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When’s the last time you put off a chore or an assignment to watch TV or just mess around on the internet?
Procrastination has been the bane of our existence for hundreds of years. But although procrastinators are often thought of as having poor time management, research suggests they really have a problem with regulating their emotions.
As Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, told the Association for Psychological Science’s Observer, “to tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”
Fortunately, there are some things you can do avoid this tendency, as Rachel Sugar wrote for us last year. Here are some of the ways you can be more productive and feel better about yourself:
Break up a bigger task into smaller steps
What’s the best way to eat an elephant? One piece at a time. And the same is true of anything you’ve been procrastinating on.
In a 2014 study, researchers asked several dozen college students to carry one of two buckets to the end of a walkway. One bucket was closer to the student, and one was closer to the end of the hall. The researchers expected people to pick the bucket that was closer to the end of the hall, but in fact, many students picked the other bucket, even though it meant they had to carry it farther.
The study authors called this “pre-crastination,” or the tendency to complete tasks quickly just for the sake of getting them done sooner rather than later. But you can use this to your advantage to avoid procrastinating: “Break larger tasks into smaller ones. Such smaller tasks, when completed, will promote a sense of accomplishment, will bring one closer to the final goal,” they wrote in Scientific American last year.
Bundle the good with the bad
Katy Milkman, a behavioral economist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, has come up with a brilliant way to get you to do things you don’t want to do by combining them with things you do want to do, a concept called “temptation bundling.”
For example, if you want to make yourself go to the gym more and you also like reading the Hunger Games, you could try listening to the audiobooks while you’re at the gym.
In a 2013 study, Milkman and colleagues did just that. They recruited 226 university students, faculty, and staff and divided them into three groups. One group was given iPods with gym-only access to popular audiobooks, another group was given free unrestricted access to the audiobooks but encouraged to only listen at the gym, and a third group was just given a Barnes and Noble gift certificate.
The gym-only group and the encouragement group visited the gym 51% and 29% more often than the gift certificate group, respectively. Although the effects declined over time (possibly due to the Thanksgiving break), 61% of the volunteers said they would pay to continue to have gym-only access to the books.
Think in days, not years
One of the problems with procrastination scientists have identified is we tend to think of our future selves as different from our present selves.
In a 2015 study, researchers asked people when they would start saving for future events, such as their child’s college education or retirement, when the time until the event was presented in either days, months, or years.
People were much more likely to say they would start saving sooner when the time was presented in days. The adults in the study said the event seemed almost a month sooner when presented in days instead of months, and 8.7 months sooner when presented in months rather than years. And students in the study said the event seemed 16.3 days sooner when presented in days instead of months and 11.4 months sooner when presented in months instead of years.
The findings suggest that thinking in days makes us feel less disconnected from our future selves.
So next time you’re tempted to put off that assignment to watch one more YouTube video, why not give these strategies a try? Your future self will thank you.