Dan Ariely on the Secret to Overcoming Procrastination

In this short video, Dan Ariely, Professor of Behavioral Economics at Duke University, boils down procrastination for us. He also mentions a self-mastery trick known as reward substitution, which he used to self-administer a painful, year-long-year treatment for Hepatitis C.

According to Dr. Ariely, since we’re not designed to think about long-term rewards, one of the tricks we can use is reward substitution. This involves creating benefits or rewards in the present that motivate us to behave in ways that serve our long-term goals. In other words, you change the environment in a way that gets you to behave in the right way because of the wrong reason.

“Procrastination is about the problem that we’re just not designed to think about the long-term. Like why would nature even get us to think about what will happen 30 or 50 or 60 years from now? So we think about now, and the now is much more powerful … That’s really the basic human problem; that there’s something that’s good for us in the future … but the steps we can take now are incredibly painful. So we often don’t do that … We are not designed to care about the future. We just can’t change that … So instead what we can do is we can create other benefits that will be more in the present; kind of import new benefits for the present.”

If you’re interested in hearing more, check out the longer version on Youtube here.

There are 7 brilliant comments

  1. Hi Michael, Perfect timing for me as I want to exercise but I keep on putting it off. Winter is coming, what’s the point I think? But I can see how these little tricks may work. I will surely try it, thank you! (I used to be in sales and I’d make a game over making calls, putting checkmarks next to each one so I’d feel better.)
    What a problem for the gentleman in the video! Many would have given up and not take the treatments. Excellent points on benefits for the present. I have to find mine now đŸ™‚

  2. I have to do sales calls, which I don’t want to do. I wonder how I could connect doing sales calls with a benefit, any ideas?

    1. Chantel, I’ve worked in sales myself and know the feeling. A couple of things that worked for me or others around me:

      1. Make the process your goal. When the sale is the goal, it creates anxiety, because we hope to reach this rather difficult goal every single time we do a sales call. And at the end of the day, you don’t actually control whether or not you get the sale – even if almost everything aligns perfectly, and the customer is ready to buy, something can still unexpectedly kill the sale. You don’t control the result, but you do control the process – actually performing sales calls. When your goal is to talk to a certain number of people per day, each sales call is an end in of itself. It’s basically a slight of hand for ourselves, a reframing of sorts. You obviously still go through all the steps that put you closer to getting a sale with every single prospect, but you don’t worry about is as much. Just making the sales call is a reward in itself, because it already counts as a point.

      2. Very similar, but based on a book called “Go for no”, the idea is to set a goal of how many no’s you want to receive.
      When you know your conversion rates, you can set the number of no’s around that. The reward becomes that each sales call is at least guaranteed some desired outcome – either a no, or an actual sale.
      The purpose of this flip is that the more no’s you try to get, the more sales you will typically wind up with. E.g. if your daily sales goal is 1, but your daily no goal is 20… you may get lucky and land a sale on your third call, and decide to call it a day. However, if you pursue a n goal, your work isn’t done.
      By working towards the goal of 20, you’re far more likely to generate another sale that you may have never gotten to if you only oriented yourself towards a positive outcome goal.

  3. So funny that I was directed to this site by my Grad professor! After watching the video and reading your article I used Ariely’s advice and have “tricked” myself into exercising and eating properly. I’m on my 9th day and already down 4 pounds. Thanks for the great advice!

  4. Very interesting! I can see how his movie trick would work for something he didn’t want to go through at all like that treatment. What’s so confusing about humans is that we procrastinate on things we actually enjoy doing! I enjoy my yoga practice but I still have yet to get back into doing it daily.

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