Most of us procrastinate from time to time, if not frequently. I just took a 30 minute break in the middle of writing this article, for example. Procrastination simply means putting something you’d rather not do now off until later. Interestingly, a new study shows that manipulating how you think about time can make you less likely to procrastinate.
The study asked participants when they planned to start saving money for college or retirement. The participants were told that college would start in either 18 years or 6,570 days in the future. They were told that retirement would begin in either 30 years or 10,950 days or 40 years or 14,600 days in the future. The researchers found that participants planned to start saving 4x sooner when they thought about the events in days rather than years!
The results can be explained by two main mechanisms. First, the researchers found that more proximal events like weddings seemed 29.7 days closer when considered in days instead of months and 8.7 months sooner when considered in months instead of years. So, thinking in days helps make the future seem closer and thereby creates a greater sense of urgency. Second, thinking in smaller units links the present self to the future self to a greater degree, making you more likely to take action to benefit your future self.
Procrastination can have serious consequences. As the researchers noted, “people fail to save enough for retirement, fail to sufficiently engage in preventive health behaviors, and fail to invest enough time studying for school.” Studies have shown that people aren’t procrastinating because they view these things as unimportant, instead it’s the time element that’s causing the procrastination. This study shows that thinking in smaller units can help limit procrastination. So start thinking in days (or even minutes) to help quell procrastination!
Lewis, Neil A., and Daphna Oyserman. “When Does the Future Begin? Time Metrics Matter, Connecting Present and Future Selves.” Psychological science(2015): 0956797615572231.