Ask Ariely: On Seasonal Steps, Vibrant Videos, and Peak-End Presentations

December 12, 2020 BY Dan Ariely

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,

Every year around this time I take down boxes of holiday lights from the attic, thinking I will put up a big display in front of my house. But it always seems to take longer than I expected, and I don’t manage to get it done in time for Christmas. What can I do to make a better plan?


Our tendency to underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task is referred to as the planning fallacy, and it’s very common. Research has shown, however, that people are much better at estimating the amount of time required for smaller tasks compared with bigger ones. So a good way to combat the planning fallacy is to break up a complex project into many sub-tasks. This year, try thinking in advance about all the steps involved in putting up a light display: getting the boxes down from the attic, designing the display, stringing lights, setting up the power connection. By estimating how long each step will take, you’ll get a better sense of how early you need to start.


Dear Dan,

My local gym offers live classes online, and I really enjoy them. Last week I had to miss a class with my favorite instructor and meant to download a recording of it later in the day, but somehow it just didn’t feel as urgent, and I never got around to it. Why do you think the class not being live made such a difference?


It might seem odd, but in a sense it’s easier to schedule a live event at a fixed time than a recorded one you can view whenever you choose. With a live event, we know we have to put it on our calendar and schedule other things around it. But since a recording can be viewed at any time, we usually don’t bother to schedule it in advance, thinking we’ll get around to watching it whenever we have time. As a result, it falls to the bottom of our to-do list, behind more time-sensitive obligations. Next time you have to miss an exercise class, I suggest you schedule a time for viewing it and put it on your calendar as if it were live. That will help you protect the time rather than letting the extra flexibility cheat you out of it.


Dear Dan,

Recently I gave a talk as part of an online conference. There were lots of technical problems at the beginning, which made me get flustered and trip over my words. But eventually I regained my composure and the talk ended well. Afterward, I heard that the attendees responded very positively to my presentation, which surprised me given the rocky start. I’m wondering if maybe the people just felt bad for me?


If the audience gave equal weight to every minute of your talk you might have ended up with a lukewarm response. But when people reflect on experiences they tend to follow the “peak-end rule,” meaning they are most influenced by the high point and the end of the experience. This worked to your advantage, since people remembered the end of your talk better than the beginning. Next time you give a talk, remember that even if you get off to a bad start, you shouldn’t get too stressed because you still have time to fix things.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.