Why can it take us so long to get around to the things we’ve said we’d do? Researchers have set their sights on that most human of flaws: procrastination. Turns out, if you want someone to do you a favour, set the right deadline – and play the guilt card.
Back in March, my mother called from Poland to ask if I could paint a particular sunset scene for her sister. I’d recently put up a work-in-progress photo on my Instagram account of a painting I’d been commissioned to make as an engagement present for a friend, and my aunt, upon seeing it, instantly became besotted.
“Of course!” I said. “I’ll get onto it soon.” It’s now mid-November, and I have yet to buy the canvas, let alone put brush to paper. Over the year, I thought sporadically about doing the painting, but somehow it’s never eventuated.
I’d actually totally forgotten about it – until I came across a new paper, titled Procrastination and the non‐monotonic effect of deadlines on task completion, co-authored by New Zealand and Australian researchers.
Behavioural economists Stephen Knowles, professor of economics at New Zealand’s Otago University, and Maroš Servátka, professor of experimental economics at Macquarie Business School, initially set out to test whether giving people deadlines to donate money to charity would result in more donations.
More broadly speaking, they wanted to know if deadlines – short, long or none at all – are helpful when it comes to doing someone a favour.
“We wanted to test how likely people are to complete a voluntary task where there isn’t much information about how urgent the task is, or any reminders to do it – so it’s not a work deadline or filing a tax return, for example,” explains Knowles. (In short, nothing that has a big consequence attached to it, like getting fired or paying a large tax bill).
To find out how effective deadline lengths are for completing a task for a friend or colleague, Knowles, Servátka and co-authors Trudy Sullivan and Murat Genç invited more than 3,000 New Zealanders to complete a survey in which a donation goes to charity, giving them either one week, one month or no deadline by which to respond.
They thought that those given the short deadline of a week would respond the most, given the implied urgency of the task. As it turned out, they thought wrong.
“We got the highest response rate for our survey when we didn’t specify a deadline at all,” says Knowles. “As it turned out, having no deadline was better than having a long deadline [of a month] and better than a short one.”
This surprising result says something about procrastination – and the often irrational ways humans tend to behave, despite other schools of economics (such as classical) asserting that people are rational beings who always act in their own self-interest.
“Experiments are a great way to falsify our beliefs,” Servátka says. “Whenever we find out that we were wrong, we learn something new and expand our understanding of human behaviour.”
University of Technology Sydney (UTS) assistant professor in economics Elif Incekara-Hafalir explains that rationally, the more resources someone has – whether that’s time, money, energy, or all three – the better the outcomes they’re expected to achieve.
“And in a perfect world they would – if it weren’t for all these other psychological factors that also influence decision-making, such as inattention, forgetfulness and procrastination,” she says.
And while the results show that infinite time to do something seems to work better than any time set, it’s important to note that out of the 3000 people asked to participate, only 7% returned the survey at all.
For Servátka, the unexpected results were a fascinating foray into the human mind and what motivates us. While deadlines may incentivise people to perform tasks they have been procrastinating on (such as painting a sunset for their auntie), deadline lengths may have different effects.
“Deadlines can signal the urgency and importance of the tasks,” he says. “Short deadlines indicate utmost urgency, which I impose upon you. Yet long deadlines imply no urgency, as I’m signalling for you to take your time, no rush.”
Strangely, no deadline also implies urgency: “You know it’s important to the person who has asked you, who really wants you to finish the task.”
So what does this have to do with procrastination? Well, it seems that the longer you have to do something, the more likely you are to put it off – unless you have infinite time to do it in.
“If you’ve got a month to do it, you’ll probably put it off until next week, then keep putting it off until you eventually forget about it,” Knowles says. “The results show that if given too long a timeframe, most of us will procrastinate, as we tend to put too much weight on what’s happening in the present rather than what may happen in the future.”
However, when there is no deadline, chances are we will eventually remember that we need to do the task, and complete it out of guilt.
But there is a catch: Incekara-Hafalir says that while no deadline signals an extension of a resource – in this case, time – which, in a rational world, will deliver better results, it can also go the opposite way.
“If you’re a serious procrastinator and if you totally forget about the task after one day, then deadlines may be better for you after all,” she points out.
The trick with beating procrastination, explains Servátka, is knowing what kind of procrastinator you are – and taking the necessary steps to address it.
“There are naive procrastinators and sophisticated procrastinators,” he says. “The naive ones will assume they will always remember when they actually forget. Sophisticated procrastinators, on the other hand, are aware of whatever it is that makes them procrastinate, and they take measures to stop that, such as setting internal deadlines, calendar reminders, visual cues etc.”
As for how you can best ensure people actually do the favour you ask of them, Knowles says setting the right timeframe is crucial.
“Give either a short deadline or no deadline – you do not want to give them a long deadline,” he says. “That said, don’t give a too-short deadline either, because then they may not have the time to do it. The longer you give someone to complete a task, the more chance there is they will do it.”
I guess this bodes well for my aunt: I went out and finally bought the canvas. As Knowles points out, the longer we wait to do something for someone, the heavier the guilt weighs upon us.
The good news is, we can always reverse this guilt – provided we complete the task.
Caroline Zielinski is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne. She writes on health, science, social affairs and all issues related to women