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If you want to meet that deadline, play a trick on your mind


Stashed in: Procrastination

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Immediacy works.

Recognizing that the hardest part of many tasks is beginning them at all, two researchers have sought to determine whether certain outside cues can jump-start us toward reaching our goals. Such cues, which manipulate our perception of time, are simple yet effective,according to a recent article in the Journal of Consumer Research.

In one study, conducted in 2010, the researchers asked two groups of farmers in India to set up a bank account and accumulate a certain amount of money by a deadline, offering extra money as an incentive. One group was approached in June, with a deadline of December that year. The second group was approached in July with a deadline of January the next year.

The farmers in the first group were more likely to set up an account immediately, even though both groups had the same amount of time. That’s because the deadline was in the same year as the assignment and therefore seemed more like the present, said Yanping Tu, a Ph.D. candidate at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago. She performed the research along with Dilip Soman, a marketing professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. (Lest you think that only farmers in India would benefit from this approach, the two researchers also found similar results among undergraduates and M.B.A. students in North America.)

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In a separate study, the researchers also found that people were “more likely to start working on a task whose deadline is in the current month than in the next month,” even though the number of days to finish the task was the same, Ms. Tu said.

Color can also influence the perception of time, she said. She and Professor Soman found that simply by coding a stretch of calendar days in the same color — say, blue — with an assignment occurring on the first “blue” day and the deadline set for the last “blue” day, people were more likely to complete the tasks. Once again, this serves to make the future deadline seem more like the present. (Managers, are you listening? Get out your crayons.)

Research into procrastination has noted that people have much less concern about their future selves than their present selves — and are willing to sell their future selves down the river for the sake of present ease. But when the present marches into the future, and we are confronted with the work that our past selves refused to do, we pay the price in unmet deadlines, all-nighters and general torment.

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