Procrastination is the act of delaying or postponing a task, even when fully aware of the negative consequences of doing so. This can lead to negative consequences on an individual's personal and professional life. Procrastination is a self-regulation problem that can be triggered by any aversive emotion, not just fear of failure. It is an avoidance behaviour that provides temporary relief but ultimately leads to negative emotions such as guilt and shame.
A commitment device is an arrangement that limits an agent's future choices by making certain choices more expensive. For it to be considered a commitment device, two conditions must be met: (a) the agent would pay something in the present to make those choices more expensive, even if there were no other benefits, and (b) the arrangement does not have a strategic purpose with respect to others. Condition (a) excludes common transactions like buying tickets in advance unless the agent values the commitment aspect enough to pay something for it. Condition (b) rules out commitment devices used to influence the actions of others. Commitment contracts are actual contracts between two parties, while commitment devices are unilateral arrangements(Bryan et al., 2010). Commitment devices are pre-commitments that individuals make to themselves in order to achieve a goal, even in the face of temptation or distractions. Past research has shown that commitment devices can be effective in reducing procrastination by helping individuals to focus on their long-term goals (Bryan et al., 2010, Exley & Naecker, 2016, Ariely & Wertenbroch, 2002). For example, a study conducted by Ariely and Wertenbroch (2002) found that students who imposed a deadline on themselves for a research paper were more likely to complete the paper on time than those who did not set a deadline. While commitment devices have shown promise in reducing procrastination in a variety of contexts, there are also limitations and ethical concerns that must be considered. Therefore, it is important to continue to explore and develop interventions based on behavioural economics and psychology to help individuals overcome procrastination and achieve their goals.
Self-control mechanisms and intertemporal choice
The research on the effectiveness of commitment devices in reducing procrastination is extensive. Milkman et al. (2014) conducted a study on a new method called temptation bundling, which is a way of helping people control their impulses and achieve their long-term goals. This method involves combining a fun activity that people want to do with a task that they should do, but might not enjoy. For example, listening to an audiobook while exercising. The study tested this method by giving some participants access to audiobooks only at the gym, while others could listen to them anywhere. Results showed that those with restricted access to audiobooks were more likely to go to the gym. After the study, many participants chose to pay for restricted access, showing that people are willing to commit to this method. Ariely and Wertenbroch (2002) have also found that imposing a deadline on oneself can be effective in reducing procrastination. Bryan et al. (2010) and Exley and Naecker (2016) have also explored the use of commitment devices in reducing procrastination. The theoretical framework of self-control mechanisms and intertemporal choice has been widely used to explain procrastination. This framework posits that individuals have two types of selves: the present self, which is concerned with immediate gratification, and the future self, which is concerned with long-term goals. According to this theory, individuals who have a greater ability to delay gratification are less likely to procrastinate, as they are able to prioritize their long-term goals over their short-term desires. However, there are many factors that can influence an individual's ability to delay gratification, including their level of self-control, their motivation, and their environment. Therefore, while the theoretical framework of self-control mechanisms and intertemporal choice provides a useful starting point for understanding procrastination, it is important to consider a range of other factors that may contribute to this behaviour as well(Steel, 2007).
Criticisms and limitations
While commitment devices can be effective in reducing procrastination, there are also some limitations to consider. For example, the effectiveness of commitment devices may depend on individual differences in personality or motivation. Additionally, there is a risk of backlash effects, where individuals feel resentful or guilty about being forced to stick to their commitments. There is also a concern that commitment devices may be used in a way that is coercive or manipulative, particularly in contexts where individuals may be vulnerable or have limited options.(Milkman et al., 2014). Another limitation of commitment devices is that they may not address the underlying causes of procrastination. Procrastination may sometimes be a symptom of underlying psychological or emotional issues, such as anxiety or depression. In these cases, commitment devices may be less effective than other interventions, such as therapy or medication.
In conclusion, the research on commitment devices suggests that they can be effective in reducing procrastination by helping individuals to focus on their long-term goals. Methods such as temptation bundling and setting self-imposed deadlines have been shown to be effective. However, there are also limitations and ethical concerns that must be considered, such as individual differences in personality and motivation, the risk of backlash effects, and the possibility that commitment devices may not address the underlying causes of procrastination. Overall, while commitment devices provide a useful tool for individuals to overcome procrastination, it is important to continue exploring and developing interventions based on behavioural economics and psychology to help individuals achieve their goals.
- Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment. Psychological Science, 13(3), 219–224. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9280.00441
- Bryan, G., Karlan, D., & Nelson, S. M. (2010). Commitment Devices. Annual Review of Economics, 2(1), 671–698. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.economics.102308.124324
- Exley, C. L., & Naecker, J. (2016). Observability Increases the Demand for Commitment Devices. Social Science Research Network. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2498145
- Milkman, K. L., Minson, J. A., & Volpp, K. G. (2014). Holding the Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling. Management Science, 60(2), 283–299. https://doi.org/10.1287/mnsc.2013.1784
- Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 65–94. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.133.1.65