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Contracts to fight procrastination

Filed in Research News
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Psychologists and economists love to talk about the notion of two selves: present self and future self. It’s a nice way to explain the tendency to have one preference about the future, but a very different preference when the future becomes the present. On Sunday, future self might want to go to bed early on Thursday, wake up early on Friday, and hit the gym where it will listen to one hour of “Listen-and-repeat Italian” lessons while mastering the StairMaster.

However, come Thursday evening’s dinner with a client, this voice cannot be heard next to that of present self saying yes to dessert, coffee, after-dinner liquer, and a postprandial visit to the pub. Sunday’s voice is also asleep Friday morning, when the present self resets the alarm from 5:30 to 8:00.

In a clever April fools joke, the website www.thinkgeek.com proposed a solution in the form of an alarm clock that donates money to your most-hated cause should you hit the snooze button. Imagine giving money to a despised politician every time you slept in. Might that get you out of bed?

While the SnuzNLuz alarm clock was a joke, it was a brilliant one. I believe that someone will run with this or a very similar idea. Many future selves find their present selves to be their own worst enemies, and might be willing to pay obedience school tuition. In fact, the much-buzzed about www.stickk.com is built on this model: taxing yourself for failing to lose weight, quit smoking, etc.

I am reminded of the time I was a postdoc at Columbia University, on the job market, and deep in a publish-or-perish the phase of my career. I instituted a similar (though lower-tech) mechanism. My rule was that if I didn’t write a certain number of pages each day, I would lose five dollars. I think I lost about $60 on the scheme, though it did land me a job I love.

I remember being seriously conflicted about whom to give the money to if I procrastinated. I felt that if I gave it to a good cause, I would be continually justifying my procrastination as charitable. I felt that if I gave it to a bad cause, that would be evil. I also feared that I would start justifying my procrastination by telling myself the bad cause isn’t so bad. (Sound far-fetched? The idea that we might infer our preferences from our actions is a key, if not field-defining, idea from social psychology.)

In the end, I chose to leave the money on a seat on the New York subway. Maybe a good person would find it, maybe a bad person would find it, all I was certain of was regretting my procrastination. Given that you’re not evil, if you found $5 on the 1/9 train around 2005, I hope that it inched you closer to your goals.