After a series of studies, University of Southern California researchers believe they have discovered a relatively simple method to help people avoid procrastination.
The technique is to merely 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, Ph.D., lead researcher.
Through a series of scenarios, Oyserman and co-author Dr. 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.
Oyserman believes accelerating the perception of time into the here and now will help motivate people 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.
Oyserman said this could prompt them to set aside spending on present-day rewards in favor of long-term saving.
The study has been published in the journal Psychological Science.
Source: University of California