N. Pepperrell and I have been having a little exchange about procrastination recently and I just happened to come across this article while not procrastinating yesterday. In it, Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch ask if deadlines actually help in stopping the commission of this mortal sin (I imagine that in Dante’s inferno, procrastinators are forced to live in a world where everyone else is also a procrastinator: coffee is half-brewed, tv shows are made the night before, Christmas is celebrated in between March and July). There’s also this website that tries to collect all procrastination-related research.
Anyway, in the paper, the researchers gave participants a task to complete by a certain date and divided them between those with evenly spaced deadlines and those who could choose their own deadlines anytime duging the work period (the last study also adds the option of having a deadline imposed at the end of the work period). The basic results are provided in the abstract:
In this article, we pose three questions: (a) Are people willing to self-impose meaningful (i.e., costly) deadlines to overcome procrastination? (b) Are self-imposted deadlines effective in improving task performance? (c) When self-imposing deadlines, do people set them optimally, for maximum performance enhancement? [. . . T]he answer is “yes” to the first two questions, and “no” to the third. People have self-control problems, they recoginze them, and they try to control them by self-imposing costly deadlines. These deadlines help people control procrastination, but they are not as effective as some externally imposed deadlines in improving task performance.
So self-imposed deadlines help, but not as much as deadlines imposed by some outside authority. Almost all of the participants were students except for one study, where they were professionals taking an executive-education course. I immediately wondered whether results coming from generally older and more experienced executives could be meaningfully compared to results coming from students, but right now I can barely muster up the steam for a good anti-quant rant. And I was totally not procrastinating when I wrote this post.