Layaways and Lamentations

Monday, February 13, 2012
By dreeves

'Delayed Gratification' by James Surowiecki in the New Yorker

Say you have a hard deadline in a month and you know you’ll end up down to the wire. You check the exact time of the deadline and see that it’s 9am. Groan! That portends a brutal all-nighter. Why (oh why) couldn’t they have made it 9pm the previous night? (Same story for deadlines that are timed so as to ruin a holiday.)

Note that that lamentation is patently crazy.

Nothing prevents you from setting your own deadline 12 hours ahead of the real one. But I’ve heard such lamentations often, including from myself. Such people are classic akratics and should derive huge value from forcing themselves to make steady progress as the deadline approaches, eliminating that all-nighter. They rarely do though. Instead they (we) resolve to pretend the deadline is earlier, and then throw that pretense out the window and pull the all-nighter on the last night anyway. StickK and Beeminder (and others) are offering something hugely valuable for such people.

Next week we’ll blog about one such person solving that problem beautifully with Beeminder. UPDATE: blog.beeminder.com/gandalf

Layaways

Here’s another example of akrasia: failure to save up for an important purchase, like a new washing machine. This is a real problem for people living on a limited income and with poor credit — a combination which has been more common since the financial crash of 2008. What’s needed for akratics such as these is a way to force yourself to gradually set aside small amounts of money until you’ve saved up enough for the big purchase. As James Surowiecki points out in The New Yorker last month, an old solution to that problem is regaining popularity in the current recession: layaway.

As with all commitment devices, using a layaway is superficially irrational. You’re strictly better off setting the money aside in a bank account, earning interest and retaining flexibility to reevaluate the purchase. But you’re akratic, so the money won’t stay in that bank account long enough. Thus a commitment device, even a somewhat costly one like layaway, may be quite rational.

Or you could beemind your saving, as some Beeminder users are currently doing. If that goes well, you’ll hear from them here as well.


 

Illustration: Christoph Niemann, The New Yorker

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