Ask Ariely: On Sound Sleeping, Conserving Commitments, and Giving Goals

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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Dear Dan,

At night, I find myself procrastinating when I should go to bed. I stay up watching TV and, inevitably, wind up falling asleep on the couch and dragging myself to bed two hours later. How can I nudge myself to skip the TV phase and just go to sleep? (One obvious answer would be to put the TV in my bedroom, but I don’t have space for that.)

—Bram 

Moving your TV into your room certainly won’t help you get a better night’s rest. Experts in “sleep hygiene” have shown that it’s best to associate the bed with sleep and romance and not with activities like reading or watching TV; exposure to screens before bedtime isn’t helpful either. Answering email, checking Twitter or watching Netflix in bed will mean that you’ll take more time to nod off and won’t sleep as soundly.

I would put your TV on a timer that goes off every night at, say, 10 p.m. Of course, you could override the timer, but it would still remind you that you had committed to go to bed then, and the extra work to override it might prevent you from falling back into your old habits.

If you want some extra motivation, look for someone who can hold you accountable. A firm partner would do fine, or you could ask a close friend to be your “sleep cop” and promise to send him or her a picture of you in pajamas every night at 10.

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Dear Dan,

How should we deal with people who make a run on gas every time the supply is disrupted? We often hear that no significant shortages will occur if people keep up their normal patterns of consumption, but some people take news of a disruption as their cue to top off their tanks more frequently—thus contributing to the shortage and causing long lines. Is there any way to discourage this and restore some measure of order?

—Bo 

When a resource is in limited supply, we are often willing to hurt the public good (by creating longer lines at the pump) for our individual advantage (by keeping our own tank full). This behavior is tempting if you view things in terms of your personal short-term gain, but of course, it is devastating for everyone in the long run.

Since it isn’t easy to get people to care about the collective at moments of scarcity, maybe we should ask ourselves how we can harness selfishness for good. We don’t need to influence everyone; even reducing the number of people who stock up on gas by 10% could make a big difference. So how can we get some people to be selfish in a more societally useful way?

One idea: What if people started asking their friends on Facebook to make a commitment not to refill their gas tank until it is less than a quarter full, and what if we “liked” such posts to praise their commitment to the common good? This kind of approach probably won’t sway everyone, but for some, it might replace one benefit (a full tank) with another (an enhanced reputation).

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Dear Dan,

As the holiday season arrives, I have been weighing the joys of getting things for ourselves against the joys of helping others and giving them gifts. Are we happier when we do something nice for ourselves or for others?

—Jennifer 

As Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton have shown in their book “Happy Money,” we often think that we maximize our happiness by indulging in a treat for ourselves, but our long-term happiness has more to do with the kindnesses we do for others. This is a fine season to start acting on that lesson.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.