We all know procrastination costs us time and stress. In some cases it can cost a lot of money. James Surowiecki reports that Americans lose hundreds of millions of dollars by filing taxes late, and American workers lose out on huge sums in matching 401(k) contributions from their employers because they put off signing up for a retirement plan. On the ground level, most people I know have put off paying a parking ticket long enough to increase the penalty. And then of course, there’s the issue of late fees for credit card payments and other bills. Sometimes we incur those fees because we can’t make the payment, but sometimes we just put off writing the check until we’re one day over the deadline and at least a twenty dollar bill lighter—not to mention the increased interest fees that can end up costing much more over time.
Like with shopping momentum, procrastination involves complex processes in the brain. One part of our brain might assert that completing a task quickly now will pay off later, while another part may be more interested in the short-term benefit of skipping it to go to a movie, go to the gym, anything but that pesky task.
As you might know from experience, the short-term argument often wins the day, and you’re left scrambling when deadlines roll around. Fortunately, there are a couple of ways to encourage your brain’s time management side.
- Break big projects into small, manageable tasks with deadlines. For example, if you’re doing your taxes, you could divide the task into signing up with an online tax service within a week of getting your forms, figuring out what you owe the federal government within the next two weeks, and figuring out what you owe your state and local governments within the next four weeks. And then, of course, mailing those checks before April 15th.
- Choose a course of action, and act. It’s hard to get started when you haven’t yet chosen your method. Use a process of elimination to narrow your options and then just pick one. For example, say you want to start saving money, but you’re unsure of which model to follow–10 percent of each paycheck? $100 a month? Savings account? Mutual fund? Narrow it down to what you think you can feasibly set aside, do a little research to figure out which kind of account you’re in a position to set up and use, and start saving. You can always change the amount or move to a different account (although you may have to overcome procrastination again to do so). HelloWallet can tell you exactly how much to set aside each month based on your savings goals, whether you want a house or a European vacation, and we take care of the research part for you as well.
It might be useful to think about two kinds of procrastination: the kind that is genuinely akratic (doing something against one’s own better judgement) and the kind that’s telling you that what you’re supposed to be doing has, deep down, no real point. The procrastinator’s challenge, and perhaps the philosopher’s, too, is to figure out which is which.