Though we all make resolutions and set many goals, many of us feel 'tomorrow' is a good time to start, and tend to push it for the next day. Why?
Led by Sean McCrea of the University of Konstanz in Germany, an international team of psychologists are trying to find out if there might be a link between how we think of a task and our tendency to postpone it.
They said that putting things off leads not only to lost productivity but also to all sorts of hand wringing and regrets and damaged self-esteem.
The scientists wanted to find out, if we are more likely to see some tasks as psychologically "distant" and thus making us save them for later rather than tackling them now.
For the study, the psychologists handed out questionnaires to a group of students and asked them to respond by e-mail within three weeks. All the questions were regarding mundane tasks like opening a bank account and keeping a diary, but different students were given different instructions for answering the questions.
Some 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. The idea was to get some students thinking abstractly and others concretely.
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.
The findings clearly revealed that 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.
On the contrary, those who were focused on the how, when and where of doing the task e-mailed their responses much sooner, which indicated that they hopped right on the assignment rather than delaying it.
The authors noted: "merely thinking about the task in more concrete, specific terms makes it feel like it should be completed sooner and thus reducing procrastination."
They concluded that these results have important implications for teachers and managers who may want their students and employees starting on projects sooner.
Also, the findings are also relevant for those who resolve to have better time management skills in the New Year.
The study was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.