My ability to procrastinate knows no bounds. During one particularly stressful study period at high school, I reorganised all the books on my bookshelf according to the colour of their spine - from white to yellow to orange to red, right the way through to black. Yes, I really did.
And since I wrote that intro, I have spent half a day sifting through my emails, gone out to dinner with friends, stayed up until 2am watching Sex and The City reruns and consumed half a packet of liquorice allsorts.
New Year is a particularly torturous time for me as I ponder what resolutions I will faithfully make and promptly abandon. Business analysis group IBISWorld forecast Australians would spend $112 million next month on new weight-loss regimes and $93 million on gyms and fitness clubs, which sign up 12.2 per cent of their new members in January - if new members joined at a constant rate this would be 8.3 per cent. By February, things will be back to normal.
Why do we engage in this annual ritual of resolutions to eat less, drink less, exercise more and phone our mothers? And why do we fail so abysmally to keep any of them? Behavioural economics - the study of how humans make economic decisions - provides answers to both questions.
We make resolutions because deep down, we know we are not very good at making rational decisions from day to day. Experience has shown us we prefer instant gratification, such as eating lollies, to things which are better for us in the long run, such as not eating them.
We discount too heavily the value of future pleasure - such as being trim and healthy - and overvalue the enjoyment from consumption today. Economists call this ''hyperbolic discounting''. According to one American behavioural economist, Dan Ariely, this is just one of many ways we are ''predictably irrational'' - he has written a good book by the same title.
But the advantage in being consistently irrational is that we should be able to pre-empt it and design shortcuts or incentives to stop ourselves. But can self-imposed resolutions ever work?
To find out, Ariely, a professor at Duke University, conducted an experiment on his students in three separate classes. He told all students they had to complete three equally weighted assignments over a 12-week course. For one class, he set strict deadlines for the assignments at the fourth, eighth and 12th weeks. Another group was given no deadline besides the finish date for the course. The third class group was given the opportunity to nominate the deadlines, which, once chosen, could not be changed. All students would be marked down 1 per cent for each day they were late.
A perfectly rational person in the third class would choose to set their three deadlines on the last day, to minimise the risk of being penalised.
But as it turns out, students overwhelmingly opted for deadlines spaced out over the course. ''Students generally understood their problem with procrastination and took action to fight it when they were given the opportunity to do so,'' Ariely writes in his book.
By far the worst-performing group was the one with only a final deadline. They generally submitted rushed, poorer work. The class with externally imposed deadlines performed the best. Importantly, the class which chose the deadlines performed markedly better than the class with no set deadlines, although not quite as well as the class with imposed deadlines.
''The biggest revelation is that simply offering students a tool by which they could precommit to deadlines helped them achieve better grades.''
But how to make our own resolutions stick without a professor to mark us down each time we skip the gym?
According to Ariely, the key is to create a structure where we are penalised for failing to do something, or rewarded for doing it. Simply saying we will do something is not enough.
One of the most popular resolutions at this time of year is to save more money. Australians are racking up a record amount of debt and while this is offset by rising assets, most of us would like to save more than we do. But short of storing our credit cards in an ice cube in the freezer - which can be broken out only with considerable effort - how can we curb our spending?
Here Ariely suggests we need to set enforceable limits to our spending. The ideal would be a ''self-control credit card'' with pre-approved limits for particular types of expenditure. Penalties would apply once spending exceeded those limits. This could be a $10 fee or the humiliation of having an automated email sent to your mother or partner to let them know you had exceeded your budget.
As it turns out, making your irrational decisions known to others, and earning their disapproving looks, is one of the most effective ways to make better choices. Big spenders have set up websites such as bloggingawaydebt.com and wereindebt.com which act as modern-day confessionals.
So here goes. I vow to go to the gym at least three times a week (averaged over a month) and to eat a maximum of two liquorice allsorts a day. That should do the trick.
Jessica Irvine is the Herald's economics writer.
Ross Gittins is on leave.