In the last lesson, we learned that willpower works like a muscle. We found that if you exercise your willpower, you can make it grow. However, we also found that you can also exhaust your reserve of willpower if you are not careful.
In this lesson on willpower, we will examine why we make poor decisions in relation to time. Specifically, we will try to understand why we don’t do things that we know we should do (procrastination) and why we do the very things that interfere with our long-term goals (self-sabotage).
Dr. Joseph Ferarri, a psychology professor at DePaul University “has published more research articles on procrastination than anyone else in psychology.” He found that while all of us procrastinate from time to time, about 20% of the population are “chronic procrastinators.” According to Bilge Uzun, a researcher at Bahcesehir University in Turkey, this 20% figure holds true across all cultures and it is supported by multiple studies.
What causes us to procrastinate? Kelly McGonigal offered an answer. It is not that we lack the will so much as that we lack an understanding of how we relate to time. She explained that there is you and you 2.0.
You are reading this right now. You are pressed for time. You have real problems and pressures. But you 2.0 is your optimistic impression of future you. Future you doesn’t have the same problems. Future you is in great shape. Future you is well-rested. Future you has the willpower to take on whatever challenge you put off today. As McGonigal explained:
It is one of the most puzzling but predictable mental errors humans make: We think about our future selves like different people. We often idealize them, expecting our future selves to do what our present selves cannot manage. Sometimes we mistreat them, burdening them with the consequences of our present selves’ decisions. Sometimes we misunderstand them, failing to realize that they will have the same thoughts and feelings as our present selves. However we think of our future selves, rarely do we see them as fully us.
Studies at Princeton demonstrated the effect of this type of thinking. In one study, one group of students was asked to drink a disgusting liquid (for the benefit of science). Another group was asked how much of the disgusting liquid they would drink in the future since their group was not scheduled to actually drink it until the following semester. Not surprisingly, the students in the second group assigned their future selves twice as much as the first group’s present selves would actually drink.
In a similar study, when students were asked to donate time to a good cause,
They signed up their future selves for 85 minutes of tutoring fellow students in the next semester. They were even more generous with other students’ time, signing them up for 120 minutes of tutoring. But when asked to commit for the present semester, their present selves had only 27 minutes to spare.
In sum, our orientation to time changes the way that we act. We put off activities that we should do now and we overestimate how much better conditions will be in the future.
If we procrastinate on the things that we should do, why do we do the things that we shouldn’t do right now? When we engage in self-sabotaging behaviors such as eating too much in spite of our long-term health goals, we are engaged in hyperbolic discounting (don’t economists just have a way with words?). In essence, we choose the smaller, sure thing now over the more desirable thing in the future because time distorts our values.
For example, let’s say you are holding a contest where the winner would either win a Starbucks drink of their choice right now or a fancy dinner a year from now. It’s obvious that the preferable reward would be the fancy dinner, but most people would choose the Starbucks drink right now because the immediacy of the Starbucks drink trumps the actual value of the dinner so far off in the future.
This is why you ordered that terrible meal at your networking meeting, even though you knew that you should have chosen something more healthy. The immediate reward was far more compelling than how you might feel (or weigh) later. Hyperbolic discounting is one of the more well-researched concepts in behavioral economics.
How Does this Relate to Willpower?
In the 1980s, the cartoon series G.I. Joe ended every episode with the phrase “Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.”
Now you know why you make some of the bad decisions that you make. It is not because you have insufficient willpower or because you are a bad person. We all make these errors. It has to do with how we relate to time.
Now you know how time warps your understanding and shapes poor choices. G.I. Joe was right. “Knowing is half the battle,” but it is only half the battle. You have to do something with what you now know.
What About You?
What will you do with what you now know about willpower?
 Murphy, H. (2017, July 21). What we finally got around to learning at the procrastination research conference. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/21/science/procrastination-research-conference.html
 McGonigal, K. (2012). The willpower instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York: Avery. (pp. 172).
 McGonigal, K. (2012). The willpower instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York: Avery. (pp. 173).