The effectiveness of self-imposed deadlines on procrastination
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:
- Do people self-impose costly deadlines on tasks in which procrastination may impede performance?
- Are self-imposed deadlines effective in improving task performance?
- 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.
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]