If identity is a collection of competing selves, what does each of them represent? The easy answer is that one represents your short-term interests (having fun, putting off work, and so on), while another represents your long-term goals. But, if that’s the case, it’s not obvious how you’d ever get anything done: the short-term self, it seems, would always win out. The philosopher Don Ross offers a persuasive solution to the problem. For Ross, the various parts of the self are all present at once, constantly competing and bargaining with one another—one that wants to work, one that wants to watch television, and so on. The key, for Ross, is that although the television-watching self is interested only in watching TV, it’s interested in watching TV not just now but also in the future. This means that it can be bargained with: working now will let you watch more television down the road. Procrastination, in this reading, is the result of a bargaining process gone wrong.
Given this tendency, it makes sense that we often rely intuitively on external rules to help ourselves out. A few years ago, Dan Ariely, a psychologist at M.I.T., did a fascinating experiment examining one of the most basic external tools for dealing with procrastination: deadlines. Students in a class were assigned three papers for the semester, and they were given a choice: they could set separate deadlines for when they had to hand in each of the papers or they could hand them all in together at the end of the semester. There was no benefit to handing the papers in early, since they were all going to be graded at semester’s end, and there was a potential cost to setting the deadlines, since if you missed a deadline your grade would be docked. So the rational thing to do was to hand in all the papers at the end of the semester; that way you’d be free to write the papers sooner but not at risk of a penalty if you didn’t get around to it. Yet most of the students chose to set separate deadlines for each paper, precisely because they knew that they were otherwise unlikely to get around to working on the papers early, which meant they ran the risk of not finishing all three by the end of the semester. This is the essence of the extended will: instead of trusting themselves, the students relied on an outside tool to make themselves do what they actually wanted to do.
There’s something comforting about this story: even Nobel-winning economists procrastinate! Many of us go through life with an array of undone tasks, large and small, nibbling at our conscience. But Akerlof saw the experience, for all its familiarity, as mysterious. He genuinely intended to send the box to his friend, yet, as he wrote, in a paper called “Procrastination and Obedience” (1991), “each morning for over eight months I woke up and decided that the next morning would be the day to send the Stiglitz box.” He was always about to send the box, but the moment to act never arrived. Akerlof, who became one of the central figures in behavioral economics, came to the realization that procrastination might be more than just a bad habit. He argued that it revealed something important about the limits of rational thinking and that it could teach useful lessons about phenomena as diverse as substance abuse and savings habits. Since his essay was published, the study of procrastination has become a significant field in academia, with philosophers, psychologists, and economists all weighing in.
Beyond self-binding, there are other ways to avoid dragging your feet, most of which depend on what psychologists might call reframing the task in front of you. Procrastination is driven, in part, by the gap between effort (which is required now) and reward (which you reap only in the future, if ever). So narrowing that gap, by whatever means necessary, helps. Since open-ended tasks with distant deadlines are much easier to postpone than focussed, short-term projects, dividing projects into smaller, more defined sections helps. That’s why David Allen, the author of the best-selling time-management book “Getting Things Done,” lays great emphasis on classification and definition: the vaguer the task, or the more abstract the thinking it requires, the less likely you are to finish it. One German study suggests that just getting people to think about concrete problems (like how to open a bank account) makes them better at finishing their work—even when it deals with a completely different subject. Another way of making procrastination less likely is to reduce the amount of choice we have: often when people are afraid of making the wrong choice they end up doing nothing. So companies might be better off offering their employees fewer investment choices in their 401(k) plans, and making signing up for the plan the default option.