As people grapple with the urge to put things off, economists and psychologists have turned the study of procrastination into a significant field.
And what have they discovered? That each of us is divided. In other words, the person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person. All our various “selves”—the one who wants to work, the one who wants to watch television, etc.—are constantly competing with one another, bargaining for control.
If that’s true, simply trying harder to beat procrastination isn’t going to work.
Here’s what will:
1. Make a contract with your future self. The classic example is Ulysses’ decision to have his men bind him, which would force him to adhere to his long-term aims. A modern example is making a monetary bet with a friend that you’ll lose weight or finish a project.
2. Set a deadline and share it with others. The external pressure can make you do what you want to do.
Example: Dan Ariely, a psychologist at MIT, ran an experiment in which he assigned his students three papers for the semester. He gave them a choice: Turn them in at the end of the semester, or set your own separate deadlines. The catch: If they missed a deadline, their grades would suffer. Surprisingly, most students chose to set separate deadlines, knowing they might never finish.
3. Break up an open-ended task into short-term projects. Procrastination is driven, in part, by the gap between effort (required now) and reward (which you reap in the future, maybe). David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, emphasizes turning abstract to-do’s into concrete tasks. The vaguer the task, the less likely you’ll finish it.
4. Reduce your choices. When people are afraid of making the wrong choice, they end up doing nothing.
— Adapted from “Later,” James Surowiecki, The New Yorker.