At the beginning of the year, many of us make promises to ourselves, such as learning a new (programming) language, starting to run, or spending less time aimlessly browsing the Internet. Do we stick to our promises several months into the year? In the majority of cases, the answer is no. But it’s not worth lamenting that we can’t always follow through. The important thing is to find ways to deal with the moments of weakness and procrastination. Behavioral science can help with this by offering more than one way to turn intentions into actions. But before diving into scientifically-based methods to address procrastination, let’s have a look at how Victor Hugo overcame his procrastination even before behavioral science existed.
Paris, 1830. Victor Hugo was tearing his hair out over the approaching deadline for his manuscript. Roughly a year ago, he’d promised the publisher to hand in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Instead of working on the manuscript, Hugo spent the whole year writing plays, hosting dinner parties, and exploring the quarters of the city he loved. As a result, he found himself in trouble. Initially, the publisher dismissed Hugo’s procrastination, but eventually gave him a firm deadline: February 1831. With only six months left to submit the manuscript, which was far from complete, Hugo needed a plan, and he came up with one.
Hugo bought a huge bottle of ink and a long knitted shawl that could cover him from head to foot. He also locked up all his other clothes in a wardrobe and entrusted the key to his servants for safekeeping. Stripped of any attire, the temptations of city life lost their appeal. With only paper, ink, and the shawl, Hugo’s sole occupation was to write, and write he did. Hugo wrote relentlessly every day and so passed the autumn and winter of 1830. In the end, the novel was published on January 14, 1831, two weeks ahead of the publisher’s deadline. As we now know, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame went on to become a classic.
Commitment Devices: A Behavioral Science Solution to Procrastination
A somewhat similar approach to what Hugo did is known in the behavioral science literature as commitment devices. In simple terms, commitment devices refer to specific conditions that oblige one to exhibit desired behavior. For example, if your goal is to start running every day, you can establish conditions that outline what will happen if this commitment is broken. This could involve losing access to your favorite apps on your smartphone or giving away 50 euros, imposing a penalty to hold you accountable. In a way, commitment devices allow you to put a price tag on your weakness.
To grasp how commitment devices work, it’s helpful to examine some of the online platforms that facilitate setting the right conditions for follow-through. StickK is one such platform, among others, which enables you to set goals and define the necessary steps to achieve them. These details may include the amount of time you will dedicate each week and specific milestones you aim to reach. To periodically review your progress, you appoint a referee who can be a friend, family member, or someone you trust. In addition to social mechanisms, StickK offers financial ones, allowing you to deposit money and publicly state what will happen with those funds. If you fail to meet your commitment, the money will either be forfeited or donated to an “anti-charity”, a cause or organization you strongly dislike. The reason this approach works is that humans have a strong preference for avoiding losses, so financial mechanisms add the necessary pressure to accomplish goals. Commitment devices thus can help ward off the temptation of not acting in one’s best interest.
Strategies Beyond Commitment Devices for Effective Goal Setting
Commitment devices are by far one of the best methods to achieve goals. However, alongside them, there exist other ways to address procrastination. Often, we procrastinate because we feel overwhelmed by the task at hand. Broad tasks require abstract thinking, which means we are less likely to complete them. To overcome this, it’s crucial to break the task into smaller subtasks and make them concrete and measurable. Instead of setting out to write a report, divide the process into smaller steps, such as drafting an outline, writing different sections, and revising it. Similarly, if you want to master a new skill, set aside some time every day. Even just 15 minutes of consistent practice can make a significant difference.
To effectively establish goals, you can adopt the WOOP framework, which stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacles, and Plan. This involves starting with a desired wish and envisioning a favorable outcome that can arise from its accomplishment. Next, you acknowledge any challenges that may impede progress and proceed to formulate a strategy to overcome them. It’s also advisable to always formulate your goals in a positive manner. For example, instead of stating that you will stop eating sweets, reframe it by saying that you will consume four fruits a day.
The reasons behind our procrastination
The aforementioned methods can set you on a path to combat moments of weakness. However, on a more fundamental level, have you ever wondered why humans procrastinate? Procrastination has been extensively studied by various scholars, including psychologists, economists and philosophers. Despite a lot of digital ink spilled on studying it, there is no simple explanation for why procrastination occurs. However, psychologists and economists suggest that we procrastinate because of our tendency to prioritise immediate gratification over what is best for us in the long run. Additionally, factors such as fear of failure, perfectionism, low-self esteem and task aversion play a role. This overall doesn’t imply that people are short-sighted but that our preferences aren’t consistent over time.
In sum, the path to curbing procrastination lies in finding and implementing methods that bridge the gap between instant gratification and future rewards. By understanding the psychological factors at play and exploring strategies, such as commitment devices, we can navigate the allure of procrastination and foster our productivity.