The future is now: How to stop procrastination

Procrastination is the thief of time — derailing deadlines and resolutions, and delaying college and retirement savings plans.

But never-give-up researchers have found a way to collar it. The trick? Just imagine the future is now.

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“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 and co-director of the USC Dornsife Mind and Society Center.

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.

Oyserman said that 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.”

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For example, people starting to plan for retirement or other big goals should pull out a calculator and multiply the years ahead by 365. Measuring time in days instead of months, or months instead of years, can make future events seem closer and thus more urgent, according to the research published in Psychological Science.

Testing the theories

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.

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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.

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When units of time were manipulated to bring important events closer to the forefront psychologically, people reported that they should start to plan and save significantly earlier, even when future events were described as being tens of thousands of days away.

“This is a new way to think about reaching goals that does not require willpower and is not about having character or caring,” explains psychological scientist and lead researcher Daphna Oyserman of the University of Southern California.

How soon is now?

The results showed that the time metric affected plans for action: Participants planned to start saving four times sooner in the “days” condition compared with the “years” condition, even after age, income and education were accounted for.

The data suggest that the critical factor underlying the effect was whether participants felt connected with their future selves, which fostered congruence between the future and the present. The researchers conclude that people may be able to get themselves working toward goals earlier by using smaller time metrics to feel closer to their future selves. When that happens, says Oyserman, “investing in the future does not seem like a sacrifice.”

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Oyserman says that this could prompt people to set aside spending on present-day rewards in favor of long-term saving.

This particular trick of time, she adds, “may be useful to anyone needing to save for retirement or their children’s college, to start working on a term paper or dissertation, pretty much anyone with long-term goals or wanting to support someone who has such goals.”

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