How Procrastination Can Be Beaten with Game Theory

Procrastination can be broken down into a game such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma (see diagram below).

Imagine Procrastination as your fellow potential prisoner. If the work you have to do, isn’t bad, but it just needs to get done, that’s the equivalent of Prisoner B remaining silent.
If you see your work as small and mostly unimportant, you have two options. You can get it done immediately, or put it off for a day. If you get it done early, you’re a super star. If you do it a little late, meh, no big deal.


However! If you inaccurately assess the importance of your work, and it’s actually a big deal if you don’t get it done (Prisoner B confessing). Your decision now has drastically different consequences. If you do it immediately, it will suck because doing work sucks in general. If you put it off, IT GETS WORSE! The amount of work doesn’t get easier, it just gets delayed. On top of that, things that were hinging on the completion of the first task get delayed.

What to do?

  • One solution is to only procrastinate on small things if necessary, and never procrastinate on big things. Of course, sometimes it’s hard to accurately estimate how much work a task will take.
  • Another solution is to raise the stakes. You could schedule your time so that all of your meetings are back to back. Get rid of any safety factor. Burn bridges. Make Plan B to be “Make sure Plan A works”. Make it so that any amount of procrastination will ruin your whole week. Are you feeling lucky, punk? Well do ya?
  • Finally, you could adjust the incentives to finish early and on time. Right now, the incentive to finish is to avoid punishment. It’s possible to give yourself a positive incentive to finish ahead of schedule (chocolate, ice cream, pizza).