Does anchoring on deadlines cause procrastination?

by alex_zag_al1 min read18th Jul 201323 comments


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The phenomenon of anchoring seems to predict that deadlines will cause you to start a project near the deadline.

In more detail:

Any number you consider as an answer to a question will become an anchor and draw your answer towards it. Since you consider a deadline as a time to finish a project, your decision about when you should actually finish the project will be drawn towards it.

That'll make you start the project later, even though you know consciously that planning to finish a project near the deadline is a bad idea.

It's analogous to an example from Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow—people buy more cans when there's a sign telling them that they can only buy 10.

So, what I'm predicting is that anything that prevents anchoring will reduce procrastination when there's a deadline. Consciously deciding when you plan to finish by adjusting from a much earlier time, maybe?

EDIT: Brendon_Wong points out that "procrastination" really refers to putting things off, which has an emotional cause. I think he's right. What I'm talking about isn't really a procrastination, then, but bad planning.

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[-][anonymous]8y 12

The best strategy known, if I'm recalling Dan Ariely correctly, is to have a series of evenly-spaced sub-task deadlines. Paper:

anecdote: my life became better when I mentally converted all sunday night deadlines to friday afternoon deadlines.

Work expands to fill the available time.

sed -e "s/Work/Gas/" -e "s/time/volume"

Just give out fake deadlines

It's important to distinguish between procrastination and delaying working on something because it's not urgent yet. Sometimes the latter is just a reasonable thing to do. From that perspective, deadlines tell people how urgent it is to do something. It's not surprising that they won't do it if it's not urgent, and it's unclear whether this is actually a bad thing.

It's bad if they're systematically underestimating the urgency (and thus placing the deadline too far out) which seems to be the rule with humans rather than the exception.

It is a bad thing, because you should do something at the best time, not when it's urgent. They won't usually happen to coincide.

For example, the best time to write essays for med school applications is over the summer, because you have free time; not near the deadlines which are around December, when you'll be taking classes.

I think it's missing the point to claim that the deadlines are causing you to procrastinate in this case. If there weren't any deadlines for med school applications, what would it even mean to procrastinate on them?

It's also not clear to me that the best time to work on med school applications is in fact over the summer. There are other things you could be doing with that luxuriously free summer time. During the school year you're working on various unpleasant things already, so you might as well lump one more unpleasant thing in there. (I did my grad school applications in November of the relevant year and that was fine.)

Hmm. The post title should probably be "Does anchoring on deadlines cause procrastination?"

I think the basic mechanism behind procrastination is hyperbolic discounting.

I believe that you are confusing anchoring with temporal motivation theory. It's not the suggested deadline that causes the procrastination itself, but rather the perceived utility of a given activity increases exponentially as the deadline nears.

If you want to avoid procrastination, this article, which is part of a larger series, can help.

Good luck!

those ideas aren't very similar, I'm definitely not confusing them with each other

Procrastination may have more than one cause. Like, if you don't want your china teacup to shatter, you have to stop it from falling on the floor, but you also have to stop things from falling on top of it. Both would cause it to shatter.

Sorry, that comment did not come out correctly. My bad. What I meant is that you might not have the right reason that explains why moving deadlines closer reduces procrastination.

I don't think anchoring is related to procrastination. Making the deadline closer may help procrastination, but it does not seem like anchoring is the mechanism by which it happens.

Okay I see what you're saying now.

I'm actually familiar with the time-discounting of utility explanation, thanks for bringing it up though!

You're saying "the" mechanism, isn't there at least one other? Like, I bet the planning fallacy is involved some of the time. I've only read that first Lukeprog article, but surely nobody's claiming that it contains the only factors that contribute to procrastination?

Hehe, "the mechanism" was referring to the entire procrastination process, not one specific theory or cause. Could my communication be improved somehow, or is some confusion somewhat unavoidable?

The definition of procrastination in psychology is, "procrastination refers to the act of replacing more urgent actions with tasks less urgent, or doing something from which one derives enjoyment, and thus putting off impending tasks to a later time." It appears like procrastination is motivated by bad feelings about urgent tasks or good feelings about less important tasks.

However, anchoring relates more to making judgements based off a value provided first. There is no emotion involved. Normally people do not think "it looks like the deadline is 2 weeks away, when should I do it?" Instead, they put it off because of an emotional reason, like they have an urge to play video games, or the task is painful to think about.

Since anchoring does not cause the feeling or urges that drive people to procrastinate, I don't think it has an impact on doing tasks sooner or later.

I don't know. Just retread your posts a couple minutes later maybe? I just feels frustrating to make sense of them sometimes. So maybe with some time to forget what you meant, you'll be able to read your post like somebody else, and feel the frustration they feel, and remedy it?

I'm sorry if nobody else has trouble with your posts and it's just that I have some sort of problem understanding you.

Anyway... It sounds like you distinguish between two different reasons people start later than optimal:

  1. Bad planning that causes us to intend to start later than optimal
  2. Emotional factors that cause us to start later than intended

I agree that reason 2 is more properly called procrastination than reason 1, and that anchoring-induced delays, if they exist at all, would be part of reason 1.

So, yeah, if anything, anchoring on a deadline causes irrational delay, not really procrastination.

I think deadlines are a sufficient condition for procrastination but not a necessary one. And even starting a project earlier is no guarantee of avoiding a last minute crunch. (When I was studying I'd start projects on time, get the "hard parts" done, but still end up finishing them off at the last minute. Whether that's a function of anchoring or just plain vanilla Planning Fallacy, I'm not sure).

Without a deadline, can you still procrastinate? Of course, but the consequences of not starting are less immediate, but still potentially severe. If you don't finish writing an essay by the deadline, you fail a course. If you don't submit an application, nothing happens now, but restrict your options later. If you never exercise, you're more likely to get sick as you age.

So having decided to start, how do you maintain momentum? From a comment above, breaking down a single project into sub tasks with their own deadlines is a great start. But there's still a trap here - the comforting thought that some sub tasks will take less time than others, and you've got heaps of time to the actual deadline to catch up. Quantifying what you'll achieve (e.g. I will write the introduction and conclusion by the end of the week) provides a concrete goal and also harder to lie to yourself about how much time you have.

Many people procrastinate signing up for the gym even when they haven't set themselves a deadline. The same goes for a lot of habits where people now they should be doing something but don't.

[-][anonymous]8y 0

Any number you consider as an answer to a question will become an anchor and draw your answer towards it. Since you consider a deadline as a time to finish a project, your decision about when you should actually finish the project will be drawn towards it.

Can, but does not necessarily or often, lead to...

That'll make you start the project later, even though you know consciously that planning to finish a project near the deadline is a bad idea.

Intending to finish something later doesn't often lead to starting it later?

This is probably true- but consider the case where the deadline is set at "never." Having frequent, small, imminent deadlines seems to be good practice, and is behind things like Beeminder.

No deadline, hmm... my reading list, for example. I'm working my way through it... I guess anchoring predicts that I'd work through it slower if I put deadlines on when to finish each book, since I'd anchor on the deadlines?

Whether or not I anchor on deadlines, though, I'd definitely read faster if I had imminent deadlines on each chapter, rather than a distant deadline for the whole book.