If you often find yourself scrambling to finish a task that you had a few months to prepare, or if you are putting off a long-term project like setting up a retirement fund, a simple trick may help you get started sooner and save you that last-minute worry. Researchers in human behaviour have found that an effective way to stop procrastinating is to think of the time left until the deadline or goal in terms of days rather than months or years.
Researchers Daphna Oyserman from the University of Southern California and Neil Lewis Jr. of the University of Michigan conducted two series of experiments. In the first series, participants were told that a person was preparing for an event, such as shopping for a birthday or preparing a work presentation. They were then asked, in their minds, how long it was until the event. The participants were randomly assigned to think of the time in either days or months.
Participants who were told to think of the time to the event in days said on average that the event would take place 30 days sooner than those who thought of the time to the event in months. Similarly, they were then told that a person was saving for his or her wedding, then participants were asked how far in the future the wedding was likely to be. This time, however, the two time metrics were months and years. Those who thought in months said approximately 9 months, while the average of those who thought in years was almost 18 months. The researchers conclude that thinking in smaller time units makes things seem more imminent.
In the second series of experiments, the researchers look at whether the different conceptions of time had an effect on when participants planned to start saving money for the future, either for college for their children or for their own retirement. Some participants were told college would start in 18 years while other were told 6,570 days (the number of days in 18 years). Similarly, some participants were told retirement would begin 30 or 40 years in the future, while others were told it would be in 10,950 days or in 14,600 days.
Participants tended to say that they would plan to start saving four times sooner if they thought of the event in terms of days instead of in years. Oyserman said, “So when I think in a more granular way – when I use days rather than years – it makes me feel like the future is closer. If you see it as ‘today’ rather than on your calendar for sometime in the future, you’re not going to put it off.”
In follow-up studies, participants said that they thought saving for the future was important, but those who had been asked to think about time days rather than years said they felt more in touch with their future selves and thus more keen to save. According to Oyserman, this could lead individuals to curb spending in the present in order to save for their future goals.
There are a few aspects of the study which need more examination or explanation. For one thing, when participants were thinking of a person buying a birthday present, what would people have said if they were asked to respond in weeks? Did those who were asked to respond in months think they could use fractions of a month, or did they think they needed to answer in whole months? The responses on saving for a wedding raise the question whether simply prefer to assign a smaller number when estimating time.
Nevertheless, it may not hurt to give it a try. So the next time you have a deadline, think of the time remaining in days, and when you think that you should start working on it. Then set a calendar reminder for that day.
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This article is based on information provided by a href=”https://pressroom.usc.edu/the-future-is-now-reining-in-procrastination/” target=”_blank”>USC. The study was published in Psychological Science, a copy of which was provided by the author