I was recently asked, by personal finance site Learnvest, how rationality can help with procrastination. Interestingly, when you stare hard at it, "procrastination" collapses into multiple issues which can be very different from each other (and which call for very different approaches).

Sure, there's the "typical" kind of procrastination motivated simply by a task being more tedious than the other things you'd rather be doing with your time. But I think behavior that looks like procrastination can also stem from a couple of related cognitive biases*:

  • Status quo bias: All else equal, people prefer the status quo to their other options. So this can prevent you from making a change even if you know (logically) you have good reasons to make that change.
  • Loss aversion: Often considered a contributor to the status quo bias, this is the phenomenon by which we're more motivated to avoid losses than to seek similarly-sized gains. In other words, if we lose $100, then gain $110, then lose $100, then gain $110, etc., our net emotional impact will be negative even though our money is going up on average over time. So even when some action seems net positive, the emotional pull of loss aversion can still cause us to put that action off.

Check out the Learnvest article for more detail and some suggestions I gave for dealing with procrastination, especially around personal finance issues.

*I sometimes hesitate to call these "biases," because I think there are legitimate contexts where it makes sense to be loss-averse or to prefer the status quo, all else equal. But officially, in cognitive science, "status quo bias" and "loss aversion" are categorized as biases.