2 Harvard Professors Discover Why We Procrastinate

In 2006, two Harvard professors began to study why people procrastinate. Why do we avoid doing the things we know we should do, even when it’s clear that they are good for us? Professors Todd Rogers and Max Bazerman conducted a study where participants were asked whether they would agree to enroll in a savings plan that automatically placed 2% of their paycheck in a savings account.

One version of the question asked participants to enroll in the savings plan immediately. In this scenario, only 30% said they would enroll in the plan. In another version, participants were asked to enroll in a savings plan a year from today. In this scenario, 77% said they would enroll. This little experiment reveals a lot about why we procrastinate.

Present You vs. Future You – We like to enjoy immediate benefits in the present, especially if the costs of our choices don’t become apparent until far in the future. For example, The payoff of eating a doughnut is immediate and the cost of skipping workouts won’t show up until you’ve skipped for months.

However, in one year, would you rather be overweight and eating doughnuts or healthy and exercising consistently? In the long-run the choice is easy, but when it comes time to make the choice at this very moment, we discount the long-term costs and overvalue the immediate benefits of unproductive behaviours. Behavioural economists refer to this concept as “time inconsistency”.

To beat procrastination and make better long-term choices you have to find a way to make your present self act in the best interest of your future self. You have three primary options:

  1. Make the rewards of long-term behavior more immediate – The reason we procrastinate is because our mind wants an immediate benefit. If you can find a way to make the benefits of good long-term choices more immediate, then it becomes easier to avoid procrastination.
  2. Make the costs of procrastination more immediate – The cost of procrastinating on exercise only becomes painful after weeks and months of lazy behavior. However, if you pre-commit to working out with a friend, then the cost of skipping your workout becomes more immediate.
  3. Remove procrastination triggers from your environment – The most powerful way to change your behavior is to change your environment. Remove the distractions from your environment.

Each day, we are faced with decisions. These daily choices end up defining our reality.