The Lure of Tomorrow

Late holiday shoppers will soon be rushing out to get the things they’d planned to buy way back in November, when they made those well-intentioned lists. And by New Year’s, people will start thinking about projects: updating that resume, cleaning out the attic, starting that exercise routine. But the sad reality is that most of us will not follow through on these commitments, and not because we’re insincere. We’ll just never get to day one. Tomorrow is always a better time to get going.

And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Procrastination is a curse, and a costly one. Putting things off leads not only to lost productivity, but also to 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 fundamentally misguided in the way we think about plans and effort and work? Is there some perverse habit of mind that automatically dampens our sense of urgency? Are we programmed for postponement and delay?

An international team of psychologists has begun exploring these questions in the laboratory. Led by Sean McCrea of the University of Konstanz in Germany, the researchers wanted to see if there might be a link between how we think of a task and our tendency to postpone it. In other words, are we more likely to see some tasks as psychologically “distant” and thus to consign them to some vague future rather than tackle them now?

Psychological distance is a well-documented idea. It’s been shown that people think of geographically distant events and ideas as less detailed and concrete than things taking place nearby. So for example, “locking the door” means simply turning the key here at home, but locking the door 3,000 miles away means security and personal safety. McCrea and his colleagues suspected that this same cognitive oddity might show up in the way we think about time and tasks. That is, vague, abstract tasks might be easier to mentally postpone into the future than concrete tasks. They decided to test this notion in a few simple experiments.

Here’s an example. The psychologists 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 rather 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 they 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. Even though they were all being paid upon completion, those in a what-does-it-all-mean mentality 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.

This makes sense in an odd sort of way. When you first think about the possibility of trying something new, you’re focused on why: What’s the purpose? Does it make sense for me to do this? It’s still just a distant possibility, and these are the things that matter. Only as you get closer to actually taking on the task do you start to think of the more immediate how-to details. So conversely, thinking about the how-to of a job gives it immediacy — and urgency.

Even so, the scientists decided to double-check their initial findings with a different kind of laboratory technique. In this experiment, the task was to complete sentence fragments, either in an abstract or a concrete way. For example, some might complete this fragment: “An example of a bird is ______.” Others completed this kind of fragment: “A bird is an example of ______.” The first requires a concrete example — an indigo bunting, for example, or scarlet tanager — while the second asks for an abstract category — warm-blooded vertebrates, say. So again the experiment primed one cognitive style or the other, and again the psychologists logged in the e-mail response times.

The findings, reported in the December issue of the journal Psychological Science, were very clear. Even though the sentence fragments really had nothing to do with the actual task, those primed for concrete thinking were much less apt to delay and postpone than were those primed for abstract thinking. They saw the task as more immediate and acted with more urgency. Those prompted to give vague and amorphous answers were indecisive.

Lots of psychology experiments don’t have a practical take-home message, but these do. You know that exercise routine you’ve been talking about starting up in January? Well, forget about how virtuous it is, or how healthy, or how it might boost your confidence. Instead, think about putting on your sneakers and tying them, one at a time; entering the front door of the gym and walking to the first treadmill you see; stepping aboard and starting to move your legs, right leg first. ♦

For more insights into human nature by Wray Herbert, see the blog We’re Only Human at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman

Copyright © 2008 by Newsweek, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

Observer Vol.22, No.1 January, 2009

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