When you realise you need to get something done, you probably think to yourself, “I have to do that soon.” But that type of thinking disrupts your motivation in two ways: by messing with your sense of time and robbing you of urgency.
A recent study from the University of Toronto, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, suggests you can help your productivity by focusing on the why instead of the when or even the how. Part of the problem is the way we estimate time in our heads, leaning on relative estimates like “soon” instead objective units like “days.” And even when we do apply objective time estimates, we still might fall back on the abstract, thinking of the timeframe as “now,” “soon,” or “later.” When you do that, your objective estimates don’t necessarily match up with your relative estimates. What does “soon” really mean to you? Is it sometime today? Tomorrow? Or is it weeks from now? It may depend on the task, but it’s clear you can’t rely on such a strategy.
Lead study author Jing Hu has a couple suggestions when it comes to planning your tasks. First, start with a concrete mindset and avoid nebulous, abstract thinking. Use objective units to plan out when something should be done, then put yourself in the right frame of mind to maintain a sense of urgency. Ask yourself why you need to get that task done, then hold onto that thought, or mark it on your schedule as a reminder.
This works for bigger work projects, but it’s also effective for something as simple as using a gift card that’s going to expire. Typical thinking would look like, “Oh, I should use that soon.” But it’s better to think, “Oh, If I don’t use that in the next week, it will expire.” Now there’s a concrete time limit, and a clear reason why it should be done. This puts the pressure on just enough that you might actually use it in time.
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