Future, imperfect and tense

Time LostIF YOU want something done, the saying goes, give it to a busy person. It is an odd way to guarantee hitting deadlines. But a paper recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests it may, in fact, be true—as long as the busy person conceptualises the deadline in the right way.

Yanping Tu of the University of Chicago and Dilip Soman of the University of Toronto examined how individuals go about both thinking about and completing tasks. Previous studies have shown that such activity progresses through four distinct phases: pre-decision, post-decision (but pre-action), action and review. It is thought that what motivates the shift from the decision-making stages to the doing-something stage is a change in mindset.

Human beings are a deliberative sort, weighing the pros and cons of future actions and remaining open to other ideas and influences. However, once a decision is taken, the mind becomes more “implemental” and focuses on the task at hand. “The mindset towards ‘where can I get a sandwich’,” explains Ms Tu, “is more implemental than the mindset towards ‘should I get a sandwich or not?’”

Ms Tu and Dr Soman advise in their paper that “the key step in getting things done is to get started.” But what drives that? They believe the key that unlocks the implemental mode lies in how people categorise time. They suggest that tasks are more likely to be viewed with an implemental mindset if an imposed deadline is cognitively linked to “now”—a so-called like-the-present scenario. That might be a future date within the same month or calendar year, or pegged to an event with a familiar spot in the mind’s timeline (being given a task at Christmas, say, with a deadline of Easter). Conversely, they suggest, a deadline placed outside such mental constructs (being “unlike-the-present”) exists merely as a circle on a calendar, and as such is more likely to be considered deliberatively and then ignored until the last minute.

To flesh out this idea, the pair carried out five sets of tests, with volunteers ranging from farmers in India to undergraduate students in Toronto. In one test, the farmers were offered a financial incentive to open a bank account and make a deposit within six months. The researchers predicted those approached in June would consider a deadline before December 31st as like-the-present. Those approached in July, by contrast, received a deadline into the next year, and were expected to think of their deadline as unlike-the-present. The distinction worked. Those with a deadline in the same year were nearly four times more likely to open the account immediately as those for whom the deadline lay in the following year. Arbitrary though calendars may be in dividing up time’s continuous flow, they influence the way humans think about time.

The effect can manifest itself in even subtler ways. In another set of experiments, undergraduate students were given a calendar on a Wednesday and were asked to suggest an appropriate day to carry out certain tasks before the following Sunday. The trick was that some were given a calendar with all of the weekdays coloured purple, with weekends in beige (making a visual distinction between a Wednesday and the following Sunday). Others were given a calendar in which every other week, Monday to Sunday, was a solid colour (meaning that a Wednesday and the following Sunday were thus in the same week, and in the same colour). Even this minor visual cue affected how like- or unlike-the-present the respondents tended to view task priorities.

These and other bits of framing and trickery in the research support the same thesis: that making people link a future event to today triggers an implemental response, regardless of how far in the future the deadline actually lies. If the journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step, the authors might suggest that you take that step before this time next week.

Note: The text for this final Babbage post was originally submitted some four weeks ago. The editor claims full responsibility for procrastinating over the post’s production and publication, blaming his conception of time for the delay.

This article was published in The Economist on 3rd October 2014.  See this link.

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