Present Bias or “The Weakness of Now”


Much has been said about The Power of Now, the very popular book by Eckhart Tolle, in which he extolls the virtues of living in the present moment as the truest path to happiness and enlightenment.

But as human beings, we also tend to be the victims of what behavioral economists call the present-bias. This is the tendency to use delay tactics when faced with a task that entails immediate costs and delayed benefits.

For example, I know that going to the gym after work will benefit me in the long run, but right now it will cost me sweat and fatigue. So I give in to feeling good in the “now” by succumbing to temptation, shortchanging my future self (who may suffer from feeling low-energy, increased weight, being unfit and cardiovascular problems). As Homer Simpson would say, “I don’t envy that guy!”

Future Homer

But this sense of disconnection from our future selves could turn out to be helpful. In an interview by Tim Pychyl on his iProcrastinate Podcast, York University professor emeritus Clarry Lay advocated the use of a calendar as a contract we make with ourselves: “When we set a schedule, we let the schedule drive our behavior.”Note that this tends to be the case when we make appointments with others. If I put down on my schedule a session with a client, a doctor’s appointment, or even coffee with a friend, I typically honor that agreement, as I am sure most of you do. In other words, I treat that calendar entry like a serious contract between me and the other person.It is a whole other story when my schedule has entries such as “Do the laundry” or “Write my blog article,” etc. I am only accountable to myself, and my tendency is to treat that as a mere suggestion. When that time comes, I can find all kinds of reasons to procrastinate. What Professor Lay suggests in his book, Procrastinators (and Others) Can Still Get to Heaven, is that I consider those scheduled personal tasks just as seriously as any appointment I would make with my client or my physician. There is real power in committing oneself to keeping those engagements. When the time comes to do it, the answer to the question “Why am I doing this?” is “Because I said I would.” There is now a whole movement based on the strength of this statement.Which brings me back to how we can take advantage of our present-bias. Today is Monday and, last Thursday, I decided to write my blog article today. Rewind to last Thursday, my Monday-self was my future self. My Thursday-self had all his wits about him, and made a well thought-out decision to do some writing Monday afternoon. This was easy for my Thursday-self, because his future self-the Monday-self-was going to be the one who would be on the hook for the task. My Thursday-self used his emotional distance from his future self. It was a relief for my Thursday-self to offload that task onto Monday-self. Easy.This is where the commitment to be schedule-driven comes into play. I committed to honor the contract in my calendar on Monday afternoon that reads “Write blog article.” I put myself, willingly, in a no-choice position. This way, I cannot use any excuses, and I make good on my commitment, because I said I would. Surprisingly, there is relative ease in fulfilling that commitment, because it relieves me of having to think about what to do next. I know exactly what it is. It is written right here in my calendar:

My Calendar Contract

With some simple techniques that use our brain’s present-bias, we can turn what seemed to be a weakness into a success!

“Success is doing what you said you’d do, consistently, with clarity, focus, ease and grace.” -Maria Nemeth, Ph.D.
  1. Doing it Now or Later, by Ted O’Donoghue & Matthew Rabin. American Economic Review (1999).
  2. Procrastination and the Priority of Short-Term Mood Regulation: Consequences for Future Self, by Fuschia M. Sirois & Tim Pychyl. Social and Personality Psychology Compass (2013).

  3. The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle (1997).

  4. Procrastinators (and Others) Can Still Get to Heaven, by Clarry Lay (2015).

  5. iProcrastinate Podcast, by Tim Pychyl.