The Procrastination Doom Loop—and How to Break It

People often schedule reminders to complete a project significantly before the deadline, so they have time to complete it. But this strategy often backfires. Some practiced procrastinators are both “present-biased” (they choose ESPN.com or BuzzFeed over work every time) and overconfident about their ability to remember important tasks, according to a new paper by Keith M. Marzilli Ericson. As a result, they often put off assignments, only to forget about it until long after the deadline. Procrastination and forgetfulness are bad, independently. Together, they're a double-headed meteor hammer smashing your productivity to tiny little bits. 

To hack your way to productivity, you could schedule one-shot reminders as late as possible—even slightly after you were supposed to start the project. Not only will the last-second reminder and looming deadline break the doom loop and shock you into action, but also it won’t give you time to put off—and, potentially, forget about—the task.

For pathological procrastinators, recognizing that we need deadlines to bind ourselves to our responsibilities is the first step. The second step is recognizing that our own deadlines are less effective than other people's deadlines.

In one famous experiment, Dan Ariely hired 60 students to proofread three passages. One group got a weekly deadline for each passage, a second group got one deadline for all three readings, and the third group chose their own deadlines. Readers were rewarded for the errors they found and penalized a dollar for each day they were late. Group II performed the worst. The group with external deadlines performed the best. "People strategically try to curb [procrastination] by using costly self-imposed deadlines,” Ariely and his co-author Klaus Wertenbroch concluded, "and [they] are not always as effective as some external deadlines."

A more theoretical approach, from Yanping Tu and Dilip Soman writing in the new Journal of Consumer Research, aims to change "the way consumers think about the future." Tu and Soman point out that people have a habit of managing goals and tasks in specific time categories—we plan activities by the day, expenses by the month, and resolutions by the year. This way of thinking can separate us from future selves. When we say “I’ll start that project next week,” or “I’m starting my diet next month," what we're really saying is "I hope that after an arbitrary amount of time, I will be in a better mood to bind myself to this task." 

One study in their paper asked consumers to open a savings account within six months. One group was given a December deadline in June and a second group was given a January deadline in July. Although each group presumably contained a similar number of procrastinators, significantly more people in the first group chose to open their account immediately. When the deadline was a calendar year away, people were more likely to rationalize that they could put it off.

Finally, procrastinators are more likely to complete a piece of work if they’re persuaded that it’s not actually work. In one study reviewed by Jaffe, students were asked to complete a puzzle, but first they were given a few minutes to play Tetris. "Chronic procrastinators only delayed practice on the puzzle when it was described as a cognitive evaluation," he wrote. When scientists described the puzzle as a game, they were just as likely to practice as anybody else. 

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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