I am sure all of us are all too familiar with procrastination, only starting our work at the very last minute. To try to combat this, we sometimes set deadlines for ourselves, but do these deadlines really work?
This post would be about a research conducted by Ariely and Wertenbroch (2002) on procrastination and self-control, where they aimed to find answers to these three questions:
1) Are people willing to self-impose meaningful (i.e., costly) deadlines to overcome procrastination?
2) Are self-imposed deadlines effective in improving task performance?
3) When self-imposing deadlines, do people set them optimally, for maximum performance enhancement?
Two studies were conducted to examine these issues. The first study focused on the first question. It involved 99 students enrolled in a semester-long education course at MIT. They were required to write three short papers and were then divided into two groups. Students in the first group, no-choice group, were given fixed and evenly spaced deadlines for all three papers. The second group, free-choice group, had the chance to choose their own dates to submit their three papers, although some external constraints were set regarding the dates (must hand in before the last lecture; must announce the decided deadlines; deadlines could not be changed; delay in submitting would result in a 1% penalty in their overall grade). Results showed that the students were willing to self-impose deadlines to overcome procrastination, even though they are costly. They picked deadlines that had more commitment by externally precomitting to the lecturer, instead of privately planning them. However, the grades in the no-choice group were higher than the grades in the free-choice group, showing that flexibility in choosing your own deadlines leads to lower grades (i.e., worse performance) compared to fixed deadlines.
(Results of Study 1)
The second study focused on the second and third question, to investigate whether performance under self-imposed deadlines is better than performance under maximally delayed deadlines (i.e., when all tasks are due at the same time at the end of the period). In this study, a task was needed where people cared about it but it would not directly affect them (as opposed to Study 1). This was done by placing an ad to look out for native English speakers to help proofread three students’ papers, and payment was given at the end. Four conditions were used, where they were either told they could submit their tasks early but a delay would result in a penalty, or they had to submit one of the three texts every 7 days, or they had to submit all three texts at the end of 3 weeks or they had the chance to set their own deadline within 3 weeks. Results showed that the number of errors correctly detected was the highest in the evenly-spaced-deadlines condition, followed by the self-imposed-deadlines condition, and the lowest performance was found in the end-deadline condition.
(Results of Study 2)
In conclusion, people do set deadlines for themselves, even when these deadlines could lead to penalties if they are missed. This is necessary as we are constantly bombarded with self-control problems, where sometimes it’s hard for us to manage our time and to motivate us to do work. If people constantly procrastinate and are actually aware of their problems, self-imposing deadlines can be helpful. Based on the results found, the answers to the three questions above are a "yes" to the first two and a "no" to the last question.
Ariely, D., & Wertenbroch, K. (2002). Procrastination, deadlines, and performance: Self-control by precommitment. Psychological science, 13(3), 219-224.