The Thief of Time




Last week in First-Year Seminar my students and I went over some research on procrastination, something nearly every one of them laments in their approach to academics.  One idea that caught their attention was the "temporal discounting" effect."  This is the human tendency to discount a reward's value in proportion to how far in the future it is.

This, of course, is what was going on in Walter Mischel's famous 1972 study of kids in the marshmallow test, where children were offered a choice between eating a marshmallow treat immediately or waiting a set amount of time for an even greater treat.   Some kids waited, but others couldn't.  They wanted the immediate reward and discounted the value of the larger reward 10 or 15 minutes away.

Follow-up longitudinal studies discovered that the subset of kids who waited correlated with higher SAT score, higher academic achievement, lower body mass indexes, lower rates of alcoholism and incarceration...

Bottom line: impulse control matters.

Unfortunately modern life is filled with opportunities to temporally discount.  Some companies like H & R Block know this.  They offer clients an immediate refund on their taxes minus, say, a five or ten percent fee. This presents the customers with a choice not unlike the marshmallow test.  They can wait six to eight weeks for the IRS to send them the full refund or they can take the lesser amount right away.  Because many of us discount the value of future rewards, we take the ready cash.  And the genius from H & R Block’s point of view is that their clients walk away happy despite having volunteered to pay substantially more to get their taxes done.

And it's not just H & R Block.  Tech companies also know how to tap into our weaknesses.  Clicks and on-line traffic equal revenue so they have every incentive to make apps, games and software into tempting time wasters.  Cognitive scientists have shown that every incoming message is accompanied by a little dopamine hit that, like mathematically-timed jackpot payouts, will keep us coming back for more.  There's a reason it's so hard not to check the phone when it buzzes or beeps.  That buzz is a marshmallow.  Why wait?

Something similar happens with students in college.  The immediate reward of doing something fun like playing X-Box or checking social media far outweighs the temporally distant reward of a good grade. And let's face it: grades (or the fear of bad ones) are fairly weak motivators for many students, especially when they are weeks or months in the future.

What's interesting about Mischel's study is that the kids who delayed gratification used intentional strategies to distract themselves from the immediate reward.   They turned away from the marshmallow, closed their eyes, sang a song...   When researchers proposed such strategies beforehand to the "low delayers," they we are far more likely to wait the prescribed time.

The take away is that procrastination is largely innate.  We all do it because it probably made sense at one time for us to go for the meal at hand when we weren't sure when the next one was coming.  That said,  procrastination isn't destiny.  It's possible to override our instincts; we just have to be intentional about it. 

We can try creating short-term rewards for getting work done (if I get a rough draft done tonight, I'll treat myself to X). This works for some but not many. One of my students said she tried this and failed miserably because she kept sweetening the deal: if I work on this for even 10 minutes I get the treat.  

We might also take a lesson from the kids in the marshmallow test and deny attention to the tempting reward. This is the method used by App Detox or other software that "locks you out" of time-wasting social media, games or apps, a kind of fight fire with fire approach.  You simply cannot access these programs for a specified time.  But do we need more tech to de-tech?  I mean you could get similar results by leaving the phone and laptop in your room and writing in long-hand in a library study carrel.

A more drastic approach for chronic procrastinators is to employ the Xenophon strategy. Xenophon was an ancient Greek general who lead 10,000 mercenaries back from a failed mission to Persia.  Harassed, outnumbered and finally cornered in Asia Minor, he drew up his troops to fight by positioning them with a sheer 300-foot cliff immediately at their rear.   When one of his lieutenants questioned the move, Xenophon pointed out that their position made it clear to both the men and the Persians that there would be no running away.  In effect, he gave himself and his men no choice or such a grim one that it provided the required motivation.   

You could accomplish something similar by handing over the X-box to someone and making him promise to sell it and keep the cash if you don't get the work done.   It's a desperate strategy, but it would really focus your attention.  I read once about a woman in the Civil Rights movement who had tried repeatedly to quit smoking.  Nothing worked.  Finally she wrote a check for $5,000 to the KKK and gave it to a friend with the instructions to mail it to the Klan if she ever smoked again.

It worked. 

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