Study: The Secret to Ending Procrastination is Changing the Way You Think About Deadlines
Quite often, the biggest obstacle to reaching our goals is our lack of motivation to get started. Whether we want to launch a new marketing campaign, get more organized, or lose weight, there’s often a long pause between thinking about change and actually creating change. This may be largely due to the fact that we put things off until “someday.”
Research Shows We Categorize Time Illogically
A new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research reveals our natural inclination to categorize time. Researchers explain that we have a tendency to view things in terms of “present” and “future.” When we categorize a deadline as being in the present, we’re likely to start working on the goal. When we decide something falls into the “future” category, we simply file it in our “someday” archives and it’s easy for those goals to be neglected.
The most interesting aspect of the study is its revelation about the inaccurate and illogical ways we categorize time. For example, researchers gave study participants six months to complete a task (open a bank account and receive a reward). When participants were given the task in June with a December deadline, they were more likely to complete the task.
Participants who were given a task in July — and their six month deadline was in January — were more likely to put off doing the task. Since the task fell in the next calendar year, participants categorized the task as something that could wait until later. Even though both groups had six months to meet their goals, they treated the urgency of the job differently depending on the calendar dates of the deadlines.
Similarly, when participants were given a task that needed to be completed within seven days, they were more likely to begin working on it immediately. When the task was given on a Tuesday, for example, and the deadline was the following Tuesday, participants categorized the task as something they should begin working on now. But, if the deadline wasn’t until the following Wednesday, the task was categorized as a “future” project and they were more likely to procrastinate.
In other experiments, the researchers were able to manipulate how participants categorized time by color coding calendars. If the days between today’s date and an event in the future were shaded the same color, participants categorized the event as something that needed to be addressed now. If however, the shading didn’t include today, people were more likely to categorize the event as something they could delay addressing until later.
The study highlights our tendency to procrastinate any project or goal we think can delay addressing until later. Whether we think later is next month, next quarter, or next year, we categorize time in interesting ways. And not everyone categorizes time the same. A college professor may think in terms of the school calendar while an accountant may think in terms of a fiscal year, for example.
How to Start Tackling Those Goals Now
One important thing we can learn from this study is that we can change the way we categorize time. By thinking in terms of the present we can increase our motivation to start working toward our goals now. The following strategies can increase motivation and decrease the tendency to procrastinate:
1. Break goals into manageable chunks. If you only focus on the big picture, it’s easy to put things off until later. Wishing you could lose 100 pounds or quit your day job to launch a startup are goals that will fall in the “someday” category. But, if you break those goals down into smaller, more manageable objectives such as, “I’d like to lose 5 pounds,” or “I’m going to save $1,000,” you can move them into the “present” category.
2. Establish “now” deadlines. Even if your goal is something that will take a long time to reach — like saving enough money for retirement — you’re more likely to take action if you have time limits in the present. Create target dates to reach your objectives. Find something you can do this week to begin taking some type of action now. For example, decide “I will create a budget by Thursday,” or “I will lose two pounds in seven days.”
3. Turn abstract ideas into concrete action steps. Abstract ideas encourage inactivity. Saying, “I’d like to be healthier,” or “I want to be wealthy,” won’t help you reach those goals. Establish concrete action steps that you can start doing today. For example, decide that you’re going to take a class, read a book, or conduct 30 minutes of research each day. Identify behavioral changes that you can begin working on immediately and you’ll be more likely to turn your abstract ideas into reality.
Identify some of those goals and dreams that you’ve always wanted to work on but just never had the motivation to start. Look for strategies that will help you view those goals in terms of the present and you’ll increase the likelihood that you’ll start taking steps to turn those dreams into a reality.
Amy Morin is a psychotherapist and author of the forthcoming book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.