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The High Cost of Procrastination

Apr 15

Procrastination (from the Latin pro, meaning for; and cras, meaning tomorrow) is one of our most common, but least welcome, partners in life. In its most common form, procrastination takes place whenever we promise to finish a project by the end of the week, just to watch deadline zoom by. But, more broadly, procrastination is also why we decide to start saving more money, exercise more regularly and watch our diet—but fail to follow through time after time.

To consider procrastination in a general way, imagine I asked you to smell some amazing chocolate and then gave you the following choice: would you rather have half a pound of chocolate right now or one pound of it in a week from today. When asked the question this way, most people take the smaller amount of chocolate right now, implying that it is not worthwhile to wait a week for another half a pound of chocolate. But, what if I focused on the distant future and asked you if you would rather have half a pound of this chocolate a year from now or a pound of the same chocolate in a year and a week from today? When asked the question this way, most people say they would be happy to wait the additional week. Both setups are really asking the same question: is it worthwhile for you to wait a week for another half a pound of chocolate — but they don’t feel like the same question. In the first scenario we can almost taste the chocolate and want it right now, but in the second scenario we are not emotional and just think about the value of the larger amount of chocolate relative to the cost of waiting a week.

This is what procrastination is all about. When we think about our life in general we see the benefits of getting our work done on time, saving for retirement, eating better and other good habits. Yet when we face the decision about right now, we get tempted and too often follow our immediate desires and not what it is good for us in the long-term.

Why am I discussing procrastination? It’s never more apparent than on April 15, which should really be called Procrastination Day, when hoards of people finally file their tax returns. Tax Day is a natural celebration of procrastination. I hope we will use the lessons from this day to reflect on procrastination, and hopefully learn something.

One such lesson is the link between procrastination and diminished productivity. Imagine it is the first of April, and you have to work on your taxes. You have an amount of paperwork that would take you 15 days to complete if you worked on it for one hour a day. On the first of the month you are not that excited about looking at all the receipts and forms so you direct your attention to something else. The next day you work on your taxes a bit, but at some point you open Facebook, and the hour you dedicated to the task is gone. The next few days have their temptations, and on the 13th of the month you realize that you have made very little progress so far. Now, if you worked on your taxes for an hour every day, it would take 15 hours of your time, but the nature of productivity is such that we get a lot of output in the first hour on a task, less during the second hour, less in the third hour and so on. (This is what is called diminished productivity.) So now, the amount of work that you could have done in 10 sessions of one hour each would take you not 10 hours but 20. You spend most of the day on the 13th, 14th and 15th working very hard and making slow progress. You finish at some point late on the 15th and rush only to spend hours in the post office to mail your taxes to the IRS. You promise never to do this again, to start early next year and not procrastinate – but will you?

So, let’s take advantage of this massive experiment. (You can’t convince me that the US tax system and Tax Day are not part of a large scale experiment by some evil social scientist!) Let’s make a promise to be better about our finances, taxes and procrastination in general. Let’s make a pledge to put time on our schedules to start large tasks earlier and stick to our plans. (And while we are at it, let’s also remember that we are often overly optimistic about what we can achieve, and buffer our plans by 20-25% to compensate for this bias.)

The point is that when it comes to the different types of procrastination, we are our own worst enemies. We are paying a high price for this behavior, and it is time we start controlling this beast.

Happy Procrastination Day.

Ask Ariely: On A Midlife Cliché

Apr 13

Here’s the missing Q&A from my Ask Ariely column yesterday…

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Dear Dan,

I am a middle-aged guy who’s doing OK financially, and I’m thinking about buying myself a sports car—perhaps a Porsche 911. But I’m also a bit disturbed by the obvious midlife cliché. What would you do?

—Craig 

Tesla designs cars for people with your exact conflict. The Tesla is a sports car, but it has an environmental image, and those who buy it can look at themselves as green, not gray.

______________________________________________________

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Superstitious Toasts and Exploring the Unknown

Apr 12

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 a dinner party a few years ago, we were raising our glasses to our hosts’ health. The person on my right said that every time you make a toast, you need to look straight into the eyes of the person you’re toasting as your glasses touch—and that failure to do so inevitably results in five years of bad sex.  I don’t think anyone around the table believed in that superstition, but we found it very amusing and, for the rest of the night, looked into each other’s eyes while toasting.  I don’t think of myself as superstitious, but since that dinner party, I find myself looking very intently into peoples’ eyes whenever I toast.  I know I am being irrational, so why can’t I shake this superstition?

—Kathleen

If you were going to design a superstition, this one is as close to perfect as you’re likely to get.  For starters, the cost of the ritual (looking into each other’s eyes) is low, and in fact pleasurable.  On the other hand, the cost of ignoring the ritual is very high (years of rotten sex). It’s certainly not worth risking such a large consequence for such a small act. And like all good superstitions, the outcome in question occurs far into the future and is difficult to evaluate objectively.

The only thing I might add would be a method to make things right after a missed opportunity. Perhaps if someone forgets to make eye contact, they should have to close their eyes and have the person next to them hold a glass to their lips and help them drink? With this addition, you would have a perfect ritual and superstition to make any party a bit more fun.

Incidentally, I told a friend about this five-year deal, and his response was, “Only five years?”

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Dear Dan,

As summer finally gets closer, we are starting to plan our family vacation. The past few years, we have gone to Florida for two weeks. Should we stick to this familiar plan or try something different?

—Michael

In general, sticking with something well-known is psychologically appealing. Our attraction to the sure thing explains why, for example, we often frequent the same chain restaurants when we travel—and even order the same familiar dishes.  Sure, we might enjoy something new more than the sure thing, but we also might not. And given the psychological principle of loss-aversion (whereby we dislike losses more than we enjoy gains), the fear of loss looms heavy, and we decide not to risk trying anything new.

That’s a mistake, for three key reasons. First, if you think about a long time horizon (say, 20 more years of vacations and eating out), it is certainly worth exploring what else may be out there before settling into a limited set of options. Second, variety really is one of the most important spices of life.  Finally, vacations are not just about the two weeks you are away from work; they’re also about the time you spend anticipating and imagining your trip, as well as the time after you are back home when you replay special moments from your vacation in your mind.  Among these three types of ways to consume the vacation—anticipation, the trip itself and consuming the memories afterward—the shortest amount of time is spent on the vacation itself.

Given all this, the short answer is: try something new.

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See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

$100,000 and 1,733 of you

Apr 09

I’m thrilled to announce that we’ve made it to 100k just in time for the halfway point of the 60-day kickstarter campaign for my documentary-in-progress, (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies. Please help spread the word to keep this amazing community growing.

 

dishonestyproj 100k

 

See the Kickstarter here: https://bitly.com/dishonestykickstarter

(Dis)Honestly Yours,

Dan

The 3 Costs of Multitasking

Apr 07

Are you a task switcher? This is the quintessential rhetorical question, because we all switch between tasks, and we do so often.

While the answer to this question is predictable, clear and almost universal — a more complex and important question is how much time do you think you lose when you engage in task switching?  Like many of our daily challenges, here too there are three different factors to consider.

1. The first factor to consider is the direct time that we spend on our secondary task.  For example, imagine that you’re busy working on some complex description of a problem, and you hit a particularly challenging point.  You are stuck in a slight mental block, unable to make any real progress for a few minutes. So you think to yourself, “Let me take a quick five minute break and use this time to catch up on email.” Twenty minutes later, you are still responding to email, feeling that familiar unjustified satisfaction we all feel when we managed to clear some of that email backlog in our inbox.  Ten minutes later, you are finally back to working on your complex task, and if you bothered to look at your clock, you would realize that the last thirty minutes were a direct cost of the switch.

2. The second factor to consider is the delayed cost of switching, which is the cost of switching once we are back to our main task.  Now, you probably think that the delayed cost of switching is negative.  That switching actually helps you.  That once you get back to your main task, you are hyper-energized and ready to really get down to business.  This belief in “switching helps” is the reason that many people switch so often. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be the case.  Most likely, once you are back, for the next ten minutes or so, your engagement with your complex task is only partial, and you are not yet fully back into it.  The reality is that even when you are back working on your main task — for a while longer — you keep on paying a low-productivity-price for your task switching.

So, how do we overcome this problem?  How do we make sure that when we think we want to take a five minutes break, that this is really what we want to do, and that it is only for five minutes?  To achieve such increased discipline, we either need more discipline ourselves (which is very hard to do), or we need some better productivity tools that will help us with such increased accountability and discipline.

p.s.  in full disclosure, I should point out that I checked email multiple times while writing this, which is most likely the reason that I did not get to the 3rd factor of time wasted.  Maybe next time.

p.p.s.  And in even more full disclosure, I should point out that we have recently co-founded a company to address such challenges.

 

 

 

Cross-Coursera Dishonesty Debate

Apr 03

Today, at 7:30pm Eastern time, watch the legendary moral philosopher Peter Singer, the distinguished psychologist Paul Bloom, and the expert behavioral economist Dan Ariely (me) as we join hands to discuss our views and research on dishonesty, morality, and ethics. This is our attempt to bring our respective disciplines (and coursera classes) together on topics that we all find very interesting.

Watch the recording below.

Ask Ariely: On Late-night Raids, Home Improvement, and the Magic of Memory

Mar 29

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,

Whenever I work the night shift, I wind up raiding the fridge—and ruining my diets one after the other. During the day, I manage to resist the temptation, but at night, my self-control seems to stop working. What should I do? 

—Meni

What you describe is a well-known phenomenon called “depletion.” All day long, we face small temptations and do our best to resist them. We maintain control over ourselves so as to be productive, responsible people and stop ourselves from caving in to our urges to shop, procrastinate, watch that latest cat video on YouTube and so forth. But our ability to resist urges is like a muscle: The more we use it, the more tired we become—until at night, it just becomes too weak to stop us. (This is one reason the temptation industry—bars, strip clubs—operates mostly at night.) One way to overcome this problem is based on the story of Odysseus and the sirens. In this story Odysseus told his sailors to tie him to the mast as they sailed near the island of the sirens and not to untie the ropes under any circumstances so he couldn’t be tempted to jump into the water and swim toward the sirens’ seductive voices. The modern equivalent of this tactic? Keep all tempting things out of your house. You can hope that your future self will be able to resist temptation, buy the chocolate cake and eat just a sliver of it every other day. But the safer bet is not to keep chocolate cake in the fridge in the first place.

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Dear Dan,

At work, I have no problems giving my subordinates feedback about their performances and suggesting improvements. But it is harder for me to give feedback to the woman who cleans my home. So I’ve adopted an indirect approach: Instead of giving her pointers in person, I leave her a note. Is there a better way? 

—Galia

Leaving notes isn’t ideal. Would you leave notes for your kids on how they fell short on their chores? Would you give your husband written feedback on his performance in bed? In general, when results matter, communicating while the task is being performed (or immediately after) is the way to go, and communicating face to face makes quick communication much more natural. It may not always be fun, but it makes clear to the person performing the task what the feedback is about—and offers a greater chance for learning. The second part of your question involves the different ways you treat people at work and your cleaning lady. I suspect this difference comes from your general discomfort about having someone else cleaning your house (maybe it is something you may feel you should be doing yourself). But you’re not really helping your cleaning lady by withholding timely feedback. My suggestion: tidy the house up a bit before she shows up (as many people do), leave a generous tip but also start be more diligent about pointing out the dust bunnies she missed.

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Dear Dan,

My 10-year-old daughter wonders: If a child has been really mean to her best friend (for example, by tattling on her) and their friendship falls apart, how do they manage to become best friends again after only a couple of days? 

—Aviel

That is the wonder of bad memory. We enjoy this benefit when we’re young and then again when we’re old. In between, we’re unhappy and vengeful.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

A Pot’o’Gold for St. Patrick’s Day

Mar 17

Want your very own bag of BiteCoins? Click Here.

BiteCoin

Ask Ariely: On God’s Image and Marriage Money

Mar 15

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,

Why are there so many religions, all of which suggest that God is on their side and holds the same values that they do?

—Moshe

One answer comes from a 2009 study by Nick Epley and some of his colleagues from the University of Chicago, which asked religious Americans to state their positions on abortion, the death punishment and the war in Iraq. (This study is described in Dr. Epley’s recent book, “Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want.”) Participants were then asked to predict the opinions of a few well-known individuals (such as Bill Gates), President Bush, the “average American,” and—and uniquely to this study—God on these issues.

Interestingly, the respondents were rather objective about predicting the opinions held by their fellow humans, but they tended to believe that God had similar opinions to their own. Conservatives believed God was very conservative; liberal believers were certain that God was more lenient.

To find out why we can view God so flexibly, a follow-up experiment asked another group of participants to take the position on the death penalty diametrically opposed to their own and argue this viewpoint in front of a camera. A large body of research on cognitive dissonance has shown that people who are forced to argue for an opinion opposite to their actual one feel so uncomfortable with the conflict that they’re likely to change their original opinion. After giving their on-camera speech, participants were again asked to express the views on these hot-button issues of the study’s famous individuals, President Bush, the “average American” and God.

The results? After expressing the opinion opposite their original one, individuals became more moderate. Those who disliked the death penalty became less opposed, and those who were for it became less so. But there was no such shift in participants’ predictions of the opinions of the well-known individuals, President Bush or the “average American.” And what about their predictions about God’s views? Participants tended to attribute the same position as their own new, more moderate viewpoint to God.

God, apparently, is something of a clean slate on which we can more easily project whatever we wish. We subscribe to the religious group that supports our beliefs, and then interpret Scripture in a way that supports our opinions. So if there is a God, I believe—no, I’m sure—that that (s)he thinks the way I do.

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Dear Dan,

My partner and I will soon be married, and in honor of the event, his parents have promised us some money. Now my parents have offered us double that amount. How can I tell my partner without making him feel uncomfortable?

—Nikki

Congratulations—I hope you’ll have a lovely wedding and a good life together.

As for your question, the problem is not just that your future husband and his parents will feel uncomfortable; it is also that your dynamics as a newlywed couple will proceed from an uneven starting point. I am not suggesting that every time that the two of you fight, you will remind your husband that it was your family’s money that let you buy a new house. But even small inequalities at the start of a marriage can have long-term effects.

If I were in your shoes, I would ask your parents to give you the same amount now that your fiancé’s parents are giving—then give you the second amount in a year, once the marriage is more established. (If you’re not sure you will stay together, maybe ask them to wait five years.)

Incidentally, since weddings are irrational in so many ways, I recently obtained a license to perform weddings through some online site—and now I’m waiting for the first couple to ask me to conduct their nuptials (hint hint).

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

A Documentary about (Dis)Honesty

Mar 11

It is my greatest pleasure to announce a documentary that I have been working on with Yael Melamede of Salty Features.

Dishonesty - The Truth About Lies

Today, we launch a Kickstarter campaign that will help us finish the film and build its presence in the world.

Please visit our Kickstarter Page to learn more about (Dis)Honesty and to become part of this special project.

Then, share the project with all your family members, closest friends, acquaintances, the cashier at your local grocery store, that guy you bumped into on the way to work, the lady whose wallet you found on the street and returned…everyone!

Thank you for your support, and I look forward to working with you along the way.

(Dis)honestly Yours,

Dan Ariely

P.S. Like The Dishonesty Project on Facebook!

And follow on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dishonestyproj

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