Sunday, January 9, 2011

Procrastination, hyperbolic discounting and the planning fallacy

I missed this when it came out at the end of last year but the New Yorker had a fascinating article about procrastination that everybody, and certainly all students, should read.

Later. What does procrastination tell us about ourselves? by James Surowiecki.

It's actually a book review but it is a great introduction to some of the psychology of procrastination.

There is some intriguing data and experiments:

This is the perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy. In one study, sixty-five per cent of students surveyed before they started working on a term paper said they would like to avoid procrastinating: they knew both that they wouldn’t do the work on time and that the delay would make them unhappy.

(T)his peculiar irrationality stems from our relationship to time—in particular, from a tendency that economists call “hyperbolic discounting.” A two-stage experiment provides a classic illustration: In the first stage, people are offered the choice between a hundred dollars today or a hundred and ten dollars tomorrow; in the second stage, they choose between a hundred dollars a month from now or a hundred and ten dollars a month and a day from now. In substance, the two choices are identical: wait an extra day, get an extra ten bucks. Yet, in the first stage many people choose to take the smaller sum immediately, whereas in the second they prefer to wait one more day and get the extra ten bucks. In other words, hyperbolic discounters are able to make the rational choice when they’re thinking about the future, but, as the present gets closer, short-term considerations overwhelm their long-term goals. 

and even some suggested solutions. Not all as extreme as Victor Hugo's:

Victor Hugo would write naked and tell his valet to hide his clothes so that he’d be unable to go outside when he was supposed to be writing.

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