The effectiveness of self-imposed deadlines on procrastination

December 26, 2006 at 2:42 am 89 comments

I often hear of graduate students postponing their research to do other things: play Tetris, read comments on Slashdot, or write a blog. We defer doing something “more important” to do something else and feel guilty and pleased at the same time.

How sweet is it not to do work? Apparently, sweet enough to abate the heavy and bitter costs of procrastinating. Late fines and extra work for missing a deadline seem distant when you can chat online for another 20 minutes right now.

Why do people procrastinate? This is an effect psychologists attribute to “hyperbolic time discounting”: the immediate rewards are disproportionally more compelling than the greater delayed costs. In other words, Procrastination itself is the reward.

However, the eventual cost of neglecting a task has such an impact on people that they learn to impose deadlines on themselves to restrict their own behavior. At what lengths do people do this? This article looks at three questions:

  1. Do people self-impose costly deadlines on tasks in which procrastination may impede performance?
  2. Are self-imposed deadlines effective in improving task performance?
  3. Do people set their deadlines optimally, for maximum performance enhancement?

A few studies are reported in this paper, where students had the opportunity to choose their own deadlines for three tasks they needed to do (write or proofread papers). They were allowed to set separate deadlines for each paper, but they would be bound to the deadlines and be assessed penalties if the papers were submitted late. Logically, the best solution would be to set all the deadlines to be the last day, which would give them the most flexibility and time to work on the three tasks.

However, only 27% of the students chose to submit all three papers on the last day of class. This answers the first question — people are aware of their own procrastination and give themselves earlier deadlines to counter it. The studies show that these deadlines do improve performance over only having deadlines at the very end. Unfortunately, they are still suboptimal because the subjects who were given equally spaced deadlines performed better, thus supporting question two but rejecting question three.

Procrastination Study

But hey, I’ll push myself to start my taxes earlier, but after a round or two of Winterbells.

Ariely, D. & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological Science, 13(3), 219-224. [PDF]


Entry filed under: Procrastination, Psychology, Work.

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89 Comments Add your own

  • 1. digg  |  December 26, 2006 at 3:25 am

    I am a HUGE procrastinator and always try to trick myself into thinking a deadline is earlier. Everyone probably does this and this article is interesting in pointing this out. I agree that it’s a pull between one on side, rational logic saying to give yourself the most time by choosing end dates as the deadline, and your experience saying you will put it off til the end so start early.

  • 2. sarahtoga  |  December 26, 2006 at 1:08 pm

    This was a really interesting article. I think the key to avoid procrastination is to know yourself – to find out what motivates you and use different tactics to finish tasks.
    Of course, self discipline would solve the problem of procrastination… but I’ll work on that after I’ve posted in my blog…

  • 3. brandonpennington  |  December 26, 2006 at 1:37 pm

    procrastination — either you beat it or you don’t.

  • 4. markselby  |  December 26, 2006 at 2:43 pm

    procrastination – i’m not sure?

  • 5. labrats  |  December 26, 2006 at 5:06 pm

    I’m all for flexibility in deadlines when it comes to writing papers for school. And yes, I do feel pleasure when I procrastinate, what an interesting phenomenon. :)

  • 6. crimsondevotchka  |  December 26, 2006 at 5:43 pm

    omg, you’re right, procrastination itself IS the reward.

  • 7. dresramblings  |  December 26, 2006 at 5:56 pm

    Could it be that people like the rush that procrastination brings when you’ve made the deadline tighter than it needed to be. I have found that to be true for me. I’ve always found that I tend to focus better too. That may be the exception rather than the rule, especially when I look at what I’m doing to get myself to do more things. I’ve set a deadline nearly two years away.
    Go figure!

  • 8. herson  |  December 26, 2006 at 6:47 pm

    that seems to be right on the money!
    my research paper has been on the works for a time now. i guess i have to do it earlier than later.

  • 9. Kevin  |  December 26, 2006 at 8:23 pm

    I’ve had a lot of issues with procrastination and anxiety, and recently I realized that procrastination is actually due to anxiety–you feel anxious about a task, so you choose to ignore it for the time being. Thus, doing things that help with anxiety often help with procrastination. I think exercise is the best answer for this, but I imagine things like meditation, yoga, etc. help as well.

  • 10. Steve  |  December 26, 2006 at 8:27 pm

    Maybe, some people procrastinate to build up enough stress on a project to enhance the euphoric feeling that is experienced when meeting the deadline. Procrastination places a kind burden on my mind, knowing that I need to do something before a predetermined time. I’d rather complete all the stuff that I need to do in the shortest amount of time while maintaining a high level of good quality, so that I’d be able to do things that are more interesting to me.

  • 11. John  |  December 26, 2006 at 8:46 pm

    These data completely ignore the reasons why each student would choose the given deadlines and the ramifications these reasons would have on their effectiveness as students. Also, all the deadlines were self-imposed, I think customized fits better.

  • 12. Nick  |  December 26, 2006 at 8:53 pm

    I am a huge procrastinator. Did not send a paper to conference A? Send to to Conference B in two months time. Anyways, the guilt of procrastinating caught up with me so much that I uninstalled minesweeper from all the machines I use. Doing that has made me slightly more productive because now getting the work done is probably the only option available to me,only after reading all the football news from the weekend.

  • 13. greyhaired  |  December 26, 2006 at 9:00 pm

    A short NY Times piece titled Hyperopia (Dec 10, 2006) pointed out that the guilt / pleasure of procrastinating looks rather different after decades go by. The Columbia University study showed that alumni who did not spend time partying many years earlier looked back with regret whereas those who did their share of having fun were very pleased with their decision.

    It is also summed up by the statement on this poster

  • 14. doctashock  |  December 26, 2006 at 9:05 pm

    I found this to be a very interesting concept as someone who has had three months to finish a task that needs to be completed three days from now. It would ultimately take me maybe a total of 5 solid work hours to complete the whole thing, but I’ve delayed sitting down and hammering it out until now.

    I’m also considering the effectiveness of setting deadlines for myself on things I do for leisure, such as preparing blog updates.

  • 15. Alan  |  December 26, 2006 at 9:31 pm

    Are you a native Englsih speaker?

    “would be binded to the deadlines”

    — past tense of bind is bound.

  • 16. tastyresearch  |  December 26, 2006 at 9:38 pm

    Alan: Fixed — Thanks

  • 17. themiddlemanager  |  December 26, 2006 at 9:57 pm

    Excellent post – I was a procrastinator is college (not so much in grad school – learned my lesson ;) ). I tend to procrastinate now with my health things… you know, I can always start my diet tomorrow after a game or 10 of Super Mario Bros! :)

    Keep up the good posts.

  • 18. myles  |  December 26, 2006 at 10:22 pm

    A procrastinator’s work is never done!

  • 19. bill  |  December 26, 2006 at 10:28 pm

    Food for thought: How much time did you waste reading this? (and how much did I waste replying with this comment?) How much are we procrastinating right now, at this very instant? How does it feel?

  • 20. torchwolf  |  December 26, 2006 at 10:52 pm

    I’d say procrastination is not so much a pleasure per se as anxiety-avoidance. Therefore displeasure-reduction.

    Yes, you probably do enjoy goofing off, but you feel sick at the same time, knowing you’re doing yourself harm.

    We tend not to procrastinate tasks that aren’t confronting in some way, and which arouse some degree of fear and anxiety.

    Which leads to a sprialling feedback loop in which something scary is put off, and thereby becomes scarier, and gets put off some more, etc, until the pressure builds to a point where it must be done or there will be immediate dire consequences.

  • 21. kedarsoman  |  December 26, 2006 at 10:55 pm

    Recently did some interesting reading related to attention deficit. Procrastination, anxiety, distraction, these things seem to be interrelated. For those of you interested, “Driven from Distraction” is by Ed Halowell is an excellent read.

  • 22. Saif  |  December 26, 2006 at 11:44 pm

    I should be working on my software application now, but instead, I’m writing this pointless comment. Just ten more minutes, then i’ll start, really…

  • 23. mercurial scribe  |  December 26, 2006 at 11:52 pm

    Very interesting post. i worked very hard in high school to deal with my procrastination problem and continue to marvel at my husband’s great skill of putting off until not just the eleventh hour, but the eleventh hour and fifty-eighth minute.

  • 24. Bala  |  December 26, 2006 at 11:53 pm

    I procastinated to even comment here, Atlast am doing this after a short gap. Actually Procastination kills

  • 25. trish  |  December 26, 2006 at 11:59 pm

    Procrastination: guilty as charged.
    I’ve never thought of researching how procrastination works with people but I’m pretty sure procrastination itself is not much of a benefit. With all the bad consequences (I’ve experienced a lot), procrastination should be taken away from the system. Yes, a lot of people set their own deadlines, and that’s good, but how can one really discipline himself if even the time spent here is time wasted (on procrastination)?
    oh cool :>

  • 26. charinef  |  December 27, 2006 at 12:12 am

    Well, I personally think that procrastinating is subjective. How you define procrastination by the way? Delay of work? Or just merely sit there and do nothing?

    I am not sure.

    I think procrastinating is part of our daily lives. It is unevitable yet affordable. It doesn’t kill.

    For the reader who commented on the time ‘wasted’ in reading this entry or posting a comment, well, it depends on individual really. Some people think that reading this post benefits them, some think otherwise.

  • 27. charinef  |  December 27, 2006 at 12:15 am

    Oh, when you are procrastinating on something, you are doing something else. Be it resting or playing computer games, it does some work on you.

    Our brains need rest in order to function better.

    Happy New Year everyone. :>

  • 28. wadiwood  |  December 27, 2006 at 12:39 am

    Some people even study procrastination, specifically

    Mr Hugh Kearns and Dr Maria Gardiner from the Staff Development and Training Unit at Flinders University…

    And some strategies…

  • 29. Lincoln F Stern  |  December 27, 2006 at 1:33 am

    I’ll comment later on this

  • 30. mkrules  |  December 27, 2006 at 2:00 am

    Love the post! I am the worst procrastinator ever! I can’t even set my clock ahead because it never tricks me. It just tells me I have 10 MORE min to sleep in! Hee Hee

  • 31. Patrick Schultz  |  December 27, 2006 at 2:01 am

    Most people procrastinate on activities that they do not enjoy. If you find yourself procrastinating a lot at work, it might be time to look at a career change. (Office Space?)

    I’ve seen the majority of people in careers that they do not enjoy. I think america’s workforce is dramatically deficeint due to the socioeconomic norms we project into our culture.

    Procrastination is not a bad thing. It is just our desires winning. I say horray to procrastination. May it indentify the true passion in all of us.

  • 32. Jan  |  December 27, 2006 at 2:05 am

    Making lists is also a good thing to combat procrastination. I find making structured task lists helps keep going when a lot of tasks are to be done.

  • 33. shelbycockrell  |  December 27, 2006 at 2:14 am

    I think your article is great. Personally, I think procrastination is one of those mind over matter things. You think about putting things off so much, you do it. If you just get up and do things, it’s not a problem. It’s as non-scientific as that.

  • 34. Matthew Stibbe  |  December 27, 2006 at 3:34 am

    Does anyone remember the comedienne Judy Tenuta. She had a great joke about this. Her mum says “you will never amount to anything because you always procrastinate.” She replies: “Just wait!”

    For extra time-wasting, check out my post on ‘how to concentrate’:

  • 35. a11en  |  December 27, 2006 at 3:44 am

    A fantastic book written by a psychologist and fellow who dealt with procrastinating graduate students, Neil Fiore: The Now Habit. I highly recommend it.

  • 36. annebc  |  December 27, 2006 at 6:51 am

    Excellent text. And perfect for these days when we think about things done during the whole year and time make lists for new year.

    When you always procrastinate things in special is time to you review them.

    It´s a good thing making lists, but be careful not making lists all the time, it´s an excuse to procrastinate more…. :)

    A special New Year´s Eve to you with less procrastination !!!
    Best wishes from Brazil !!!

  • 37. John P. Craig  |  December 27, 2006 at 8:21 am

    Procrastination itself may not be the reward. It may be that it is less anxiety-producing than confronting the task at hand. Postponing all due-dates to the end of the semester may look logical to you, but it would be insane for a student with more than one class, as everything would fall due at the same time. I may have more comments after reading your essay, but at this moment, I’m chuckling over the same old professorial blinkers I see from tenured types.

  • 38. aprilgonzaga  |  December 27, 2006 at 10:00 am

    this is very true , i myself am a big procastinator i am fully aware of it, but i choose to watch t.v, eat or do less important things rather than study for an exam… I usually end up cramming for it and never really retain anything after the taking the exam… hehe :)

  • 39. Chris G.  |  December 27, 2006 at 10:10 am

    I think the pleasure / anxiety cycle of procrastination is addictive. Literally addictive, like heroin. I think some people can not function without the endorphin (or other chemical) response triggered by the procrastination cycle.

  • 40. me  |  December 27, 2006 at 10:42 am

    i’ve been having trouble keeping from procrastinating lately. procrastinating does create anxiety, which i hate. but i also agree that procrastinating is it’s own reward – it’s always enjoyable even though there is that horrible nagging feeling that you should be doing something else.

    one little thing i did discover though, is that not everything is so important! sometimes if you procrastinate, you avoid working on things that it turns out were not all that important in the first place.

  • 41. Kevin Chiu  |  December 27, 2006 at 12:32 pm

    I wrote a paper on procrastination that you might like to read:

    Click to access kevin_chiu_procrastination.pdf

  • 42. rod  |  December 27, 2006 at 12:50 pm

    Why do today something you might not need to do tomorrow?

  • 43. ritchies  |  December 27, 2006 at 1:32 pm

    Very observant

  • 44. missmoopants  |  December 27, 2006 at 1:51 pm

    Hmmm, I wonder if/how project management principles alter a person’s perspective of deadlines. The the study didn’t look at is how rewarding procrastination can be: if you leave a task long enough (ie, “fix car speaker”), it becomes redundant (ie, you’ve jumped up your list to “buy new car” instead, cancelling all those little things you’ve been putting off fixing with the old car, which will now go on someone else’s list and never get done).

  • 45. susangpyp  |  December 27, 2006 at 2:13 pm

    I procrastinate until it pains me to not proscrastinate. I will get to it when I get to it. I do a lot in my life and sometimes I just want to veg out and do nothing. There is always something that SHOULD be done…but sometimes the thing I really NEED to be doing is nothing.

    Yes I know there is a price for it, but I’m usually willing to pay for it. I wrote an undergrad thesis, a graduate thesis and a law thesis. While I spent months (years!) researching and compiling “material”, the distillation of the research and writing the thesis were done, admittedly, at the last minute (last few weeks of whenever it was due). All 3 received High Honors so I have to say that I never seem to feel any consequence for doing things last minute.

    I come dangerously close to peril sometimes, but only close enough to motivate me into realizing this is the last minute, not close enough to stop procrasinating.

    Let’s see…there was something I was supposed to be doing instead of writing this comment……..

  • 46. Dumaguete Webster  |  December 27, 2006 at 2:18 pm

    I don’t really have time to comment here so I’ll do it later.

  • 47. Dan Ariely  |  December 27, 2006 at 3:34 pm

    The thing I found most interesting about the project, was that my students in the years after I finished the original research, read this paper, knew the results, and nevertheless did not take the extra step of asking me to give them the option to set costly deadlines for themselves. On one hand they realized that the ability to self imposed deadlines on themselves helped the students of past years, but for some reason they did not want to have this mechanism.

    The same also applies to myself and despite my own procrastination, and my knowledge of these results I find it hard to set up situations in which I will have the ability to self-impose constraints on my own work.

  • 48. newmw  |  December 27, 2006 at 4:13 pm

    Deadlines don’t work, you personally need to be interested in reaching goals. In the ‘big view’, doing something you’re not interested in to reach a point where you can do something you like. Fun stuff :)

    Currently researching for my MA thesis, and I’m so interested in the subject. Because of that I am not really worried about distractions, delays, stuff like that.

  • 49. stephatto  |  December 27, 2006 at 6:00 pm

    I’m successfully procrastinating by reading this post… interesting stuff.

  • 50. Nita  |  December 27, 2006 at 7:25 pm

    In my view procrastination is nothing but laziness.

  • 51. cg  |  December 27, 2006 at 7:59 pm

    People procrastinate due to following 3 reasons

  • 52. Procrastinator  |  December 27, 2006 at 8:26 pm

    I’ll leave a comment — as soon as I get around to it.

  • 53. whoreadsitanyway  |  December 28, 2006 at 1:35 am

    interesting… quite true

  • 54. bill  |  December 28, 2006 at 7:42 am

    Meh. I can post this tomorrow.

  • 55. Mike  |  December 28, 2006 at 10:18 am

    Great study. We need more folks finding and promoting provocative research.

    Just yesterday we discussed the psychology of procrastination and a few reasonable ways of getting back on track. But its interesting to see that folks build in their own expectations of procrastinating.

    Getting Things Done in Academia
    a guide for graduate students

  • 56. monkeysdown!  |  December 28, 2006 at 11:05 am

    About the only thing I don’t procrastinate is procrastination.

  • 57. Doug  |  December 28, 2006 at 12:46 pm

    One minor point… you said, “only 27% of the students chose to submit all three papers on the last day of class. This answers the first question — people are aware of their own procrastination and give themselves earlier deadlines to counter it.”

    I don’t think the data by itself implies that people who set early deadlines for themselves were aware of their own procrastination, or were procrastinators at all. A measurement of procrastination would be the rate of work — who worked steadily throughout the course and who put it off until the last minute. The study seems to show that a degree of externally imposed structure results in better and more timely performance, but it doesn’t show any underlying reasons why some people prefer to publish deadlines rather than set them privately.

  • 58. Tom S.  |  December 28, 2006 at 3:59 pm

    It seems hyperbolic discounting is being applied in many different ways. Several people here have pointed to “mind over matter” as a remedy of procrastination/hyperbolic discounting, but it’s interesting to see the complex causes of hyperbolic discounting.

    Namely, there are two parts of the brain that battle over choices. The limbic system is a primitive area of the brain that sits in the middle and drives our more primal urges, such as food and reproducing. The other area is the prefrontal cortex which sits above the limbic system and is more advanced (e.g., rational).

    When someone faces a choice, such as when to do homework, the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex battle between each other. The limbic system desires immediate pleasures, and in this case since homework is often not desired, the limbic system often compels us to do fun tasks, such as Tetris. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex engages in some rational calculations, attempting to urge the person to achieve the difficult task now, knowing that there will be plenty of free time later for fun. Thus, it is our primal brain, the limbic system, that drives our quick pleasure and for procrastinators, the limbic system is trumping our rational prefrontal cortex.

    Source: McClure, S., Laibson, D., Lowenstein, G. & Cohen, J. (2004). Separate Neural Systems Value Immediate and Delayed Monetary Rewards. Science, Vol. 306, pp. 503-507.
    ( )

  • 59. felicissima  |  December 30, 2006 at 10:39 pm

    Wow!…I like your articles! I’d wish to exchange links with you, but I have noticed that you have no blogroll. I will link your site to mine anyway…


  • 60. Ola  |  February 1, 2007 at 6:34 pm

    Tag! You’re It! Read my Blog.

  • 61. Luis  |  February 12, 2007 at 11:25 pm

    Excellent post, I have read articles about procrastination in the past and this one was pretty informative.

  • 62. K. Loupon  |  February 23, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    Delay gratification? No, I don’t think so. I’ll do that other stuff later. Where Is The LOVE????

  • 63. Cathy  |  May 23, 2007 at 11:37 am

    Are you writing this to procrastinate??

  • 64. Ashley  |  November 7, 2007 at 4:31 pm

    Procrastination is obviously a self-discipline thing. Some people have it and some don’t. With more activities and technology and things to do now a days it makes actually sitting down to do work or get something done a lot harder when you have the computer and chatting tempting you.

  • 65. mark  |  January 4, 2008 at 6:52 pm

    to solve procrastination do this set up a time when you eat and when you sleep and stick to it this will help you also the next level will be to not eat between meals and the next level will be to not eat too much dont indulge yourself eat what is necessary this should discipline you and solve your procrastination problem because in essence you are working on it all the time the principles involed are regularity and order this will help you

  • 66. Shane  |  February 5, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    You’ve got a good blog here. I just wanted to comment and say that there are some good sites and resources out there that allow students and parents to compare statistical advantages between schools, whether online or offline. I’ve found that there is great benefit to having a vast field of comparative data to study before making conclusions or decisions about which class to enroll in or institutions to apply to.

  • 67. Essay Help  |  November 12, 2009 at 2:46 am

    Setting your deadlines helps you in achieving the target comprehensively. I agree with Mark’s point in which he has told us a dynamic solution to solve procrastination

  • 68. Steve C.  |  December 3, 2009 at 12:23 pm

    It’s funny!

    Yesterday I was talking to my sister about this very same topic and Lauren was telling me that we all naturally feel lazy. But that you can tell your brain what you’d like to create for yourself and let your brain help you create it!

    Which to me was my real Ah Ha! Moment. It maybe common sense to some but your mindsets really determine your actions and emotions towards your goals. Really powerful stuff.

    She reccomends checking this out if your lookin for your own Ah Ha.

    Onward and Upward!

    – Steven E. Cooper

  • 69. Tracy  |  April 21, 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Thanks for Sharing! Procrastination is a tough nut to crack but it can be cracked!

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  • 70. James  |  May 8, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Aside from this article, If you think about, procrastination isn’t necessarily that bad. Procrastination is sort of like resting. You get enough rest to start working on what you “procrastinated” on. I think it’s sorta like that, you know? But on the other hand, overly procrastinating isn’t beneficial either in many cases. Now, I’m ambiguous about it. I don’t know if its really bad or not. T_T

  • 71. Nancy  |  July 16, 2010 at 6:15 am

    I like the idea about how procratination in itself is the reward. I guess that I had not really thought about it that way before but it does make sense. I have to admit that I have been guilty of putting off doing a paper or project until the last minute because I dreaded getting started. I felt guilty the whole time I was having fun doing something else, and the dreading getting started became worse. I need to change my way of thinking about getting started and not procrastinating.

  • 72. Research Editing  |  March 31, 2011 at 9:28 pm

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  • 79. Paper Editing  |  August 26, 2014 at 3:06 am

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    Thanks again!

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    Yes I know there is a price for it, but I’m usually willing to pay for it. I wrote an undergrad thesis, a graduate thesis and a law thesis. While I spent months (years!) researching and compiling “material”, the distillation of the research and writing the thesis were done, admittedly, at the last minute (last few weeks of whenever it was due). All 3 received High Honors so I have to say that I never seem to feel any consequence for doing things last minute.

  • 84. Arnob Endry  |  July 28, 2017 at 11:31 pm

    But in all seriousness, great post. Procrastination is a personal struggle for academic writers and authors alike. The key is developing a writing plan and having an accountability partner ensure that you stick to your plan.

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