Ask Ariely: On Mandatory Meetings, the Meaning of Free Will, and Macroeconomist Musings

August 30, 2014 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,

I’ve been recently been promoted, and I now receive all sorts of requests for activities that have little to do with my love for my job. I recognize the importance of doing things for coworkers and the organization as a whole, but these other activities are taking up too much of my time and making it impossible for me to do my job. How can I set my priorities better? 


Ah yes—the perils of success. Promotions usually sound good, but once we get them, we realize that they come with extra demands and annoyances.  We also don’t seem to remember this lesson from promotion to promotion, so every time, we’re surprised when we discover those extra obligations.

Here’s how I suspect your new life looks. Every day, someone asks you to do something at some point far in the future—say a month from now.  Your calendar looks rather empty, and you say to yourself, “Well, since I’m free then, how can I say no?” But your future is not really going to be free; the details are just not yet on your calendar.  When the day arrives, you have to do all kinds of things that you wish weren’t on your plate. This is a very common problem, but three simple tools can help you better stick to your desired priorities.
First, every time a request comes in, ask yourself what you would do if it was for next week. If you would cancel other things to make time, go ahead and accept—but if you would not prioritize it higher than your other obligations, just say no.
A second tool: Imagine that you are fully booked that day, then try to gauge your emotional reaction to declining the request. If that prospect makes you feel sad, you should accept; if you feel happy at the prospect of getting out of it, turn it down.
Finally, learn one of the most beautiful words in English: “cancel-elation,” the glee you feel when something is canceled. To use this tool, imagine that you accepted this particular request, and it promptly got canceled. If you can taste the joy at the prospect of its being scrubbed, you have your answer.


Dear Dan,

If people make decisions in a way that depends on their environment, does that mean that there is no free will?


Yes and no.  Imagine that every day, I came to your office and covered your desk with doughnuts.  What are the odds that you will not weigh more by the end of the year?  Close to zero, I suspect. Once the environment is set, we are largely helpless, but we don’t have to be tempted by doughnuts every day: We can keep the doughnut peddlers out and otherwise design offices that help us make better decisions. That’s where free will resides—in our ability to design our environment for the better and make the world more compatible with our weaknesses.


Dear Dan,

I’m thinking about investing in real estate. Have we passed the bottom of the market?

I’m happy to speculate about human nature, but predicting market trends should be left to those who divine the future from cards, coffee grounds and crystal balls (and to macroeconomists).  The only interesting thing I can tell you about real estate is that I once met one of the founders of Siri, Apple’s personal assistant, and he told me that he decided to work with Apple when Steve Jobs offered him the most valuable real estate in the world: the button at the bottom of the iPhone.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.