Beat your brain's stupid hyperbolic discounting

Dispassionately, we know that cheating on our diets or procrastinating on our stupid deadlines isn't worth it, but our stupid brains treat most future consequences as if they're worth nothing, while treating any present-moment benefits as though they were precious beyond riches — so how do you get the "hyperbolic discounting" part of your brain to shut up and listen to reason?

Hyperbolic discounting is at the root of huge social problems from smoking to the lack of pension savings. But on a personal level, one of the biggest barriers to getting stuff done is beating the hyperbolic discounter at its own game. Economist Tim Harford delves into the literature and comes back with some solid recommendations for getting yourself to do what you want to do — especially drawing up your to-do list the night before, when you can dispassionately confront your real priorities without being overwhelmed at the thought of having to actually do all the stuff on your list and crumpling it up and writing a new list that reads EAT ICE CREAM AND PLAY VIDEO GAMES.

On any typical day – indeed, from moment to moment – we have to decide how to spend our time. We have a choice of long-term and short-term projects, big and small tasks/jobs, fixed commitments and free time, all within a daily rhythm of productive moments and postprandial slumps. To add to the challenge, unexpected tasks are always arriving in the inbox.

Armed with traditional tools of to-do list and calendar, this already looks like a tough enough optimisation problem. Add hyperbolic discounting and it looks vicious.

"Managing time is almost inhumane in its requirements," says Dan Ariely, a behavioural scientist at Duke University. He's right. While trying to figure out the wisest way to spend our time, we are constantly tempted to surf around on YouTube. Or perhaps we engage in busy-work, reorganising the filing cabinet and kidding ourselves that just because it's work, it's worth doing. Tomorrow's priorities – applying for a promotion, starting the next big project, learning a new language – keep evaporating whenever tomorrow turns into today.

What are the solutions?

One possibility is to schedule tasks ahead of time in the calendar. The big presentation, the Japanese revision, the washing-up, all of it gets a diary slot. There's promise in this approach. It still requires willpower but putting long-term priorities firmly in the calendar helps deal with the hyperbolic discounting problem. But an overstuffed diary is inflexible and one missed target means an entire calendar must be reworked. The system is unlikely to work for all but the most predictable lists of tasks.

Here today, gone tomorrow [Tim Harford]

(Image: My "To Do" List: Yay for functional tattoos!, Rob and Stephanie Levy, CC-BY)