How good we are at preparing for the future depends on when, exactly, we envision the future being. Procrastinators waste time until the last possible second before getting down to business. Thus, minimizing procrastination might just be a matter of tricking your mind into thinking that second is now.
In a new study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers found that manipulating the metric by which the future is measured—in years, months, or days—can change how people prepare for that future. In several different tests, participants perceived the future as much more imminent if they were primed to think of a deadline in days, rather than months.
In one trial, 162 people were asked to imagine preparing for some future event, like a wedding or a work presentation. Those who were asked to think of the time until the event in days perceived it as happening 296 days sooner than those who were asked to think of the time in months or years. In another test, 1100 participants were primed to think about college or retirement. They were told retirement, for instance, would start in 30 years or in 10,950 days. Participants planned to start saving four times sooner if they thought of retirement as 10,950 days away.
The researchers, from the University of Michigan and the University of Southern California, argue that when people think of the future in days, they feel less disconnected from their future self. They begin thinking of themselves as that retiree or that bride, rather than feeling like their future self is a completely different person from their current one. Or people are just really bad at math and can’t figure out how many years 10,950 days equates to.