One of my favorite sayings about innovation is from the science fiction writer William Gibson, who said that the future already exists, but it’s unevenly distributed.
It highlights how, when it comes to innovation, we often don’t need to look into the distant future to see how things might unfold.
How the future reduces procrastination
Alas, it seems that hunting the future may also have an impact on how we procrastinate, at least according to a recent study from the University of Southern California.
The authors set out to explore why we dally so much on important decisions, whether it’s saving for retirement or even fulfilling our New Year’s resolutions. The answer, they suggest, rests in how we think about the future.
“The simplified message that we learned in these studies is if the future doesn’t feel imminent, then, even if it’s important, people won’t start working on their goals,” they reveal.
How we perceive the future
The researchers discovered that people would often regard the future as much closer if they framed any upcoming goals or deadlines in terms of days rather than months and years.
They suggest that this simple alteration can be much more effective in ensuring we accomplish the goals we set ourselves.
“So when I think in a more granular way — when I use days rather than years — it makes me feel like the future is closer,” they say. “If you see it as ‘today’ rather than on your calendar for sometime in the future, you’re not going to put it off.”
Participants in the study were asked to picture themselves preparing for an important event some time in the future (a presentation at work for instance). They were also asked to imagine when the event might take place.
Some participants were told it would be months away, whilst others were told it was merely a matter of days into the future.
Interestingly, those who framed their future in terms of days performed much better on the task than those who framed it in terms of months, even if the actual timeframe was identical.
For instance, we seem to perform better on a task when we think it’s 29 days away than we do when we think it is 1 month away.
This hypothesis was tested again in a second study, this time exploring the age old problem of saving for retirement. Over 1,000 people were asked about their retirement plans.
One group were told that they would need the money in either 18 years or 6,570 days time. Another group were told that they would retire in 30 years time, or 10,950 days.
The results showed that people started saving around four times faster when their retirement was framed in terms of days rather than years.
When participants were quizzed on this, they revealed that they generally felt more connected to their future when they thought of it in terms of days, which in turn made them more likely to plan accordingly for it.
It’s something I’m sure we could all use some help with, so maybe the next time you want to behave well for your future self, you should think in terms of days.