The effectiveness of self-imposed deadlines on procrastination

The effectiveness of self-imposed deadlines on postponement

December 26, 2006 at 2:42 am

I often hear of PhD students who postpone their research to do other things: play Tetris, read comments on Slashdot, or write a blog. We blame it on doing something “more important” to do something different, while feeling guilty and content at the same time.

How cute is it not to work? Apparently sweet enough to soothe the heavy and bitter costs of procrastinating. Late fines and extra work for missing a deadline seem a long way off when you can now chat online for 20 minutes.

Why do people hesitate? This is an effect psychologists attribute to “hyperbolic time discounting”: the immediate rewards are disproportionately more convincing than the higher late costs. In other words, procrastination itself is the reward.

However, the potential cost of neglecting a task affects people so much that they learn to impose deadlines on themselves to limit their own behavior. How long do people do this? This article addresses three questions:

  1. Do people set costly deadlines for themselves on tasks where procrastination can affect performance?
  2. Are Self-Imposed Deadlines Effective in Improving Task Performance?
  3. Do people set their deadlines optimally for maximum performance improvement?

In this thesis some studies are reported in which the students had the opportunity to choose their own deadlines for three tasks to be completed (writing or proofreading of papers). You were allowed to set separate deadlines for each work, but would be bound by the deadlines and would be penalized if submitted late. Logically, the best solution would be to set all deadlines to the last day, which gives you the greatest flexibility and time to work on the three tasks.

However, only 27% of the students decided to hand in all three papers on the last day of class. This answers the first question – people are aware of their own procrastination and set earlier deadlines to counter it. The studies show that these deadlines improve performance rather than just having deadlines at the very end. Unfortunately, they are still suboptimal, as the subjects who were given the same deadlines achieved better results, which supported question two but rejected question three.

But hey, I’ll be pushing myself to start my taxes earlier, but after a round or two of Winterbells.

Ariely, D. &wertebroch, K. (2002). Postponement, deadlines and performance: self-control through pre-commitment. psychology, 13 (3), 219-224. [PDF]

Entry filed under: procrastination, psychology, work.

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