Will You Get That Paper Done on Time?

Procrastination and the planning fallacy

Posted Sep 03, 2019

Photo by JESHOOTS on Unsplash
Source: Photo by JESHOOTS on Unsplash

Many students learn in the first week of the semester that a paper will be due in a couple of months. But few students organize their time and work on the paper until the last week or two. Too many other distractions—and “plenty of time to get it done.”

A publisher tells me about someone who signs a book contract but seven years later has only finished a couple of chapters. Here’s another story of unfinished business. About 15 years after I left a position on a graduate faculty my friend, the current Chair, tells me that one of my former students just defended her dissertation. I said, “Nat, that was over 15 years ago. Are you sure?” He said, “Her topic was procrastination”.

So why can’t we get things done on time? Are we masochists? Passive-aggressive? Losers?

The Planning Fallacy

Well, none of that probably applies to you when it comes to being late on something you had plenty of time to complete. In fact, one of the problems is having plenty of time. University of Chicago economist Sendhil Mullainathan—whose work intersects with behavioral economics—in his book, Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives—describes the processes underlying the problem of having too much time. Why does having more time make us less likely, at times, to get something done?

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky identified this phenomenon in one of their classic papers. They called it The Planning Fallacy. Specifically this is a positive bias where we are inclined to believe that we will complete something within a certain period of time—almost always underestimating how long it will really take. Examples of the planning fallacy include students who predict that they will complete a paper within a certain amount of time, but –in reality—it takes them far longer. Other examples include dams that take longer and cost more than expected, buildings that are not completed on time, roads that take much longer than expected. A local example for us in New York City is the Second Avenue Subway which was first proposed in the 1920s, ground was broken in 1972 and –now in 2019—it is unlikely to be completed for another five or ten years.

Why We Are Bad at Following Our Plans

Why are we so bad at predicting how long it will take to complete tasks? There are a lot of factors that contribute to this. These include the Optimism Bias, where we want to believe that everything will work out. There is Self-Serving Bias—where we bolster our self-esteem by over-estimating how effective we will be. There is our tendency to focus our attention on the image of the completed project, rather than refocus to all of the steps in between. We are not that effective at imagining all of the interfering events. We overestimate our self-control, thinking that we are more disciplined than we really are.

We could go on, but I think you get the picture.

How to Overcome Your Procrastination and Beat the Planning Fallacy

So, if you are a student, a worker, or someone making plans, let’s try to be more realistic and overcome the panning fallacy. What can you do?

  1. Examine the Costs of the Planning Fallacy. This involves taking an honest look at the stress you experience when you are late, trying to cram everything at the last minute. The quality of your work is sacrificed because you have waited too long. Imagine how much better you would feel and how much better the quality of your work would be if you had realistic plans and followed them.
  2. Be Honest About Your Lack of Self-Control. Don’t kid yourself by telling yourself how smart and disciplined you are. You know you aren’t. If you know that you are not good at maintaining discipline you will be more realistic and effective by using the tools I describe in this article.
  3. List Your Past Failures to Get Things Done on Time. Another way of motivating yourself is to examine your past failures to complete things on time. This isn’t meant to criticize you, but rather to use regret productively to correct yourself. Don’t keep making the same mistake.
  4. Ask How Someone Else Would See Your Behavior. We are often more realistic about ourselves if we step outside of our own heads and see things the way others see us. How would someone else see your past performance or current optimism of having plenty of time to get around to it? Curb your enthusiasm about your confidence that you will get it done at the last moment.
  5. Don’t Wait for the Motivation to Show Up. This is one of the key problems with getting things done. It’s your belief that you need to be ready, you need to be motivated. No you don’t. You need to practice good habits. You don’t get into shape by waiting for the motivation. You get into shape by regular workouts. Assign the behavior and do it. Maybe the motivation will come later.
  6. Break It Down into Steps. It’s a lot more difficult to work on the whole project than on one step at a time. Outline the entire project—as best as you can—and break it down into manageable steps. Let’s say you have three months to get something done. Assign one step for each week—let’s say the first step is doing a review of the literature. Spend a few hours the first week doing that. And start now. Don’t wait a month. Start this week.
  7. Work Backwards from the End. Start with the end and work backward in time. This can be coordinated with the step-by-step approach. Working backward in time will give you an idea of where you need to be. It also allows you to see that there are a lot of steps to take.
  8. Anticipate Distractions and Interference. Life is not going to be easy and predictable. You might get sick, have other tasks, be upset about something, or get distracted. Which distractions or problems did you experience in the past? Plan for this. Have a strategy for getting back to your list of tasks as soon as possible.
  9. Have Reminders That Nag You. Sometimes the best way to get things done is to keep nagging yourself and reminding yourself. Use your reminder feature on your phone, have regular reminders in your calendar, tack something onto your computer screen. Even better is to be accountable to someone. For example, partner with a friend that you will update each other on a regular basis on your mutual progress. And, while you have your reminders nagging you, give yourself compliments for each thing you actually do. Nagging can be positive or negative.
  10. Schedule Steps Regularly and Repeat and Repeat.  I know I am repeating myself but it’s worth saying again. Schedule each step, do it even if you don’t feel motivated, keep repeating the steps, move forward one step at a time. Keep a record and review how you are making progress—or getting distracted. Get back onto the path and do it. Over and over.

To be realistic is to know your limitations. Planning for the planning fallacy can help you get things done. Even if you have plenty of time this abundance of time will tempt you into procrastination. Getting things done in advance, step by step, is a lot easier than pulling all-nighters and working under intense stress.

Now is a good time to start.