Ask Ariely: On Deadlines, Getting Promoted, and the Art of Multitasking

August 3, 2013 BY danariely

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.


Dear Dan,

From personal experience, I know that some people delay making a choice as long as possible, while others make quick decisions. What differentiates these two types and what advice would you give to get people to make decisions faster and to feel better about them?


In my own studies, we hardly ever find large differences among individuals. In the social sciences in general, individual differences are usually smaller than people expect and matter less than the environment. So if we look at your question, I would phrase it slightly differently and ask, “What kinds of things get people to delay decisions and what kinds of environments get people to take immediate action?”

I would suggest that things like deadlines are incredibly helpful. One British granting agency used to have two deadlines for professors to submit grant applications. When this system was in place, everybody was rushing to submit papers and proposals in time for those grant deadlines. Then the agency let people submit proposals whenever they wished, with decisions on grants made twice a year. No more rushing! But the number of proposals submitted dropped dramatically. Why? Because deadlines allow us to clarify our thoughts and create an action plan. They are good at getting people to perform a particular act, like submitting a grant proposal.


Dear Dan,

I work in high tech but can’t seem to get ahead. A good friend of mine on the police force gets promoted all the time. He claims that it has to do not with him but with the lower quality of the people working there. Would it be better to choose a line of work where everybody is mediocre and I’m the best, instead of a high-profile workplace?


The problem has to do with the joy people derive from feeling that they are advancing and developing in their careers. This sensation really is important. It provides gratification, self-esteem and recognition from your peers.

Widespread recognition of this need explains why so many companies have invented titles and intermediate positions for senior executives, vice presidents and deputy CEOs. They want managers to experience the gratification of moving ahead even when they have reached the top of the ladder.

At first, this trend only affected management—engineers remained engineers, even when their salaries increased and responsibilities expanded. But over the years, companies made up new titles for lower-level employees as well. And for clear and justified reasons, it seems that you are in need of such a title.

Your predicament is whether to be a small fish in a big pond, as you are now, or a big fish in a small pond, like your friend—a situation that would seem easier and more gratifying.

But before you quit your job for one where the people aren’t as good, I would advise you to try two things: First, see if you can receive, or even create, a promotion. Speak to your boss. Try for a change in your responsibilities and thereby your feeling of accomplishment. Second, talk to more friends, maybe even find some new ones who are not doing as well as your policeman friend. You may find that you are extremely successful compared with some.


Dear Dan,

I spend a lot of time in not-very-interesting conferences calls using Skype and Google Hangout. I try to get things done during this time by using my computer to answer emails: I turn off the video capability, so that no one can see me, and try to type quietly, so that no one can hear. But the sound of the keyboard seems to vibrate through the computer, and the person on the other side knows I am not paying attention. Any advice?


This is exactly what tablets are for.


See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.