Time can be deceiving. Before you know it, the future has turned into the present. Everything that was to be completed in what appeared to be a distant future, suddenly needs to be accomplished and finished now, or at least very soon.
As long as our deadline is well ahead of our present moment, we can choose to do other things right now. But before you know it we are running out of time and no longer have a choice — regardless what other tasks we have to complete, our priorities are now determined for us.
For you who prefer listening to reading, this post is also available as an episode of the “Done!” podcast:
Somewhat of a shock
And yet somehow we manage to make it all come together in the end, just on time but at the very last second. It was a close call, we might have made a few mistakes while rushing through our task, and completing it definitely wasn’t a pleasant experience.
I understand that there is an attraction and even enjoyment in working hard and intensely for a while and then relax knowing that ”I did it, I pulled through!” — in the same way as I am fascinated by my new habit of taking ice-cold dips in the ocean (it was 11,9 degrees Celsius last Sunday) and feel the rush running through my body as I get up into the only slightly warmer wind. But, just as little as I would want to take these cold baths several times a day, would I want to finish everything last minute.
Two oldies but goldies
Surely it would be nice to get started on tasks we are prone to procrastinate at least a little sooner than usual? Because, whether you are aware of it or not, the deadlines of tasks can in fact be quite deceiving. They have a tendency to always appear due more or less ”later — later — later — later”, but before you know it, ”later” has turned into ”now”.
One strategy for beginning your doings sooner is to divide the work into small, concrete steps which we refer to as to-do-tasks. Another approach is scheduling time in the calendar (and doing so early on!) when we will do the task, even if it does not require us doing it at a certain date and time (despite that it is precisely this — that something is somehow dependent on a certain day and time to be done — that constitutes the criteria for if we should put something in our calendar or not).
How do we perceive time?
But we can also help ourselves in other ways. In a reasonably recent study conducted by Yanping Tu (University of Chicago) and Dilip Soman (University of Toronto), the researchers investigated how the perspective and perception we have of time influences when in time we decide to do a task that has a definite deadline. Two of the experiments regarded two common reference points we use when categorizing and measuring time; the turn of the year and the turn of each month.
A group of test subjects in the first experiment were in June asked to perform a task within the next six months, meaning at the latest on the 31st of December. Another group were asked to perform the same task in the span of six months, but were given the assignment in July, and hence had until the last of January to complete their task. The researchers found that the former group, who had a deadline within the current year, generally began their task sooner than the second group.
In the second experiment, the participants were told to grade the following scenario on a scale from 1 – 9, where 1 represented ”definitely now” and 9 ”definitely later”. They were asked when they would begin a task (that required four hours of their time to complete) if they were given the task on the 24th of April, the 25th, the 26th or the 27th, and its deadline was set for five days later, meaning on the 29th of April for the first task, the 30th for the second, the 1st of May for the third and the 2nd of May for the fourth. The people given tasks with a deadline in the same month generally indicated that they would begin working on the task sooner than those given tasks with deadlines in the following month, even though they all had an equal amount of days to complete the task in.
This suggested that deadlines occurring in the current year and current month were perceived as much ”closer to the present”, while the deadlines set for next year and next month were regarded as ”further away from the present”, and the researchers hence concluded that how we experience and perceive time influences our propensity to begin working on tasks.
If you want to put the results of this study to the test, make your deadlines appear closer to the present moment. You could for instance do so in two ways:
- Set the deadline on this side of what to you marks a clear break in the calendar, such as the turn of the month. If the actual deadline is sometime next month, set it for the last day of this month anyway. If something needs to be done towards the end of January, set a deadline for yourself before the turn of the year.
- Instead of formulating a deadline as being finished ”after winter-break”, choose to write ”before Easter” instead. Something that is on ”this side” of the breaking point in question, such as Easter in the example, is perceived as closer to the present than a day occurring ”after” the breaking point, which is consequently perceived as further into the future. Even if ”before Easter” technically could be further ahead in time than ”after winter-break”, the chances are actually greater that you still begin the task sooner than you otherwise would, simply because our minds still perceive ”before Easter” as more urgent and closer to the present day.
The breaking points we commonly use in our work can be excellent tools for getting things done sooner, so let us play around with them a little. How could we use ”Halloween”, ”Thanksgiving”, ”Christmas”, ”New Years”, ”First quarter”, ”Second quarter”, ”Midsummer”, ”Vacation”, ”August”, ”next six months”, and other turning points or time-related milestones throughout the year when we formulate deadlines in such a way that it benefits our motivation to get things done sooner?
The sooner you get going, the sooner it will be done
If you formulate your deadlines in such a way that they appear more alike and closer to the present, you will, if the conclusions drawn from the study are accurate, most likely get going with tasks sooner than what you are otherwise inclined to.
We might possibly feel that there are suddenly an awful lot of things that need to be done ”now” rather than ”later”, but perhaps it is preferable to feel eager and on your toes now, than exhausted and stressed when the deadline is upon you, and what we had perceived as ”later” suddenly has turned into ”now”.
What is your method?
How do you set deadlines in a way that make you more inclined to meeting them? Tell me!
(On another note, have you heard about the benefits of setting approximate deadlines?)
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