How to Avoid Procrastination: Think Concrete

New study finds procrastination is warded off by considering tasks in concrete terms.

Although procrastination is usually thought of as something to be avoided, this hasn’t always been the case. Surveying the history of procrastination Dr Piers Steel finds that before the industrial revolution procrastination might have been seen in neutral terms (Steel, 2007; PDF).

Nowadays, though, for those living in technically advanced societies, procrastination has become a ‘modern malady’: everything must be done now or, even better, three weeks ago. For good or evil there are now endless to-do lists to work through, appointments that must be kept and commitments that have to be fulfilled. Such is modern life.

Whatever the cause many people certainly view their procrastination as a problem. Psychologists have found that college students consider themselves champion procrastinators with almost half considering it problematic. Adults are not far behind with some 15-20% self-identifying as ‘chronic procrastinators’. Meanwhile the rest of us are guaranteed to procrastinate from time to time. So, perhaps psychology can offer some hope in the ongoing fight against procrastination.

It’s all in the construal

In a new study published recently in Psychological Science McCrea, Liberman, Trope & Sherman (2008) examined one possible technique for decreasing procrastination. From previous work they hypothesised that how much we procrastinate might be affected by the level at which we construe it. Across three studies two levels of construing tasks were examined:

  1. Abstract construal. Say you want to cut the grass, an abstract construal would have you imagining those beautiful stripes imparted by your roller-mower and how beautiful your garden will look once it’s done. Perhaps you’ll be reminded of the grass courts of Wimbledon and then how the smell takes you back to the time when…well, you get the picture!
  2. Concrete construal. Now, instead of being carried off by a flight of fancy, concrete-construers would concentrate on whether the grass is wet, what length to cut it and whether there’s any petrol left in the mower.

The three studies used different methods to get participants into one of these two modes of thinking but my favourite involves a painting by pointillist Georges-Pierre Seurat. Participants were presented with one of the two pictures below just before they were asked to complete a simple survey.


In the first experimental condition participants looked at the full painting of La Parade (1889) (picture 1) and were told it is a good example of neo-impressionism in which the artist was using order and colour to invoke emotion and harmony.

In the second condition participants just saw the detail (picture 2) and were told that this demonstrated the pointillist technique of using contrasting points of colour to build up an image.

After this both groups completed the same survey which they were asked to return within three weeks. The survey’s question, however, were essentially irrelevant, the only thing experimenters were interested in was how long participants took to complete and return the questionnaire. This was their measure of procrastination.

The results of this apparently simple manipulation were striking. Those who were thinking about the techniques of pointillism (concrete construal) returned their questionnaires in an average of 12.5 days while those thinking about emotion and harmony (abstract construal) took almost twice as long at an average of 20.5 days. This is an impressive result which seems to point to one very straightforward way of avoiding procrastination: to get tasks done, make sure you focus on the details.

Another reason this research is potentially very useful is its simplicity. Many of the other techniques for avoiding procrastination seem to involve a lot of mental effort – surely not good for procrastinators! Steel (2007) mentions things like increasing the expectation of success, increasing the value of the task and reducing distractions – all good suggestions but largely effortful. For example it’s difficult to increase your expectation of success without the evidence of having completed a similar task successfully. In other words you have to do the task to find out you can do it – exactly what procrastinators are avoiding!

There is, however, another simple technique for avoiding procrastination that has been examined experimentally: using deadlines. Ariely and Wertenbroch (2002) found that self-imposed deadlines were effective in improving task performance but, watch out, people aren’t as good at setting their own deadlines as they are at conforming to deadlines set externally. Strangely, when left to their own devices, people seem prone to handicapping themselves with irrational deadlines.

Self-control and procrastination

Although McCrea and colleagues’ new research has a neat conclusion, it’s vital to consider it in the context of two other studies recently covered here – these show that concrete, low-level construals aren’t always the answer.

In the first on self-control experimenters found that higher level construals increased self-control (Fujita et al., 2006). At first glance this appears to be saying the exact opposite of the present study – that procrastination is decreased by higher-level construals – but they are actually looking at subtly different situations.

Here’s why: in the present study participants were being asked to carry out a task which they didn’t place much value on and was very easy, it was just something that had to be done at some point, a chore. In other words people weren’t debating with themselves whether the task had to be done, just when it had to be done. In Fujita’s study, however, looking at self-control, it was a question of whether or not participants would do a task. It’s the dimension of time, then, that most distinguishes between procrastination and self-control. Concrete, low-level construals help you start a task sooner but don’t help you decide to do it in the first place.

A second study covered here recently looked at how to get big projects done. This added another piece to the picture, suggesting that a low-level, task focus was a great way of coping with demotivating failures on hard tasks. This adds another piece to the jigsaw puzzle of how we can get things done. In fact taken together these studies start to uncover the complexities inherent in procrastination and self-control.

Summary: how to get things done

Here’s a summary of the main conclusions from all the studies discussed:

  1. To avoid procrastinating on a task, focus on its details and use self-imposed deadlines.
  2. To stick to a task, while actually carrying it out, now it is beneficial to keep the ultimate, abstract goal in mind.
  3. When evaluating progress on a hard task, when the chance of failure is high, stay focused on the details of the task.
  4. Once tasks are easier or the end is in sight, a more abstract, goal focus is once again the psychological approach to choose.

So, whether or not you feel procrastination is something in need of a ‘cure’, McCrea and colleagues’ study does show that a very simple manipulation of our thought processes can be incredibly powerful. Who would have thought pointillism could save us from procrastination?

[Image credit: monsieurlam]

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Published: 29 January 2009

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