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December 31, 2012

Slate: Vow to do less, not more

NEW YORK — It's that season again, when we resolve to accomplish a list of goals in the coming year. Not infrequently, these are the goals that we were resolved to accomplish during the preceding year.

If you were to ask Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir or Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan for a better New Year's strategy, they'd likely suggest that the best resolution you can make is to do fewer things in 2013. The researchers argue that when busy people get busier, it leads to ignored deadlines, a cluttered desk, and a vicious cycle of falling further and further behind. Amid the disorder, a lot of bad decisions get made, and the best means of escape from this cycle may be a moratorium on new obligations.

Shafir and Mullainathan are leaders in the field of behavioral economics, which aims to apply insights from psychology to the study of economic decision-making. In their recent work, summarized in the forthcoming book, "Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much," they use behavioral economics to explain why conditions of scarcity — whether of time or money — often lead people to make bad decisions.

Mullainathan and Shafir describe the problem of managing money as being akin to packing a suitcase. Someone with plenty of time has a near-empty suitcase. It requires little attention or effort to decide whether to go to a movie on the spur of the moment. By contrast, those with crowded schedules have a full suitcase: Adding a new item means removing something that's already been packed. Deciding how to rearrange your metaphorical suitcase takes time and energy and can lead to stress and sleepless nights. Indeed, the shortage of space itself can be responsible for bad decisions that, in turn, only make the problem worse.

This may sound counter to your own experiences. Some people feel they're at their most productive when work has piled up and deadlines are looming. Mullainathan and Shafir wouldn't disagree. But they caution that these pressures cause what they call "tunneling": a laser-like focus on the tasks immediately at hand, which often results in a disregard for the bigger picture. You may be focusing on that deadline at the expense of your long-term happiness.

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