Do you suffer from present bias?

I went on a trip last week.  I knew trip was in front of me months ago.  Months ago I could have started exercising and dieting so I would feel better about being in shorts and swimsuits.  I didn’t.

“Sue” has a major project due the end of this month.  For a several months we’ve been slotting time in her day planner to work on the project.  She hasn’t.

“Kathy” is working on losing weight.  Even the looming threat of a class reunion wasn’t enough motivation to get it done.

“Bob” continually struggles to save money even though he has a goal of long-term financial security.

What’s going on here?

Rather than exercise, I elected to take an extra 30 minutes with my morning coffee.  Even saying repeatedly to myself as I was drinking my coffee “I really should go jump on the treadmill.”

“Sue” made the decision to spend the time she allocated to working on her project on helping other people with their projects.

For “Kathy”, the opportunity to watch TV with her family was more important than going for an exercising walk.

And, “Bob” decided a new set of golf clubs “wouldn’t make that big of a difference in the long run and besides lots of my friends bought new clubs. I didn’t want to be odd man out.”

Everyone represented in these stories made a conscience decision NOT to do something that would have helped achieve their long-term goals.

What makes us do that?  Present bias (a close cousin to procrastination).

“The present bias refers to the tendency of people to give stronger weight to payoffs that are closer to the present time when considering trade-offs between two future moments.” (O’Donoghue, &, Rabin, 1999)

How do we break ourselves of present bias?

For me, I could have said “I will not have my coffee until I’ve been on the treadmill.”  Months ago, the end of February was too far way, but my cup of coffee was right there.  Instant gratification without any effort.

For “Sue,” when presented with an opportunity to help someone else or work on her project, she elected to work on the other project.  Because of that, she received immediate gratification, in the form of appreciation from her co-worker.  I suggested “Sue” tell her co-worker “I’m working on something right now, but I can help you in a couple hours.”

“Kathy” was in a similar situation to me.   TV time with the family was immediate gratification.  The impending class reunion was just too far away to be important. She needed to implement weekly goals (more immediate gratification), not focus on the distant class reunion.

For “Bob,” he needed to work with his financial planner on yearly goals, not retirement goals.  Seeing how a $1,000 set of golf clubs impacted his goal to save $5,000 this year completely changed the focus.

What present bias is standing in your way of long-term success?