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11 May

Make ”later” into ”now”, and get started faster

Datum: 2023-05-11 14:05
Red pin on a paper calendar on a blueish background.

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.

Try this

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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