Are you impatient? Then you’re also more likely to procrastinate

MBA Blog / 8th February 2016

Alina Dizik

Oddly enough, being an impatient person means you’re also apt to put things off rather than get them done sooner. That’s because being a procrastinator and being impatient are both personality traits that are based on a need for immediate outcomes and rewards. People who put things off to enjoy more speedy rewards are also more likely to be less forward thinking when making instant demands.

The connection between impatience and procrastination is not entirely new. It has long been an unproven theory of economists. Now, in a series of field experiments, Columbia University’s Ernesto Reuben and Northwestern’s Paola Sapienza, along with Chicago Booth’s Luigi Zingales, have uncovered evidence that furthers the association.

The researchers studied MBA students’ tendencies for procrastination and impatience. Their findings indicate that those who want immediate rewards actually procrastinate more on tasks. “Highly impatient individuals weigh immediate costs more and delayed benefits less and thus postpone activities where costs are upfront and indulge in activities where costs are delayed,” the researchers explain.

During one of several experiments, participants from a cohort of MBA students at Chicago Booth were asked whether they wanted to collect a check immediately for a smaller amount or wait to collect a check later for a larger amount. More-impatient students accepted the check for a lower amount, but actually procrastinated cashing the check for more than two weeks – the amount of time they otherwise would have waited to yield the larger amount. Almost 58 percent of students who received a smaller check took an average of 3.71 weeks to cash the check, according to the researchers. “Individuals who are impatient will procrastinate more than those who are patient when delay is costly,” the researchers write. The MBA students did not know they were part of the experiment, and only later were asked to opt in or out of the study by the researchers.

The students were also asked to do three additional tasks – fill out a mandatory online survey, complete their MBA application to get an early response as well as save on the costs of applying to other schools, and play an online game with prizes for early application submission. The researchers coupled the results from the three experiments with those from the check-cashing experiment. They found that those who procrastinated when completing the three tasks were also likely to be those who requested an earlier payout.

The researchers find no statistical differences in procrastination and impulsiveness between men and women, but they do consider the possibility that intelligence may be a factor. They point to other research demonstrating that people with higher IQ scores are more patient and receptive to delayed gratification.

So, impatient procrastinators: you could take the advice of other researchers who say being aware of your tendencies can help keep them in check. Or better yet, heed procrastination scholar George Ainslie, who describes procrastination as a natural occurrence that’s only turned into a modern problem but doesn’t always cause harm. And if all else fails, Herman Melville’s procrastination-elimination device, chaining himself to his desk, worked wonders for him while writing his masterpiece Moby Dick.

Ernesto Reuben, Paola Sapienza, and Luigi Zingales, “Procrastination and Impatience,” Working paper, July 2015.


This article was originally published on the University of Chicago Booth School of Business’ Capital Ideas website:

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