If knowledge is prevalent and all around us, how come we still struggle to do what we know is best for us. Why do we pursue desires which are not in our best interests? Why do we struggle to save and get out of debt? Why are we constantly lured to buy things we don’t really need? Why do we find it difficult to stick to our long term goals? Why are we always procrastinating?
These questions led me to a professor in behavioral psychology at MIT called Dan Ariely. I watched a couple of his TED talks and also read some of his work. Dan Ariely compiled some of his research in a book called “Predictably Irrational.” He describes one particular experiment with some of his students. He had been struggling with his students to get them to complete their assignments in time. So he tried to test the hypothesis that pre-committing to a deadline would greatly improve the submission of assignments in time. In one class he told the students to hand in the assignments whenever they wanted as long as it was before the end of the semester. There would be no credit for early submission. In a separate class he gave matching orders. The students were instructed to hand in the assignments at specific dates. Failure to do this would lead to a penalty. In the final group the students were told to come up with their own deadlines and commit them on paper. There would be penalties if the students failed to hand in the assignments at the committed intervals.
The results were quite interesting. He found that the students in the class with the firm deadlines got the best grades; the class in which he set no deadlines at all had the worst grades; and the class in which the students were allowed to choose their own deadlines (but with penalties for failing to meet them) finished in the middle.
So it appears that having an authority figure hand down an order is the best way to overcome procrastination. This may explain why employees are obedient at work but irresponsible with their personal finances. We may not always have such an authority figure we trust and respect enough to guide us in life. In which case it is up to us to pre-commit to specific things to accomplish in the future. This is much better than not committing to anything worthwhile.
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