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Understanding Procrastination Through The Lens of Present Bias

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

Do you often make promises to yourself that you can’t keep? Raise your hand if you’ve avoided setting goals because you’re worried you won’t complete them. You can’t fail at goals you don’t set, right? To help us stop beating ourselves up about ‘failed’ goals, first, you need to understand the important role that time preferences play in our everyday lives and in terms of making healthy habits and setting goals in particular. Then you can start utilizing what you know about time preferences to overcome your procrastination. Before you read on, ask yourself:

If you are about to receive a reward for the efforts you have put in, would you choose to receive 3.4k in the present month or would you be willing to wait for the next month to receive 3.8k?

If you rather settle down with less money than waiting for more to come in the future, it is the sign that you are more of a future-oriented individual who has a lower time preference, as you place a higher value on the immediate costs and a lower value on the future benefits. This article is for you.

Why We Make Plans But Don't Take Action

Often in life, we all find ourselves distracted from meeting more long-term goals by more enjoyable short-term activities. For instance, the urge to indulge in a high-calorie treat instead of a snack that will contribute to good health. Each of us likely struggles with these urges to procrastinate every day—with varying degrees of success. Those who struggle with procrastination are intimately acquainted with the Present Bias.

Present Bias. Image credit: Nirandfar.

The Present Bias describes our tendency to choose a smaller, immediate reward over a larger reward in the future. In other words, we choose immediate gratification over delayed gratification. So if we have to choose between an option right now, and a better option in the future, we tend to value the readily available option higher and undermine the long term. The sooner we can get an option, the higher we value it, and the more likely we’ll choose it. Unfortunately, it seems to be an unshakable law of nature that the things that are better for us in the long term are a drag in the short term. Pizza tastes better than broccoli. Buying new trendiest clothes is more fun than saving money for a far-off retirement. Watching Netflix is more pleasant than writing or reading or designing.

Present bias leads us to consistently optimize for our current enjoyment, forever putting off the harder things that set our future selves up for success. When we fail to eat healthier, save more, or make progress on our goals, we’re digging ourselves into holes and leaving it to our Future Selves to try and find a way out.

“Most goals can be reached, but they don’t happen by accident. They also don’t realize it in an instant.”

This is one reason why you might go to bed feeling motivated to make a change in your life, but when you wake up you find yourself falling into old patterns. You have probably noticed that at least one or two of these examples apply to you. Don’t worry—a little instant gratification now and then won’t hurt! If you find yourself constantly choosing the immediate over the long-term, however, you might be struggling to resist the pull of instant gratification. Knowing this, let’s talk about how to stay committed to your goals & habits so that your resolutions become a reality rather than a faded memory. This is your time to lead your everyday life meaningfully and purposefully.

What you can do about it:

Set mini-goals. Big goals are fun to set and can be motivating, but they can also seem overwhelming or far off. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Breaking these big goals into smaller pieces. Put all of your effort and energy into building a ritual and make it as easy as possible to get started. Don't worry about the results until you've mastered the art of showing up. If you are new to building a habit, you can follow the “2-Minute Rule”.

Keep a journal/keep track of your goal. Tracking and journaling is a reliable way to improve our overall capacity to delay gratification. If someone has the goal of weight loss, logging food intake is a great way to begin the journey toward that goal. The activity welcomes self-awareness and mindfulness in impulse control.

Schedule your Goal. Motivation is short-lived and doesn’t lead to consistent action. Planning out when and where you will perform a specific behavior turns your environment into a trigger for the action, making it more likely to follow through. Try to apply this strategy to your habits:

I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]. I will meditate for one minute at 7 a.m. in my kitchen.

Temptation bundling. Seek out a form of exercise you actually enjoy. "Bundle" an activity you enjoy – like watching Netflix – with an activity you put off – like exercising. Find healthy recipes that are also delicious.

Reward yourself. If you can find a way to make the benefits of long-term choices more immediate, then it becomes easier to avoid procrastination. One of the best ways to bring future rewards into the present moment is to establish a way to reward yourself for completing the routine. For example, eating a piece of chocolate or taking a nice long shower after exercising. Train your brain so it knows that exercise is linked to something you know that you enjoy. It doesn’t matter what the reward is. What matters is it’s genuinely rewarding, and that you allow yourself to enjoy that reward.

The Habit Loop. Image credit: Invictus Fitness.

Creating a visual cue. Goal setting is an important piece when attempting to delay gratification. You can use a vision board, be it digital or physical that represents your desired life. Think deliberately about the cues and rewards you want to establish in your life that will encourage good behavior. Creating a "keep your eye on the prize" situation can enable you to envision a positive future that can manifest in the real world through real-time habit change.

Utilize accountability partners/ Apps. If self-discipline doesn’t work for you, consider accountability layers and environmental tweaks when attempting to follow a habit or goal. Have you tried going to the gym with someone else? Do you know you can actually organize your phone to work for you, not against you? There are dozens of free productivity apps floating on the net. Here is a list of the best productivity apps that will definitely help make life a little easier when it comes to getting things done. Similarly, you can build an emergency fund by setting up an automatic transfer of funds to your savings account.

Test, tweak and keep on trying different approaches until you find something that sits right.

A Take-Home Message

Failure to identify present bias over time may have a number of consequences for physical health and well-being. The benefits of creating strategies to understand our time preferences and hinder them in favor of better rewards down the road are many. The skills of highly successful people are accessible to anyone who has the desire to change their life.

The basic idea is this: when making a decision in the present, fast forward to consider the needs, desires, and goals of your future self. This helps us to make better decisions in the present that we can look back on with contentment at the end of the day, the week, the month - and hopefully, at the end of our lives.

Starting from today, see changing your behavior as a period of problem-solving and experimenting. More people learning how to see long-term goals as beneficial over the desires of instant gratification can help contribute to a healthier and happier world.


If you’re at all curious:

  • The “2-Minute Rule'' is an excerpt from Atomic Habits, a New York Times bestselling book written by James Clear. If you are interested, Click here to learn more →


About The Author

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Hey, I'm Elsa. I’m a fashion marketing and management student and the creator behind The Real Planner. I create content such as planning and personal development tips for those seeking to design a meaningful and joyful life over this platform. 

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