Your Deadline is Today

Want to get a handle on those deadlines? Here’s tip: don’t think they’re in the future. They’re now.

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research has found that the subtle framing of deadlines can affect procrastination—if your report is due this month, on the 30th, you’re more likely to get it done soon than if it’s due next month on the 1st. Those deadlines aren’t all that different, but to your brain, this month versus next month seems very different.

To test the idea, researchers had 295 rural Indian farmers sit thorough a financial literacy lecture in June and July of 2010. At the end of the lecture, they were told that if they deposited 5,000 rupees in a savings account within six months, they’d get 20% matching funds. Amazingly, the farmers who were given the lecture in June were four times more likely to open an account right away. They were also six times more likely to meet the goal by the deadline. For the record, of the farmers who were lectured in June, 32% opened an account on the spot, and 28% made the deadline. Of those lectured in July, those numbers were only 8% and 4.5%, respectively.

Why? Well, the study’s authors argue that six months from June 2010 is still in 2010, but six months from July 2010 is in 2011. Even though it’s the same amount of time, we think of it as ‘the future’.

The researchers replicated the study, this time with business students at the University of Toronto (lest you think that rural Indian farmers are more susceptible to framing problems). The students were offered consulting work with deadlines either before or after a traditional formal student dinner. Those who had the deadline prior to the dinner said they were much more likely to start sooner than those with the post-dinner deadline.

So, the next time you have a Monday deadline, maybe you should write it down as the Friday before. So you’ll get started sooner.


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