How economists think about procrastination.

A brief history of wasting time.
May 15 2008 6:42 AM

Like There's No Tomorrow

How economists think about procrastination.

Read more from Slate's  special issue  on procrastination.

We are an impulsive and weak-willed species, we human beings. On the one hand, we are masters of delay: The lawn will get mowed tomorrow, the paper written after one more game of solitaire. Yet we are also very good at seizing the moment: overeating, drinking too much, and generally indulging in behaviors that lead to hangover and regret.

These two failures of self-control—the inclinations to procrastinate and to indulge—turn out to be rooted in the same problem: We tend to put too much weight on the here and now when evaluating the costs and benefits of action (or inaction). Behavioral economists refer to such misguided decisions as "time-inconsistent preferences." You've got a report to deliver by first thing tomorrow, but the moment you sit down to start writing, surfing the Web just seems like more fun; you know that you'll be sorry if you eat that last scoop of Haagen Daz, but you just can't resist. Both bad decisions are the result of privileging the present you over the you of tomorrow morning. (It's worth noting that most economists would say that there is only an "inconsistency" if the procrastination or impulsiveness actually leads to later regret. If Homer Simpson  parks himself in front of the TV with a box of doughnuts rather than mowing the lawn, that's a rational choice, since if you ask him tomorrow, he'll feel the time was well-spent.)

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By thinking of procrastination as the result of a human tendency to live too much in the moment, we can devise better strategies for overcoming it. If the problem is weighing present versus future costs and benefits, we need to find a way to either bring future benefits closer to the present or to magnify the costs of delayed action.

One way to bring the ultimate fruits of your long-term efforts forward to the here and now is by visualizing the sense of relief, happiness, and satisfaction that will ultimately come from a job well done (a pat on the back from the boss, perhaps coupled with fantasies of the promotion and pay raise that will surely follow). For some people, taking the opposite approach works better: visualizing the dire consequences of continued delay—a reprimand from the boss and the specter of a pink slip. Magnifying the costs of delayed action is a tactic often employed by public-health officials trying to get people to resist behaviors with short-term allure and long-term danger. For smokers looking for a motivation to finally quit, a recent series of TV ads that aired in New York taxis may provide some inspiration. In these 30-second spots, Marie, a longtime smoker, explains that her amputated fingers are the result of her decision to keep smoking.

Of course, even the most devoted effort to keep your future self in mind will occasionally falter. But the point isn't so much to banish the impulse to procrastinate, but rather to gain some control over it. Ironically, one of the best ways of keeping procrastination at bay seems to be a kind of regular, circumscribed procrastination—periodic yet controlled indulgences. In my case, writing an academic manuscript can be a decade-long slog, but I try to give myself small rewards for progress along the way, allowing myself some short-term payback for hard work to counterbalance the short-term allure of procrastination. After an hour or so of solid writing (or at least good-faith effort at writing), I'll allow myself a turn at online Scrabble or a few minutes of mindless Web surfing.