In 2006, Todd Rogers and Max Bazerman set out to understand what causes people to procrastinate on things that they feel like they ought to do. In their study, participants were asked if they would join a savings plan that automatically placed 2% of their paycheck in a savings account. Interestingly nearly every participant acknowledged that saving money was a good idea, but their behavior said otherwise:
- In one version of the study, when the participants were asked to enroll in the savings plan as soon as possible, only 30% said they would agree to join the program.
- In a different version of the study, participants were asked to enroll in the savings plan in the future (i.e., a year from today). In this situation, 77% of people agreed to join the program.
What’s behind this difference in how people respond? The distinction appears to revolve around how we, as people, think about decisions and time. There’s a tendency for us to prioritize a present experience over a future benefit, particularly if the costs of our choices aren’t evident until later. Maybe a couple of personal examples will drive this idea home:
- The payoff of using money today is immediate (iPhone 11), and the cost of neglecting to invest for retirement won’t be felt for years.
- The payoff of eating unhealthy foods is immediate (Sugar! Sodium!), and the cost of unhealthy meals won’t show up for years.
However, when we think about these problems in the future, our choices usually change. Think about it: would you rather be overweight and sluggish a year from now or healthy and energized? When you put it like that, the decision is easy! But when the choice comes down to today, we tend to choose whatever provides the immediate benefit.
Behavioral economists will sometimes refer to this concept as “time inconsistency.” We want to make choices that have long-term benefits (“Yes, I’ll save more”), but because we’re living today, we make choices that lead to short-term experiences (“I’ll spend it right now”). This tendency lies at the heart of procrastination.
What can we do to combat our time inconsistency as it relates to procrastination? Here are two suggestions.
Change Your Environment
The most powerful way to change our behavior is to change our environment. It’s just easier to make a better decision when better choices surround us. In a typical situation, you might prefer to eat a cookie rather than eat vegetables, but what if the cookie wasn’t there? Remove the temptations from the environment, and we’ve automatically created a space that leads us to better decisions.
Make the Price of Procrastination More Immediate
Many procrastinators are stuck in a decision-making loop that is primarily driven by how they feel. Because they can’t feel the cost of procrastinating, they continue to do it. For example, skipping one workout won’t impact your life. Your health won’t decline immediately because you missed that one session. But then it becomes a pattern, and often even the pattern doesn’t have an immediate cost. The cost of procrastinating on exercise only shows up after weeks and months of lazy behavior. One of the best ways to change this pattern is to find a way to experience the cost of procrastinating in the here and now. Back to our example, if you commit to working out with a friend at 7 a.m. next week, then the cost of skipping your workout becomes more immediate. Don’t show up, and you’ve left your friend high and dry (i.e., you look like a jerk). Establishing a cost that we are not willing to pay or bringing a taste of a future reward to the moment is a reliable way to alter behavior.
The Takeaway: Each day, we are faced with hundreds, if not thousands of small decisions. These daily choices add up and eventually define our reality. Identify something that matters to you, but you’ve been procrastinating on, and take an action step today.