A while back I wrote about how we can make it easier to get going with tasks if we set a due date that appears closer to, and more ”alike”, the present moment by setting it on this side of a certain breaking point such as the turn of the year, the turn of the month, Christmas, summer holidays or something similar. The idea originated from a study recently conducted by Yanping Tu at the University of Chicago and Dilip Soloman at the University of Toronto.
For you who prefer listening to reading, this post is also available as an episode of the “Done!” podcast:
Another experiment conducted within the same study was one that tested another type of similarity, and these results are applicable in a sightly different way than I last suggested.
Nine boxes in a row
In the experiment, 215 people were presented with a timeline spanning over nine days where every day was represented by a box — quite simply, nine boxes in a row. The box furthest to the left represented ”today” and the box to the far right a final deadline. The box in the middle, the fifth counting from today, represented a partial deadline.
For half the people presented with the timeline, the first five boxes had the same color, but day six through nine had a different color which made the day of the partial deadline (day five) look like ”today”. For the other half of the participants, day one though four were of the same color, while day five though nine had another color, hence making the day of the partial deadline look different from the box representing ”today” and alike the box representing the final deadline.
”Like today” is almost ”today”
A number of tests were then run, and without getting into further detail about those, it turned out that in a final memory-test a significant majority of the people who were given a timeline with the same color for day one through five, recalled that the day of the partial deadline was closer to today than the day of the final deadline (in spite of it being located in the middle of the timeline). The researchers concluded that when the day of the deadline appears alike to today, we perceive it as being closer to the present moment than if it looks or appears different from today. If the deadline is ”like today” we tend to begin working towards it sooner than if it is perceived as ”some other day, later on”.
If we have a propensity to postpone things we have to do, we can use these results to our advantage by making ourselves get going sooner if we make deadline (and the time running up to it) appear more alike the present day.
If you want to make yourself start working towards a deadline early on, then illustrate the time until the deadline (perhaps when you are planning and setting your schedule) in a format that makes the days until the due date look alike. You can for instance:
- Use the scrolling mode in the calendar on your Mac. Set the number of days per week to five, and you will only see the workdays of the week. Then in the weekly view, swipe left and right with two fingers and the more or less identical days will roll back and forth in time before you.
- Flip through the monthly view in Outlook. Or, if it is possible in the calendar you use, scroll through the weekly overview.
- Create a timeline in Excel. Here are instructions on how to make one..
- Create a nice illustrated timeline in Northwestern University’s Knightlab’s service TimelineJS.
- Take an empty sheet of paper or get yourself to your whiteboard and draw as many squares or boxes as the number of days left until deadline. Be careful not to categorize the days in any way, but draw them as alike as possible — same color, same symbols, same shape. As the days go by, you cross of the days that pass so it becomes clear that the deadline is approaching.
- Or, draw the remaining time until the project or task is due in an entirely different way, making sure that the days ahead looks alike.
Less postponing and higher quality
If we do indeed regard the days until deadline as being similar to today, such as Tu’s and Soloman’s research suggests we ought to, we will progress and accomplish our goals a lot faster. We no longer have to procrastinate and finish things under pressure at last minute. We get things done with greater foresight and have time to make final touches before everything is due, which means that we get to deliver a finished product or service with a higher quality.
What is your way?
Do you have some other ingenious way to draw a timeline than the ones suggested above? Show me!
(Timelines are great, but here are four more ways to make your deadlines visible.)