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Why the snooze button is your best friend

Is the snooze button your best friend?
Is the snooze button your best friend?

How often do you press the snooze button when the alarm rings in the morning? And how many times do you press it more than once? Chances are you’re not the only one who wants to get up early, but fails to do so. Erasmus University Professor Kirsten Rohde explains why.

You really wanted to be an early bird. But then, for some reason, you slept in and missed all your morning classes. Obviously there’s a gap between planning and doing. We plan to do one thing, and end up doing something else. This does not necessarily mean we fail to do the right things. Maybe we just fail to make the right plans. In any case, the first step towards closing the gap is to realise that we cannot escape from it.

Multiple personalities
‘To understand the gap, it helps to think of ourselves in the future as different persons then we are today,’ says Kirsten Rohde. She is an Endowed Professor of Behavioural Economics at Erasmus University. ‘So, not only our circumstances change; no, we, our preferences, change as well; from day to day, from minute to minute. It's as if we’re a different self at every point in time. The current self is planning, and the future self is doing. The gap between planning and doing is essentially the result of a disagreement between our current and our future selves.’
So, the self who sets the alarm wants to get up early. And the self who wakes up from the alarm wants to stay in a nice, warm, and comfortable bed. Rohde: ‘When I set the alarm in the evening and wake up the next morning, circumstances haven't changed that much. It's me, my preferences that have changed. I simply want to stay in bed.’

Trading off self’s
In general, we care less about the future than the present. That’s why we can decide to live a healthier life and end up eating a bag of crisps in front of the television set two days later. Or why it’s so difficult to save up money for some future cause. ‘But,’ Rohde continues, ‘the closer we get to our future selves, the larger the priority we give to the sooner, relative to the later, selves.’ How does this apply to the alarm clock? ‘When I set the alarm in the evening, I have to trade off the well-being of at least two of my future selves: the self who wakes up from the alarm and wants to stay in bed, and the self - the later self - who doesn't want to be late for a meeting in the early morning. When I set the alarm, I may decide to give equal priority to both of these selves. I may decide that the discomfort of getting out of bed early is less painful than the discomfort of being late at the meeting. So I'll decide to set the alarm relatively early. But once it rings in the morning, I'll give more priority to the self who wakes up, and I'll decide to stay in bed. So, it’s as if the self who wakes up, puts too much priority on itself.’

Who’s to blame?
Put like that, we could say that the self who wakes up is responsible for the gap between planning and doing. But maybe the self who sets the alarm fails to correctly anticipate on how much discomfort we feel when waking up from the alarm. In either case you can always blame your other self, and that’s a comforting thought.

Kirsten Rohde has her own TedX talk on this subject. You can watch it here.