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Procrastinate much? Science offers a way to stop

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Procrastination is the thief of time that derails New Year’s resolutions and delays saving for college or retirement, but researchers have found a way to collar it.

The trick? Think of the future as now.

“The simplified message that we learned in these studies is if the future doesn’t feel imminent, then, even if it’s important, people won’t start working on their goals,” said Daphna Oyserman, lead researcher.

Through a series of scenarios, Oyserman and co-author Neil Lewis Jr. of the University of Michigan found that study participants perceived that the future was much more imminent if they thought of their goals and deadlines in days, instead of months or years.

Through this shift in time metrics, people can motivate themselves to accomplish their goals.

“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,” Oyserman said.

“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 an initial series of studies, 162 participants were asked to imagine themselves preparing for future events, such as a wedding or a work presentation, and then they were asked when this event would occur. Participants were randomly assigned to think of the event in either days, or months or years. The researchers found participants who thought of the event in terms of days reported that the event would occur on average 29.6 days sooner than those who thought of the event as months away.

A second series of studies explored whether this sense of time affected plans to start long-term saving. More than 1,100 participants were asked when they would start to save money for college or retirement. In the first case, participants were told college would start 18 years or 6,570 days in the future. In the second case, the participants were told retirement would begin 30 or 40 years in the future, or in 10,950 days or in 14,600 days.

Researchers found the participants planned to start saving four times sooner when they thought of the event in days instead of years.

Follow-up studies found that participants felt long-term saving was important, but those who were assigned to think of college or retirement starting in days rather than years felt more connected to their future selves and were more willing to save. This could prompt them to set aside spending on present-day rewards in favor of long-term saving.

The results look promising for procrastinators, so much so that everyone might want to try thinking of the future as now… well maybe we can try that tomorrow.

Lewis, N., & Oyserman, D. (2015). When Does the Future Begin? Time Metrics Matter, Connecting Present and Future Selves Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797615572231

One response

  1. Kelsea

    Procrastination is such a powerful demotivator. When we group our thoughts so that we perceive the future as even further away, this relaxes our anxiety of upcoming events to plan for so we essentially forget to be active towards that future goal in the now. If we break up our time in which we primarily coordinate in our thoughts to be, such as days instead of weeks, months, or years, then we are more willing to regard that time frame as sooner than later and act on any precursors that need to occur before that event taking place in the future. Our minds are very powerful, and we are able to view different occurrences in many different lights. If we initiate the grouping logic alike a month’s time, we are exerting our knowledge of this month’s allotted timespan and negatively influencing our habits. If we dissect that notion and relate a span of time into a day by day factor, this seeks out the energy exerted within that timeframe each singular day, thereby making that timeframe shorter in a sense.


    May 3, 2015 at 5:52 pm

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