Precommitment and Procrastination: Behavioral Tools for Students
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Imagine being a student today. Every time you sit down to open your books, your phone buzzes, or your laptop pings. Entire films and television series are accessible at the click of a button. Celebrities, friends and family all continuously post social updates; on almost every platform imaginable. Modern technology has been designed so as to demand all of our attention, all of the time; and the tactics for doing so are becoming increasingly sophisticated. The temptation to procrastinate from doing your work is more irresistible, and easier, than ever.
Procrastination (from the Latin, pro: for, cras: tomorrow) is a special case of our more general present-bias: our tendency to give stronger weight to payoffs that are closer to the present time when considering future trade-offs . It is a common feeling; we all make noble plans about how much we are going to study, how we will hand in all of our assignments on time, and how we are going to be more focused and productive than ever. All of this starting tomorrow, of course. When it comes to it, we tend to choose the instant gratification of ‘just one more’ YouTube video over long hours spent studying; which, according to our present-bias-informed preferences, feels difficult, boring, and daunting. Instant gratification is all well and good, but it can seriously disrupt our more rational, long-term study goals. In fact, evidence seems to suggest that almost all students procrastinate more than they would like to.
So, in a world designed to exploit our searches for instant gratification and short attention spans, is there any hope for the student? Well, the good news is that behavioral insights can offer students smarter strategies to block out temptation, and focus on their work.
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First, a studying classic; precommitment strategies. Precommitment strategies involve blocking out some of our future choices, in the knowledge that we will not have the will-power to resist them later. The result is that we can make plans that are more consistent with our long-term goals, without succumbing to instant gratification. None of this is particularly new to the student. There are many tools which allow web-users, in their more rational and future-oriented moments, to block access to distracting websites; so that, in their weaker moments, they cannot stray away from their work. Popular examples of these tools include extensions ‘Block site’ (for Chrome) and ‘SelfControl’ (for Mac); the latter of which is particularly difficult for students to disable once configured.
Interestingly, research has shown that self-imposed precommitment strategies are less effective than externally-implemented ones, for improving self-control . So if students really want to see their behavior improve through precommitment, they would be better off having friends set their precommitment deadlines for them.
In fact, incorporating small rewards into our precommitment strategies can further improve the results for our self-control. The idea is that by associating our precommitments with small bonuses, we become more willing to stick to them. A beautiful example of this kind of tool is ‘Forest’; a precommitment app which invites users to block out distracting sites for a set amount of time, and then initiates a graphic of a tree growing on the screen, from seedling to fully-blossomed. Users are given the option to quit their commitment, but if they do so before the allocated time is up, they kill their tree and watch it wilt before their eyes. The function is simple, but the idea is extremely insightful; we are incentivized to watch our tree grow to full-size, because of the satisfaction it gives us. Conversely, it is painful to watch it die, especially if we have invested a great deal of time into growing it.
The importance of feedback
Next, receiving regular feedback on procrastination habits could be key to helping students behave more rationally when working. Evaluating our own behavior is not easy; and sometimes we need help. Accessible feedback makes important information more salient, and so helps us to make better-informed decisions. In fact, this exact lever is used by smart-energy meters, which aim to show customers (in accessible monetary terms) exactly how much they are spending on their energy usage .
Similar tools can be implemented for self-control strategies; if students regularly reminded themselves of how much time they had spent procrastinating (in that day, that week, that month, etc.) they would be able to make better-informed decisions about how they actually behave when they are meant to be studying. This is particularly important for procrastination, because it is such a mindless habit. When we find ourselves scrolling through our Twitter news feed instead of working, we are often acting almost automatically; as if we had no control over our actions. Regular feedback can help students be more mindful of their wasted time, and avoid slipping into mindless three-hour procrastination spirals. In fact, research tells us that receiving long-term feedback on a task can help students behave more rationally when tackling similar tasks in the long-run .
An extremely effective strategy in the fight against procrastination, then, is to keep track of procrastination habits. Students should check their browsing history and note how much time they actually waste when studying (and, perhaps, on what). If they can, they should keep a log of this information; it could be vital to helping them to behave more rationally and mindfully when they approach their work. An example of a tool that can give students this kind of feedback is Moment, which tracks a user’s phone usage, and notifies them when they have used their phones too much.
Leave your phone at home
Finally, students would be wise to work in a different room from their phones altogether. First, of all, because notifications and phone calls — including those that are ignored — can beextremely disruptive to our workflow. The research found that a three-second distraction (the time it takes to silence a ringing phone) while conducting a basic sequencing task is sufficient to significantly disrupt attention; and result in twice the number of errors made once the task is continued after the disruption than had been made before.
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Even more surprisingly, recent research indicates that the mere presence of phones (even when switched off) can reduce the cognitive capacity of students . The explanation of these results is extremely illuminating; evidence suggests that our attentional and cognitive resources and are finite, and depleted as a function of task demands — a theory known as ‘decision fatigue’ . The basic idea, then, is that every time we make a decision, we use up some of our finite cognitive resources, affecting the quality of our future decisions. Whenever we look at our phones, and manage to avoid the temptation of switching them on, we make it more difficult for our future selves to exercise the same level of self-control. In the end, our will-power and attention dwindles, and we simply cannot keep ourselves focused any longer. A smart way of delaying the onset of cognitive fatigue is to minimize the number of decisions we have to make when studying; and that includes leaving our phone somewhere that it cannot tempt us.
Every day, students are forced to fight off an enormous amount of distractions and temptations. The reality is that this fight cannot be won with will-power alone; the attention-grabbing techniques have simply become too prevalent and sophisticated. Luckily, behavioral insights can equip students with smarter studying strategies — aligning their daily habits with their long-term academic goals.
 O’Donoghue, T., & Rabin, M. (1999). Doing It Now or Later. The American Economic Review, 89(1), 103-124. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/116981.
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About the Author
Johnny Hugill is a graduate student in Philosophy from the University of Cambridge. His research interests include promoting trust, cooperation and social capital through public policy. He is currently co-editing a research project with the Wilberforce Society, investigating how behavioral insights can be used to promote gender equality.