Here’s an interesting piece that should help you keep your New Semester resolutions by understanding procrastination better. Sendhil Mullainathan recently used research by Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch as motivation for his undergraduate psychology and economics class. Though it’s not exactly statistics, it seems the insights could be useful for grad students and their advisors.

Ariely and Wertenbroch did several experiments to see how deadlines might help overcome procrastination. They examine whether deadlines might be effective pre-commitment devices, and whether they can enhance performance. In one of their experiments, they asked participants to proofread three meaningless synthetic texts. Participants received financial rewards for finding errors and submitting on time (just like in a problem set…). They randomized participants into three categories: three evenly-spaced deadlines every 7 days; an end-deadline after 21 days; or a self-imposed schedule of deadlines within a three week period.

Which one would you select if you could? Maybe the end-deadline because it gives you the most flexibility in arranging the work (similar to a final exam or submitting your dissertation all at once)? Ariely and Wertenbroch found that the end-deadline does the worst both in terms of finding errors and submitting on time. Participants with evenly-spaced deadline did best. But that group also liked the task the least, maybe because they had several unpleasant episodes of reading silly texts, or because they spent more time than the other groups.

So when you start your semester with good intentions, consider setting some reasonable and regular deadlines that bind, and get a calendar. Or just wait for the New Year for another chance to become resolute and have another drink in the meantime.

Posted by Sebastian Bauhoff at 12:44 PM