As many people know, I had to take a brief posting hiatus recently as I dealt with an onslaught of work and prepared for my doctoral qualifying exam on September 10th.
As anyone with a calendar knows, that exam was two months ago.
I guess my not-so-well-kept secret is now officially out: Like many others, I can be a bit of a procrastinator. So, in the spirit of this break-the-hiatus post, it only seems appropriate to focus on the psychology underlying everyone’s favorite productivity plague — how do people naturally attempt to fight procrastination, and how well do these attempts really work?
Have you ever set a self-imposed deadline for your work, with the logic that making yourself stick to it will be the best way to motivate yourself to actually get something done? This is a pretty common anti-procrastination strategy, and according to researchers Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch, it can work pretty well…as long as you set your deadlines the right way.
In order to study the strategy’s efficacy, the researchers took a bunch of MIT students and randomly assigned them to two different conditions. Half of the students were given three deadlines evenly spaced throughout the semester, fairly similar to the well-known “two-midterms-and-a-final” course structure. The other half, however, were told to set their own deadlines. These students could choose to submit their three papers whenever they wanted, with four stipulations: They had to have all three papers handed in by the last lecture, they had to assign themselves deadlines for each paper (and tell the professor what these deadlines were by the second lecture), the deadlines would be final, and for every day that each paper was late, there would be a 1% penalty on that paper’s final grade.
Now, there’s a clearly rational choice here. Given the finality of the deadlines and the penalty for late submissions, all of the students should have chosen to submit all three papers on the last day of class. After all, there was hypothetically nothing stopping them from completing one, two, or all three of the papers earlier than the deadlines. Choosing to hand all three papers in on the last day would be the wisest, most rational decision — if the students had any self-control, they could still try to get the papers done earlier, but they would not face any penalties if they did have to wait until the end of the semester.
What Ariely and Wertenbroch found, however, was somewhat surprising. First of all, over 75% of the students who chose their own deadlines did not opt to hand in all three papers on the very last day. Instead, the students typically chose deadlines that were significantly earlier; the average deadlines were about six weeks before the end of the semester for the first paper, four weeks before the end for the second paper, and a week before the end of the semester for the third.
This hints at something that many of us, on some level, already know: Most of us realize that given the option, we’re going to procrastinate doing our work, so we set ourselves stricter goals and deadlines than we have to as a way to try and overcome this nasty habit…even if it means that we might be penalized as a result. But what happens after we’ve done this?
When Ariely and Wertenbroch looked at the grades that the students in that first study ended up earning, they quickly realized that the students whose professors assigned evenly-spaced deadlines for them did significantly better on the papers than those who were able to choose their own deadlines. But then they compared those students with the self-assigned-deadline students who decided on their own to assign themselves similar, evenly spaced deadlines. When they did this, the performance difference disappeared. The students who chose the “two-midterms-and-a-final”-style, evenly-spaced deadlines did just as well on their papers as the students whose professors assigned the evenly-spaced deadlines for them. It seems, as the researchers conclude, the real problem is that when it comes to self-assigning deadlines, most people simply don’t do a very good job of picking the right ones.
Ariely and Wertenbroch then ran another similar study. This time, they asked participants to perform three separate, incredibly boring proofreading tasks, with payment based on their performance, and then told the participants that they had three weeks to complete the assignment. 1/3 of the participants were asked to hand in one assignment at the end of every week (evenly spaced deadlines), 1/3 of the participants were told to hand in all three assignments by the end of the three-week period (end deadline), and 1/3 of the participants were told that they could choose their own deadlines (self-imposed deadlines).
Looking at these graphs, it becomes pretty clear what’s going on. The people with the evenly spaced deadlines do the best job of detecting errors, handing in their submissions on time, and ultimately earning more money for their work. The people who were simply told to hand all of their assignments in at the end were more likely to miss the deadline, perform worse on the task, and ultimately earn less money — most likely because they were leaving the tasks until the last minute without realizing how much effort and time were really required.
The people with the self-imposed deadlines, however, perform somewhere in between. They aren’t quite as good as the evenly-spaced deadline people, but not quite as bad as those who were just told to hand everything in at the end. Once again, however, the people who self-imposed evenly spaced deadlines (aka those who were told to pick their own deadlines and ended up assigning themselves a deadline of ‘one assignment per week’) performed just as well as the participants with the assigned, evenly-spaced deadlines.
As Ariely and Wertenbroch conclude, though our intentions may be good, we don’t always set the best deadlines for ourselves. Even though those self-imposed deadlines can help us do a better job of self-regulating than merely leaving everything to the last minute, we tend to try and cheat the system a little bit when we pick those deadlines in the first place. In other words, even when we try to help ourselves out by picking deadlines, we tend to push them a bit later than we really should for optimal productivity.
Procrastination And Self-Control
Naturally, when we think of procrastination, it tends to go hand in hand with another concept: Self-control. Think about this scenario: You walk by a bakery. You see a cake. You want the cake, but you know you shouldn’t eat the cake. If you eat the cake, you’ve failed to exert self-control. If you don’t eat the cake, you’ve succeeded.
But what do you think about the person who simply avoids walking by the bakery in the first place?
The cake-based self-control anecdote above describes one of the more common ways that we tend to think about self-control. According to this model, self-control consists of the “effortful control of impulses,” and the person who avoids walking by the bakery in the first place isn’t actually engaging in any kind of self-control at all. After all, if you don’t walk by the bakery, you never have the impulse to eat the cake; without an impulse present, you can’t exert control over it.
However, Kentaro Fujita recently argued that self-control can consist of much more than simply suppressing your impulses. According to his theory, self-control can include this broader range of planning-based actions, like taking a different route to work that avoids the bakery. Essentially, if you know you won’t be able to resist the cake once you smell its delicious, chocolate aroma, then having the foresight to remove yourself from the situation is an effective form of self-control in itself, even if you’ve never actually controlled any real “impulse.”
Going back to the idea of procrastination, most people tend to focus on that first type of self-control — how to control the unwanted impulses once they happen. For example, you may think about how you’ll suppress that impulse to go grab coffee with a colleague who drops in when you’re really supposed to be finishing up a manuscript, or how to make yourself buckle down on that blog post even after you realize there’s a new episode of Parks & Rec on TV.
However, if we think about Fujita’s claim that planning can be just as effective as suppressing those impulses as they happen, and then think about Ariely and Wertenbroch’s conclusion that people don’t necessary plan their self-imposed deadlines as well as they should (despite noble intentions), it seems clear that there’s a consistent message here: Knowing how to plan our schedules optimally (and stick to stricter deadlines) may be just as helpful for our productivity as learning to control those urges to procrastinate as they arise.
So, maybe if I had thought to assign myself stricter deadlines, I could have controlled my procrastination for long enough to finish this post a month ago! Now to see if this epiphany helps me out next week…
Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133 (1), 65-94 DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65
Ariely, Dan, & Wertenbroch, Klaus (2002). Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment. Psychological Science, 13 (3), 219-224 DOI: 10.1111/1467-9280.00441
Fujita, Kentaro (2011). On conceptualizing self-control as more than the effortful inhibition of impulses. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15 (4), 352-66 PMID: 21685152