University students in a consumer behavior class at MIT are informed on the first day that their grade will be based on three papers they need to write during the semester. The papers need to be submitted at any time up to and including the last day of the term.
Another class is given the exact same requirements with the following addition. By the end of the first week of class, each student needs to commit to the date that their first paper will be submitted, a date for their second paper, and a date for their third paper. Each student can pick any date she wants for each paper, up to and including the last day of the semester. But, once those three dates are chosen, the student cannot change the date and will be penalized for each day a submission is made after the committed date. There is no penalty for submitting a paper early.
Finally, a third class is also told they need to submit three papers by the end of the semester, but the professor gives them an exact date that each paper must be completed by – again, with penalties for being late but no disadvantages for early submissions.
Given those three classes, which group do you think got the best grades, and which got the worst grades?
It might be easy to think that the class with the greatest freedom (the first group that had the entire semester to write their papers) would do the best. Further, they had no risk of being penalized for missing an intermediate deadline.
Actually, this group did the worst – by a wide margin.
The group that did the best was the last group where the professor specified the exact due dates for the papers. And, in the second group, for those students who pre-committed to deadlines that were sufficiently spaced apart – they too did as well as the best group. But students from the second group that selected dates that were not sufficiently spaced apart – well, they fared much worse because they tried cramming too much into too little space.
Studies like these, and countless others that have demonstrated similar outcomes, suggest that when we are able to recognize our inherent tendency to procrastinate and then take appropriate action to counter it – we can accomplish some amazing things.
Circa 1150, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux wrote L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés et désirs (hell is full of good wishes and desires). He was referring to the question of why is it that often we have every intention to do something yet fail to take good actions toward that intention. Problems with self-control in many cases ruin our best laid plans for things we want to do, such as exercising more, eating healthier, saving money, and so on.
Part of the problem is our craving for immediate gratification. Sure we want to lose weight or save more money, but that takes a while requiring us to delay gratification for some time. Conversely, this apple pie will taste so good right now! That new electronic device will excite me immediately, even if it is more money than I really should be spending.
Alas, we are less like Thomas Jefferson (never put off for tomorrow what you can do today) and much more like Oscar Wilde: I never put off till tomorrow what I can do the day after.
And so it is that with any worthwhile endeavor we must take steps to achieve the goal. But do we need to succumb to the pitfalls of procrastination? Must we travel that road to hell?
Not if we don’t want to.
Delay is of the ego, because time is its concept. Hell is only what the ego has made of the present. (T-5.III.5; T-15.I.7)
We can take a tip from the students who got the best grades: set deadlines that are ideal for getting the best performance and preventing unnecessary delay. And even better if we have a teacher who will facilitate in such guidance and execution.
A Course in Miracles offers such direction with very clear, practical steps we can take every day for avoiding procrastination, awakening from our dreams of sorrow, and experiencing ecstasy. Lovely intentions, which are ours for the choosing.
Until you choose Heaven, you are in hell and misery. (T-22.II.7)