NEVER PUT OFF TILL TOMORROW WHAT YOU CAN DO TODAY: New insights on procrastination

21 Mar 2016

Procrastinators are more likely to get around to onerous activities that they''d prefer to avoid when they have a buddy to do them with. They''re also more likely to swing into action when they''re with somebody who is an even worse procrastinator – using the bad company as a ''commitment device'' to mitigate their own self-control problems.

These are the findings of research by Claudia Cerrone, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society''s annual conference in Brighton in March 2016. The study is theoretical but it has important implications for policy. Postponing activities – such as starting a diet, exercising, having medical checkups, saving for retirement or searching for a job – leads to costs both for the individuals concerned and for the government.

In light of that, the UK government has implemented incentive schemes to encourage people to undertake such activities earlier – including the NHS smoking cessation scheme ''Quit4U'' and the vouchers to attend Weight Watchers'' meetings. Similarly, firms offer their employees incentives to reduce inefficient delay in the workplace.

But incentives like these are generally individual-based and do not account for the influence that people may have on each other. The analysis in this study shows how peer influences can be exploited to make policy interventions aimed at reducing procrastination cheaper and more effective.

Particularly notably is the finding about the ''avoidance of bad company'': when someone with a moderate tendency to procrastinate is matched with someone with a severe tendency to procrastinate, the moderate procrastinator will get things done earlier than she otherwise would, in order to avoid the additional temptation that her peer''s company would generate.

For example, a student who lives with a hardcore procrastinator might decide to work on her assignment earlier than she otherwise would, as she knows that if she delayed, she would then be too tempted to delay even further so as to work when her flatmate does. This shows that people who have a tendency to procrastinate can use bad company as a ''commitment device'' to mitigate their own self-control problems.

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Many onerous activities over which we tend to procrastinate, we prefer to do in the presence of others. Company makes such activities feel less unpleasant, as in the proverb ''misery loves company''. For example, most of us prefer starting a diet, quitting smoking or going to the gym when a friend, relative or colleague also does so.

This study develops an economic model to explore how people who prefer doing unpleasant tasks with others influence each other''s procrastination behaviour. In the model, each person must complete an onerous task and prefers to do it when someone else does. The task gets increasingly onerous over time, so from an ''ex ante'' perspective, it is better to do it sooner than later. Yet when the time to do the task comes, people give extra weight to the immediate cost of doing the task and thus delay.

Take the example of starting a diet. It is onerous, as it requires immediate effort but the benefit is obtained in the future. As it gets harder as we age, we plan to do it as soon as possible. Yet when the day to start the diet comes, eating salad rather than burger feels more painful than it previously felt, and thus we order a burger and postpone the diet to the following day. Last but not least, starting a diet feels easier when our colleague or friend is starting a diet too.

The researcher uses the model to understand whether and how the company of a peer can help us do onerous tasks earlier than we otherwise would, thereby mitigating our tendency to procrastinate.

She finds that the company of a peer can indeed be beneficial in reducing people''s tendency to procrastinate, but whether and how much it is beneficial will crucially depend on people''s characteristics – most notably, their individual tendencies to procrastinate.

An interesting peer effect that the model shows is the ''avoidance of bad company''. When someone with a moderate tendency to procrastinate is matched with someone with a severe tendency to procrastinate, the moderate procrastinator will get things done earlier than she otherwise would, in order to avoid the additional temptation that her peer''s company would generate.

For example, a student who lives with a hardcore procrastinator might decide to work on her assignment earlier than she otherwise would, as she knows that if she delayed, she would then be too tempted to delay even further so as to work when her flatmate does. This shows that people who have a tendency to procrastinate can use bad company as a commitment device to mitigate their own self-control problems.

This and the other peer effects illustrated by the model show how principals and policy-makers can induce people to procrastinate less by simply pairing them up in the appropriate way.

This is of obvious policy relevance. Postponing activities – such as starting a diet, exercising, having medical checkups, saving for retirement or searching for a job – leads to costs both for the individual and for the government.

In light of that, the UK government has implemented incentive schemes to encourage people to undertake such activities earlier (for example, the NHS smoking cessation scheme ''Quit4U'' and the vouchers to attend Weight Watchers'' meetings). Similarly, firms offer their employees incentives to reduce inefficient delay in the workplace.

These incentives are generally individual-based and do not account for the influence that people may have on each other. The model in this study shows how peer influences can be exploited to make policy interventions aimed at reducing procrastination cheaper and more effective.

''Doing it when others do: a strategic model of procrastination'' – Claudia Cerrone

Claudia Cerrone

claudia.cerrone1@gmail.com