Ask Ariely: On Easy Eats, Payroll Problems, and Small Steps

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,

Before the pandemic started I would have meals delivered from restaurants once or twice a week, but over the months of quarantine it’s climbed to four or five times a week, which isn’t good for my budget or health. I think about preparing a meal myself, but delivery apps make it so easy: I click a button, and there’s a yummy meal at my doorstep in about 30 minutes. How can I break this habit?

—Beata 

People are inclined to do what’s easiest, especially when we’re hungry and tired like at dinnertime. Food delivery apps capitalize on this tendency with features like one-click ordering. So one way to curb your spending is to make it a little more difficult to order food. For example, don’t store your credit card details in the app, so you have to go through the process of entering them every time you order. If you want to go a step further, delete the app after you use it so you have to download it again every time you want to order food. Having to work harder to order in may slow you down and give those groceries a better chance.

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Dear Dan,

In response to the pandemic, the U.S. government gave employers the option to defer their employees’ Social Security contributions. I just got a notification from my employer that they will not be deferring my contributions, even though I could certainly use the extra money. Why did my employer choose not to defer my payroll tax?

—Linus 

Though deferring your Social Security contribution gives you extra income now, it is not free money. It’s more like a loan from the government, and at some point in the not too distant future, you will have to make up the payments you skip. The risk of payroll tax deferral is that employees will feel richer and increase their spending, leaving them unable to pay their taxes when they come due. For this reason, I think the program will leave most people worse off in the long term, so while your employer may be depriving you of a benefit now, it is actually helping you avoid financial hardship in the future.

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Dear Dan,

When I was admitted to law school I knew it was a three-year commitment. But at the start of my second year I’m feeling anxious and unmotivated, and I often don’t feel like studying. What can I do to make sure I stay on track until I graduate?

—Juliana 

Setting long-term goals is important, but it’s very difficult to feel motivated when your daily progress seems so small. Over three years of law school, every week of study gets you less than 1% of the way to your goal, no matter how hard you work.

To avoid frustration, try setting smaller and more frequent learning goals, which will allow you to celebrate more moments of success. At the end of a week when you’ve made good progress, reward yourself with a glass of wine; at the end of a month, allow yourself to take a day off. By changing your focus from two years from now to the end of the week or the month, you’ll be able to feel regularly that you’re making progress.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.