With fall break in front of us and midterms almost behind us, perhaps one of the last things that any student is thinking of right now is the work due after break. You know, that paper that was assigned weeks ago to be turned in the day classes resume? Procrastination is real and we can use economic theory to prove that the phenomenon is a result of rational thinking contrary to the many perceptions of laziness and lack of time management which surround the act of doing work later, rather than sooner.

The theory comes from microeconomics and it goes like this. Would you rather have $100 right now, or $100 next week? Typically, individuals would like the money now. Now say you have a paper due next week. Your options are either spend 5 hours writing the paper now, or spend 5 hours writing the paper next week just before it is due. Some may say that 5 hours is the same, and when you write the paper is entirely up to you. But, if you responded that you’d rather have $100 now in the first question, it’s likely that you’d prefer to do the paper next week. Not doing the paper now is essentially the same as having 5 hours of free time right now and given the choice between having a good thing ($100) now or later, we tend to prefer having them now. This is called in economic terms, temporal preference. We as humans tend to have a temporal preference for present consumption, rather than future consumption, which is often attributed to the dislike for waiting especially when waiting can be avoided. This is a topic that receives a strong amount of attention in the field of behavioral economics.

In addition, when Economists consider how decisions are made they take into account an individual’s opportunity cost, which is the value of their next-best option. When students are burnt out from midterms or have exciting plans for fall break, their opportunity cost of doing the paper now becomes higher and higher. Compounded by the fact that individuals prefer to consume “goods” now and to consume “bads” later (as we discussed above), economics professors understand that having multiple deadlines at the same time is a disaster destin to happen.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. The New Yorker discusses procrastination in this article from an economic, psychological, and philosophical perspective.

Have a great fall break!

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