Should I take down last year’s Xmas tree?

6th December, 2008

Dear Economist,
Due to multiple disruptions to my schedule since the first of the year I have not had the opportunity to take down my Christmas tree. At this point, should I leave the tree up for the remainder of the year or take it down now?
D. Seattle

Dear D. Seattle,

We all procrastinate from time to time. I, for example, received your e-mail in the spring of 2007. Forgive me if in the interim you have solved your dilemma, but it is possible that my answer will still be useful.

I think we can postulate a utility function along the following lines: having a Christmas tree up during the Christmas season brings positive utility, but diminishing marginal utility over time. After a while, the marginal utility is negative: the tree becomes an irritation, offering neither use nor ornament.

Given that parsimony is a virtue in economic modelling, let us assume that if the tree (presumably plastic) survives the year, its presence at the following Christmas will not seem like old news, but will be as welcome as ever. Assume also that putting up the tree and taking it down bring disutility, although in my experience this is not necessarily the case.

All these simplifying assumptions create a bias towards leaving the tree up; despite that, working through a few numerical examples suggests to me that in almost all cases you are better off taking the tree down. Even now, in early December, I would advise you to dismantle your festive foliage and enjoy the thrill of renewing it on Christmas Eve.

If the tree is still up, I would suggest that your problem is deeper than poor cost-benefit analysis: it is a profound tendency to put off action that is troublesome in the short term. We have developed an institution to deal with this. It is called the New Year’s resolution.

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