Getting Stuff Done

Fact number 1: When faced with the choice between instant and delayed gratification, many of us will crumble to the power of our impulses and choose the pleasure of now,

  • PublishedMay 1, 2012

Fact number 1:

When faced with the choice between instant and delayed gratification, many of us will crumble to the power of our impulses and choose the pleasure of now, even if the later reward is far greater. It’s like holding a piece of chocolate in front of a child and telling them they can eat one now or eat two pieces if they choose to wait a little.

Which is exactly what researchers at Stanford University did in the 1960s and 1970s. They offered children a treat telling them that they could eat the treat right away if they couldn’t resist it, or if they could wait a few minutes they would be able to get two treats. At the end of the study, a third of the children couldn’t resist the temptation. Following these children into adulthood, the researchers observed that those who were unable to resist temptation at a young age were found to have more behavioral problems, trouble maintaining friendships, difficulty paying attention, and scored significantly lower on high school standardized tests than their more-patient peers. They labeled this as an inability to self-regulate and this was found to have lasting effects on health, happiness, and success in the participants.

Yet this isn’t confined to kids. For example, when giving adults a choice of what movie to watch now or later – a lauded Oscar-winning movie or a silly comedic film – the lighthearted fare almost always won out as being chosen first. Why? The serious films were thought to require more concentration and effort to watch, and thus were put off until a later date. Even when we’re doing something we enjoy, we often put off less desirable things (even if they might be great) for what will give us instant gratification.

Fact number 2:

In addition to being terrible at choosing between now or later, we’re really, really bad at predicting our future mental states. We have a tendency towards timeinconsistent preferences – so called present bias – meaning that we’re unable to grasp that what we want will change over time, and what we may want now isn’t the same thing we’ll want later.

Don’t believe or even understand me? How many times have you bought broccoli and bananas only to throw them out later when you found them rotting in your kitchen? If I were to offer you Ksh500 now or Ksh1000 tomorrow, you would likely choose the money tomorrow. How about Ksh500 now or Ksh1000 in a year? Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to take the Ksh500 now. Which makes sense, after all who knows what could happen in a year, which seems a lot more uncertain than tomorrow does, right? Now what if I offered you Ksh500 in five years or Ksh1000 in six years? Note that nothing has changed, other than adding a delay, but now it feels just as natural to wait for the Ksh1000. After all, you already have to wait five years, right? The tendency to sharply reduce the importance of the future in our decision-making is known as hyperbolic discounting. Consequences which occur at a later time, good or bad, tend to have a lot less bearing on our choices the more distantly they fall in the future. It seems thoroughly illogical to prefer smaller payoffs now over larger payoffs later, especially when it requires sacrifices in the present (though note that whether discounting future gains is logically correct or not depends greatly on circumstances).

However, people will “discount” in order to get the payoff sooner at a higher rate, but at a relatively low rate over long horizons.

But our human survival instinct has evolved to appreciate that one cannot enjoy a conserved resource tomorrow if one doesn’t survive today. Your brain evolved in a world where you probably wouldn’t live to meet your grandchildren, let alone be faced with retirement or heart disease.

And so the monkey part of your brain wants to eat as much chocolate as possible, spend as much money as is available and drink as much wine as is pleasurable. Old you, if there even is one, can deal with those things later. And naturally old you will be more patient, more organized, more restrained; more like the you you should be now. If the now you doesn’t want to do something now, then of course the future you will want to do it. In the words of David McRaney, author of the brilliant book ‘You Are Not So Smart’ and the blog www. youarenotsosmart.com: “In the struggle between should versus want, some people have figured out something crucial – want [or the lack there of] never goes away.”

Ok, so now that I know that now me doesn’t feel like getting this article done, yet future me is likely not to feel like getting this article done, but I don’t have control over future-me right now, and this article really needs to be done, so something’s got to give.

Fine…because I don’t want future me to feel the way now me feels, and because I really have no idea how future me is going to feel, I’m going to go ahead and just get this article done. And hurrah, here it is!


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