The Misconception: You procrastinate because you are lazy and can’t manage your time well.
The Truth: Procrastination is fueled by weakness in the face of impulse and a failure to think about thinking.
Netflix reveals something about your own behavior you should have noticed by now, something which keeps getting between you and the things you want to accomplish.
If you have Netflix, especially if you stream it to your TV, you tend to gradually accumulate a cache of hundreds of films you think you’ll watch one day. This is a bigger deal than you think.
Take a look at your queue. Why are there so damn many documentaries and dramatic epics collecting virtual dust in there? By now you could draw the cover art to “Dead Man Walking” from memory. Why do you keep passing over it?
Psychologists actually know the answer to this question, to why you keep adding movies you will never watch to your growing collection of future rentals, and its the same reason you believe you will eventually do what’s best for yourself in all the other parts of your life, but rarely do.
A study conducted in 1999 by Read, Loewenstein and Kalyanaraman had people pick three movies out of a selection of 24. Some were lowbrow like “Sleepless in Seattle” or “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Some were highbrow like “Schindler’s List” or “The Piano.” In other words, it was a choice between movies which promised to be fun and forgettable or would be memorable but require more effort to absorb.
After picking, the subjects had to watch one movie right away. They then had to watch another in two days and a third two days after that.
Most people picked Schindler’s List as one of their three. They knew it was a great movie because all their friends said it was. All the reviews were glowing, and it earned dozens of the highest awards. Most didn’t, however, choose to watch it on the first day.
Instead, people tended to pick lowbrow movies on the first day. Only 44 percent went for the heavier stuff first. The majority tended to pick comedies like “The Mask” or action flicks like “Speed” when they knew they had to watch it forthwith.
Planning ahead, people picked highbrow movies 63 percent of the time for their second movie and 71 percent of the time for their third.
When they ran the experiment again but told subjects they had to watch all three selections back-to-back, “Schindler’s List” was 13 times less likely to be chosen at all.
The researchers had a hunch people would go for the junk food first, but plan healthy meals in the future.
Many studies over the years have shown you tend to have time-inconsistent preferences. When asked if you would rather have fruit or cake one week from now, you will usually say fruit. A week later when the slice of German chocolate and the apple are offered, you are statistically more likely to go for the cake.
This is why your Netflix queue is full of great films you keep passing over for “Family Guy.” With Netflix, the choice of what to watch right now and what to watch later is like candy bars versus carrot sticks. When you are planning ahead, your better angels point to the nourishing choices, but in the moment you go for what tastes good.
As behavioral economist Katherine Milkman has pointed out, this is why grocery stores put candy right next to the checkout.
This is sometimes called present bias – being unable to grasp what you want will change over time, and what you want now isn’t the same thing you will want later. Present bias explains why you buy lettuce and bananas only to throw them out later when you forget to eat them. This is why when you are a kid you wonder why adults don’t own more toys.