Ask Ariely: On Putting off Procrastination, Selling Sherlock, and Feeling the DICE

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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I love my job, and I want to be successful and get promoted—but I seem to be my own worst enemy. I procrastinate a lot, and I don’t know how to stop. Any advice?
—Theo
 
You aren’t alone. Think of procrastination as just one more example of how we fail to do things that are in our long-term interests. Much of life is about fighting such temptations. 
 
Perhaps the best tool we have to fight procrastination is to set rules for ourselves. As William O’Donohue and Kyle Ferguson note in their book “The Psychology of B.F. Skinner,” the famous psychologist had a rule of waking up at 5 a.m. each day and not doing anything else until he had written for two hours. Facebook and email weren’t around to distract people back then, but plenty of other temptations were—and Skinner stuck to his commitment.
 
Such clear rules are useful because they leave us in no doubt about whether we are following them or not. This makes us feel bad when we violate them. So pick some rules, make them clear and strict, and for good measure, ask friends, family and colleagues to hold you to them.
 
P.S. Skinner was an amazing scientist, a master at designing his own life and controlling his environment. But I’m not sure he would have had the will power to resist “Candy Crush.”

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Why do people tend to like new versions of old things? In other words, how many versions of “Sherlock Holmes” will be made? Why do different countries make their own versions of TV shows that have already been hits elsewhere? Money can’t be the only reason. Am I the only one wondering, “Can’t they come up with something new?”
—Patricia
 
I’m willing to bet that “Sherlock Holmes” will be with us for as long as humanity continues to exist. The explanation lies in what psychologists call the “mere-exposure effect”: As something becomes more familiar to us through repetition, our brain starts to process that information more efficiently—and we mistake this faster processing for liking something.
 
In one of the first experiments to demonstrate the mere-exposure effect, a few research assistants were asked to sit in a large university class and say nothing for the whole semester. At the term’s end, the students in the class were asked how attractive they found the research assistants who had been sitting in the class, as well as new research assistants whom they had never met. The students, on average, considered the more familiar research assistants to be more attractive. 
 
To go back to “Sherlock”: My prediction is that as we see more of the legendary sleuth, we will like him more and demand more of the same—maybe with small variations, such as the clearly Holmes-inspired, mystery-solving doctor on “House.”

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I work for my company’s digital-strategy team, and for some reason, management doesn’t realize how important our work is to the organization’s future. As a consequence, our group is facing budget cuts, and no one really listens to us. What can we do to help management understand how vital we are to the company?
—Katz
 
Few improvements have ever resulted from making people understand anything. Try instead to make people feel.
 
I would suggest changing your department’s name from the “digital-strategy team” to the “digital innovation center for excellence”—or DICE. With all those buzzwords and a catchy acronym, who could cut your funding without feeling they’re harming the company?

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.