Like There’s No Tomorrow

How economists think about procrastination.

Read more from Slate’s  special issue  on procrastination.

We are an impulsive and weak-willed species, we human beings. On the one hand, we are masters of delay: The lawn will get mowed tomorrow, the paper written after one more game of solitaire. Yet we are also very good at seizing the moment: overeating, drinking too much, and generally indulging in behaviors that lead to hangover and regret.

These two failures of self-control—the inclinations to procrastinate and to indulge—turn out to be rooted in the same problem: We tend to put too much weight on the here and now when evaluating the costs and benefits of action (or inaction). Behavioral economists refer to such misguided decisions as “time-inconsistent preferences.” You’ve got a report to deliver by first thing tomorrow, but the moment you sit down to start writing, surfing the Web just seems like more fun; you know that you’ll be sorry if you eat that last scoop of Haagen Daz, but you just can’t resist. Both bad decisions are the result of privileging the present you over the you of tomorrow morning. (It’s worth noting that most economists would say that there is only an “inconsistency” if the procrastination or impulsiveness actually leads to later regret. If Homer Simpson  parks himself in front of the TV with a box of doughnuts rather than mowing the lawn, that’s a rational choice, since if you ask him tomorrow, he’ll feel the time was well-spent.)

By thinking of procrastination as the result of a human tendency to live too much in the moment, we can devise better strategies for overcoming it. If the problem is weighing present versus future costs and benefits, we need to find a way to either bring future benefits closer to the present or to magnify the costs of delayed action.

One way to bring the ultimate fruits of your long-term efforts forward to the here and now is by visualizing the sense of relief, happiness, and satisfaction that will ultimately come from a job well done (a pat on the back from the boss, perhaps coupled with fantasies of the promotion and pay raise that will surely follow). For some people, taking the opposite approach works better: visualizing the dire consequences of continued delay—a reprimand from the boss and the specter of a pink slip. Magnifying the costs of delayed action is a tactic often employed by public-health officials trying to get people to resist behaviors with short-term allure and long-term danger. For smokers looking for a motivation to finally quit, a recent series of TV ads that aired in New York taxis may provide some inspiration. In these 30-second spots, Marie, a longtime smoker, explains that her amputated fingers are the result of her decision to keep smoking.

Of course, even the most devoted effort to keep your future self in mind will occasionally falter. But the point isn’t so much to banish the impulse to procrastinate, but rather to gain some control over it. Ironically, one of the best ways of keeping procrastination at bay seems to be a kind of regular, circumscribed procrastination—periodic yet controlled indulgences. In my case, writing an academic manuscript can be a decade-long slog, but I try to give myself small rewards for progress along the way, allowing myself some short-term payback for hard work to counterbalance the short-term allure of procrastination. After an hour or so of solid writing (or at least good-faith effort at writing), I’ll allow myself a turn at online Scrabble or a few minutes of mindless Web surfing.

For those who don’t have the discipline for such approaches, economists have begun to devise some clever ways of lending a hand. (Where there’s a human need, there is surely a way of profiting from it in our glorious free-market economy.) A couple of Yale economists, Dean Karlan and Ian Ayres, have established a company that forces its customers to think about their future selves. Their outfit, called Stickk, allows you to buy “Commitment Contracts,” which require the completion of a specified task that you might otherwise put off (finishing a paper, quitting smoking, losing weight). When you sign the contract, you hand over a sum of money and get it back only if you keep your commitment by a particular date. So, rather than having a vague and distant motivation for finishing that dissertation, there’s the much more immediate cost of seeing your $1,000 disappear. So is Stickk’s business model to bet against our ability to resist procrastinating? Not quite. Stickk makes its money from advertising, not from its customers. If you fail to live up to the terms of your contract, your money goes to a randomly selected charity. Or, if you want some extra motivation, you can have your commitment payment go to an “anti-charity” of your choosing. They cater to all tastes—both Americans United for Life and the Pro-Choice America Foundation are possible recipients.

But what if you don’t even realize you have a procrastination problem? Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein argue in their recent book, Nudge, that a gentle paternal push might be needed here and there, for people who don’t fully understand just how much they’re shortchanging their future selves. One such nudge, designed by Thaler and Shlomo Benartzi, deviously turns procrastination on its head. Their program is designed for people who keep putting off saving for their future because they’re too busy spending money in the present. Save More Tomorrow is an employer savings program that Benartzi and Thaler have already field tested to remarkable effect, raising savings rates among participants nearly fourfold. Employees enrolled in the program decide ahead of time that a portion of future salary increases will be allocated to retirement savings. For example, you might commit 10 percent of your next raise to the savings program, and 20 percent of the one after that, and so on. Since the program isn’t asking us to take away money from our present, spendthrift selves, we’re more inclined to participate—I get to help the future me, at no cost to the present me. Once enrolled, participants can always opt out and return to their spendthrift ways. But here, finally, procrastination serves as a force for good. Since the opt-out decision is always available but may in fact take a little effort to take care of, why not just do it tomorrow?

Economists have been studying time-inconsistent preferences for decades. But Save More Tomorrow and Stickk are at the vanguard of a new movement to bring these ideas out of the lab and into the field. Indeed, depending on the outcome of the November election, we may soon see similar approaches embraced by the federal government (which of course already looks after our long-term interests through programs like Social Security). Thaler and Sunstein are both informal advisers to the Obama campaign and might nudge a President Obama to adopt policies that would help Americans put down the doughnut and start spending some time thinking about that too-often-neglected constituency—our future selves.