The High Cost of Procrastination

April 15, 2014 BY danariely

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.