A quirky new trick to beat procrastination

Entrepreneurs aren’t the only people who struggle with procrastination, says inc. Psychologists, it seems, do too. At least that’s what you’d have to conclude from the number of scientific studies addressing the root causes of putting stuff off and how to overcome the tendency to procrastinate.

Now there’s a new addition to the lengthy list of research-backed interventions that can help the chronic procrastinator. It comes via research out of the University of Southern California, and thankfully it’s among the simplest of them all to put into practice.

Days, months, or years?
The series of studies was led by Daphna Oyserman, co-director of the USC Dornsife Mind and Society Center, and tested how the unit of time measurement we use when thinking of future goals affects the likelihood of procrastination. Or in other words, does it matter if you think in terms of days, months, or years until a deadline?

Rationally, it shouldn’t, but humans being the strange animals they are, it turns out that it makes a pretty big difference. “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,” explains the research release.

The result? “Participants planned to start saving four times sooner when they thought of the event in days instead of years.”

Why does this simple change in the way we think about deadlines make such a difference? Measuring the time to a point in the future in days, apparently, makes it feel closer, and when things feel closer, we’re more likely to get cracking.

“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,” Oyserman commented. “When I use days rather than years … it makes me feel like the future is closer.”

It’s another quirk of human nature to add to the long list of our mental oddities and biases, but at least this one is useful. That report you’ve been putting off writing? Don’t tell yourself you need to get it done in a month. Instead, think about it being due in 30 days and you’ll have significantly boosted your chances of starting on it sooner.