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Knowing how to practice a good self-control is a skill that few possess, let alone master. Problems in self-control occur when people experience different, inconsistent preferences, at different times or in different contexts. For example, when dieting, one will choose to avoid the dessert before going to the restaurant. But, when ordering, one chooses to fall to temptation, regretting it at a later time. Therefore, if the decision remained the same before and after dinner, another kind of preference was experienced when facing a pleasure in the short term. This kind of decision is influenced by the bias of hyperbolic discounting, according to which immediate rewards have an exaggerated influence on a decision when compared to rewards in the long term.
This reasoning can be applied to time too. In front of a job to do, the amount of energy and time to spend can discourage and lead to procrastination, which is none other than the immediate pleasure of postponing in the future an activity one does not want to do. Then, when the deadline approaches, one gets aware of the mistakes they’ve made, as there will not be enough time nor energy to complete all the things to do. For this reason, some people self-impose limits or conditions that incentivize to work sooner and better. Going back to the example of the restaurant, when dieting, one will tend to choose a place that offers a less inviting menu. Or, if someone is a smoker, they buy a smaller package to reduce consumption.
Two pilot studies
Two researchers, Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch, wanted to study if the self-imposition of deadline was an effective method of fighting procrastination. Thus, they conducted two pilot studies in a class of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT. The experiment consisted in writing three short papers (study 1) or a single short paper (study 2) during the course of a semester. Each student had the possibility to choose the deadline for their work, but these dates were binding and whoever wouldn’t respect them would have incurred in penalties on the final grade.
In the first study, the average deadline for all three papers was about 21 days before the end of the course, with the deadline of each respective paper corresponding on average to 33, 20 and 10 days. This indicated a tendency to self-impose deadlines much sooner than the last day of the course and that were spaced in time. To exclude the spacing in time as a relevant factor in the self-imposition of deadlines, in the second study the mandate was to write a single paper, therefore a single activity. And yet, the average deadline the students self-imposed corresponded to 42 day before the end of the course.
Choice or no choice
Having analyzed this tendency, the two researchers then wanted to study if a deadline that was set from the outside was more or less effective than one that was set from the inside, in other words self-imposed. The mandate of the experiment was the same as the first pilot study: writing three papers. A class of 99 students was divided in two sections, undistinguishable from the point of view of academic performance, but that were subjected to different conditions.
In fact, the first section had three fixed deadlines, set from the outside, spaced in time as much as possible. The second instead had the possibility to choose their own deadlines, which were binding and would have led to penalties if they were not respected. In addition, sending their work before the deadlines would not have guaranteed any kind of feedback from the professor or bonus in the final grade.
The most obvious deadline for the section that had free choice, if the students didn’t have any king of self-control problem, would have consisted in sending all three papers on the last day of the course. They would have had more time to study the subject and more flexibility in organizing the work.
And yet, even in this case, the students chose more strict deadlines: on average, 42 days before the last day of the course for the first paper, 26 for the second and 10 for the third. Only 12% of the students chose to send all the papers on the last day. Therefore, even if they risked the penalties of not respecting deadlines, many students chose to apply this mechanism of self-imposition to limit their desire to procrastinate.
But, surprisingly, the section with no choice achieved on average a higher grade compared to the section which could self-impose deadlines. Thus, although students had applied strategies to increase their own self-control, they achieved lower grades anyway: self-imposing deadlines can help avoid procrastination, but often these deadlines are not set optimally. Only when the chosen dates were as much spaced in time as possible, in other words more similar to those of the section with no choice, the grades were similar between sections.
To study in depth the difference between deadlines set from the outside or the inside, Ariely and Wertenbroch organized another experiment. In this case, the mandate for the participants was to correct grammatical and syntax errors in three texts that were randomly generated. Each spotted error would have guaranteed 1 cent as a reward, while each day of delay from the deadline consisted in a penalty of 1 dollar.
In this experiment the participants were divided in three groups. The first one had deadlines set from the outside and spaced in time as much as possible. The second instead had a single deadline at the end of the experiment, which would have lasted for 21 days, while the third group would have chosen autonomously their own deadlines. Even in this case, as in the previous experiment, the best performance was that of the group with deadlines set from the outside, followed by the participants who could choose their own deadlines. In last place, instead, there was the group that had the single deadline corresponding to the end of the experiment. In addition, following this order, the time spent on the work was decreasing, from the 84 of the group with deadlines set from the outside to the 51 minutes of the group with the deadline at the end of the 21 days.
The results of these experiments proved how people sometimes decide to self-impose deadlines, even incurring in the risk of penalties. If a rational decision-maker, who would not have self-control problems, would choose to send their work on the last day, self-imposing deadlines is a strategic and reasonable behavior if someone is aware of their own tendency to procrastination. In addition, if someone has the consideration of setting their own deadlines in the optimal way, they will achieve the same results as whoever has deadlines set from the outside.
- Ariely D, Wertenbroch K. Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment. Psychological Science. 2002;13(3):219-224. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00441
- Ainslie, G. (1975). Specious reward: A behavioral theory of impulsiveness and impulse control. Psychological Bulletin, 82(4), 463–496. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0076860