Can you help me to stop procrastinating?

23rd May, 2009

Dear Economist,
I tend to procrastinate and leave tasks until the very last moment. As a consequence, I always feel as though I could have done more and that my potential has been somewhat unfulfilled. However, I find I concentrate much better and am more prolific with a deadline dangerously close. Can economics help me resolve this tension?
T.N., Limerick, Ireland

Dear T.N.,

The answer is obvious: make sure you always have a deadline to hand, and you will always be prolific. That, at least, is the logical implication of your letter. It is also backed up by research.

The behavioural economists Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch conducted an instructive study of procrastination with three groups of students at MIT. Each group had to complete three assignments over the course of the 12-week course. The first group had a separate deadline for each paper, after four, eight and 12 weeks. The second group had no intermediate deadlines: all three papers were due at the end of the course. Students in the third group were asked to impose their own deadlines.

Students with well-spaced deadlines – those in the first group and a subset in the third who had spaced out their deadlines – tended to achieve the highest grades. Students who had assigned themselves no intermediate deadlines, or had been assigned none, fared poorly.

You must learn this lesson. Ensure that a binding deadline is always looming. Chop up large tasks into smaller ones and assign a deadline for each one. If you do not have a professor willing to make these deadlines meaningful, you can do so yourself. Make firm commitments to your colleagues or clients. Alternatively, write out a schedule and make bets with a few friends that you’ll stick to it. If “the very last moment” is always “now”, you’ll be the world’s most productive procrastinator.

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