Monday, May 9, 2011

Predictable Preference Reversals in Procrastination Choices

In the category of 'stupid mistakes I make that I will admit to', let me add this one.

Procrastination is a classic sign of hyperbolic discounting. It's what happens when you know that something is in your interests to do, but you don't want to pay the small upfront costs just yet. You'll do it soon, really. As a result, it creates in predictable preference reversals. After you're done procrastinating, you'll wish you hadn't. Moreover, even as you're doing it, you know that you'll later regret it. But you do it anyway.

My mistake is not that I procrastinate and wish I didn't (although that happens too). It's more that hyperbolic discounting also causes me to procrastinate with things that aren't optimally enjoyable. So how does this mistake work in this context?

Procrastination typically tends to take the form of lots of small chunks of time. You tell yourself that you'll only waste five minutes, and then you'll work. Five minutes passes, then you want to spend another five, and so on. You may end up wasting a lot of time, but the decision has to be made incrementally because it's only the really immediate effect that has the high discount rate. In other words, in 5 minutes time, you really are willing to work. The problem is that '5 minutes time' keeps turning into 'now', when you aren't willing to work.

Someone who is hyperbolically discounting will only do so in tasks that individually require a small amount of time. Like checking one more blog. Or playing one more game of solitaire. They generally won't set aside in advance a large chunk of time to waste, such as by watching a TV show, or worse, a whole movie.

But here's where the preference reversals come in. In total, I will often waste 2 hours of time over the course of a day. If I could commit in advance to wasting this time and then getting on with work, I would rather spend it watching at least one TV show, or maybe a whole movie.

But I won't want to commit to that, because standing in the present, the first 5 minutes seem like acceptable procrastination, but the remaining 85 seem like an unconscionable waste of time when I should be working. They'll only seem like acceptable procrastination when they turn into 'now'.

An alternative title for this post is "Why, 6 months later, I still haven't watched 'The Hangover' that SMH lent me, even though I honestly believe it's a good movie"


  1. Right. Because you can't watch the freaking movie for 5 min and then stop. Your VCR player will ruin the cassette.

  2. Ha, very true. Hey, I never said it made sense!

    On the other hand, would you really want to watch a movie in 5 minute chunks, broken up with breaks? You may as well be watching free-to-air television with commercials, and that's worse than a punch in the kidneys.

  3. You know what hyperbolic discounters need? Commitment mechanisms! Thus watch the damn movie, before I drag you to the sequel. At which point you will be be publicly shamed by the blog readers, the sequel will be less enjoyable, and the original will be less enjoyable as I'm sure the sequel will ruin gags from the first movie. 15 days until the next one comes out, if you're a true hyperbolic discounter that would mean like 14.5 until you watch the first movie.

  4. Ah SMH, you are a first rate thinker! I am pleased to report that in the spirit of overcoming bias, I watched it the other night, and it was indeed excellent. Whether the blog post served as a commitment mechanism or merely increased the salience of the movie is a challenge left to the behavioural economists.