Procrastination is a costly habit. Putting things off leads to lost productivity and all sorts of hand wringing and regrets, and damaged self-esteem.
For all these reasons, psychologists would love to figure out what's going on in the mind that makes it so hard to actually do what we set out to do.
Are we programmed for postponement and delay?
Led by Sean McCrea of the University of Konstanz in Germany, an international team of psychologists wanted to see if there might be a link between how we think of a task and our tendency to postpone it.
They handed out questionnaires to a group of students and asked them to respond by e-mail within three weeks. All the questions had to do with mundane tasks like opening a bank account and keeping a diary.
The rub was that different students were given different instructions for answering the questions with the intention of getting some thinking about the tasks in the abstract, and others thinking about it in concrete terms.
As a result, some participants thought and wrote about what each activity implied about personal traits: what kind of person has a bank account, for example. Others wrote simply about the nuts and bolts of doing each activity: speaking to a bank officer, filling out forms, making an initial deposit, and so forth.
Then the psychologists waited. And in some cases, waited and waited. They recorded all the response times to see if there was a difference between the two groups, and indeed there was a significant difference.
What they found
The findings, reported in the journal Psychological Science, were very clear. Even though all of the students were being paid upon completion, those who thought about the questions abstractly were much more likely to procrastinate - and in fact some never got around to the assignment at all.
By contrast, those who were focused on the how, when and where of doing the task e-mailed their responses much sooner, suggesting that they hopped right on the assignment rather than delaying it.
The authors note that "merely thinking about the task in more concrete, specific terms makes it feel like it should be completed sooner and thus helps to reduce procrastination". They conclude that these results have important implications for teachers and managers who may want their students and employees starting on projects sooner.
What this means to you
McCrea explains that their work suggests that we associate thinking concretely about tasks (that is, at a more detailed level or in terms of how to accomplish the task rather than why it needs to be done) with getting started on them.
"It is of course important to begin by thinking about the reasons why you want to accomplish something in order to motivate yourself, but when it is time to get to work, thinking concretely seems to be more beneficial," he explains.
"Beyond merely thinking concretely, making a specific plan for where, when, and how one will work on the task is one of the most effective ways to avoid procrastination," he says.
When for example planning to write a book, McCrea explains that the best way to get concrete would be to make a plan. "My colleague Peter Gollwitzer has shown that plans of the form 'whenever I am in situation x, I will do y' is particularly effective," he says.
"So perhaps for writing a book you should set more concrete goals (each day I will write one page), and then think about when you will write the next page (after breakfast, I will immediately sit at the computer and begin writing), rather than to merely imagine how wonderful it will be when you are finished," he says.
In addition to failing to make specific plans or think more concretely, McCrea says it seems that people often fail to anticipate difficulties that they are likely to face - we often underestimate the amount of time and effort tasks will take.
"So before beginning, it may be a good idea to try to anticipate these difficulties and think about how you will deal with them should they arise. Setting more realistic goals means that you are less likely to experience failure and become discouraged," he said.
Too many choices saps stamina