”? My version of the extended warranty is that I get invited to all kinds of stimulating conferences and meetings in amazing places, with interesting people. And the invitations always feel as if they are my only chance to see that particular place and meet those particular people.

2) The curse of familiarity: I suppose I also suffer from a form of the “identifiable victim effect” that I described in Chapter 9.  As you recall, when a problem is large, general and abstract, it is easy for us to turn our heads away and not care too much about it. But when the problem is close to home our emotions are evoked, and we are more likely to take action. Similarly, when I receive formal invitations from people I don’t know, it is relatively easy to politely turn down their offer. But when I receive invitations from people I do know, even if only superficially, it’s a different story altogether. And the better I know someone, the harder it is to say “no, sorry, you know I would really love to come, but I just can’t.”

One of the clever ways I attempt to deal with this version of the identifiable victim effect is to ask my wonderful assistant Megan to say no for me in the cases where I have to do so. This way, I don’t have to feel the pain of saying “no”, and because she is not saying “no” for herself, she has a much easier time with it than I do.

3) The future is always greener: I also find that it’s easier to say “yes” to things in the future, particularly the distant future. If someone asks me to come to an event in the next month or two, I generally have no choice but to say “no” because I’m either traveling or fully booked — there’s just no space in my schedule. [I have to admit that sometimes when someone asks me to come to an event and my calendar says that I’m already booked, I feel relieved.] But when someone asks me to do something in a year, my calendar naturally looks far emptier. (Of course, the feeling that I will have lots of extra time in the future is just an illusion – my life will likely be just as full of myriad, often unavoidable things. It’s just that the details aren’t filled in yet.

The basic problem is this: when we look far into the future, we assume that the things that are limiting and constraining us in the present won’t be there to the same degree. For me, I somehow imagine that meetings with students and administrators and colleagues, not to mention reviewing papers and so on, won’t be part of my daily life eight months in the future.

My friends Gal Zauberman and John Lynch, who have done research on this topic, recently gave me some interesting advice. They suggested that I imagine every single event I’m asked to attend will occur exactly four weeks from the present. With this exact schedule I mind, I should then ask myself whether I find it important enough to squeeze it in or cancel something else. If the answer is “yes,” then I should accept the invitation; but if my answer is “no,” I should pass. This is easier said than done, and I have not yet been able to consistently cultivate this frame of mind, but I am starting to adapt this mindset.

Perhaps what I need is to add some technological aid to Gal and John’s advice. What if I had an advanced calendar application made just for people who have a hard time admitting out how busy they will be in the future? Ideally, such an application would take all my meetings and travel from a given period and, based on that schedule, simulate what my time would look like in a year. This would allow people like me to respond to requests in a more realistic, less hopeful way. Perhaps this advanced calendar application is something I should start working on in a few months…

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Thankfully, my own irrationalities tell me that there is still a lot of room for research and improvement.

Irrationally yours

Dan