Why We Procrastinate

procrastinationThe ever engaging Wray Herbert has a terrific piece in Newsweek on why we procrastinate called The Lure of Tomorrow.  

He discusses a study at the University of Konstanz in Germany that focused on the procrastination question by testing the psychological distance theory – the more geographically removed something is, the more likely we are to think of it as less detailed and less concrete than something nearby.  In this case, the researchers tested the same idea as applied to tasks by assessing whether vague, abstract tasks were easier to avoid than those with detailed, concrete parameters.  From the article:

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.

The moral of the story — if you want to get something done, make it clear, concrete, detailed and specific.  The more abstract and open-ended a task is, the more likely we are to procrastinate. I can’t imagine more practical wisdom resulting from psychological research.  Quoting Herbert:

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.

Hat tip to Wray for a great and refreshingly useful article.

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