Are You A Procrastinator? Scientists Say This Brain Hack Can Help You Meet Your Goals

05/04/2015 05:21 pm ET | Updated May 14, 2015
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Having trouble motivating yourself to work toward a future goal? Whether what you want is two days or 20 years away, new research finds that the key to avoiding procrastination may be to change the way you think about time.

The trick? Break down the time you have into smaller units. For instance, if you have a paper due in three months, think of it as 90 days. Or if you have a work project to complete in three days, think of your deadline as 72 hours away.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Southern California, concludes that quantifying time in a more granular way -- no matter how much time that is -- can help you bring the future into the present, psychologically speaking.

And that's useful because as Dr. Daphna Oyserman, a psychologist at the University of Southern California and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post, you're more likely to put effort into immediate goals.

"People focus most of their attention on the present, which is for sure, rather than on the future, which is possible and may need our attention later," Oyserman said. "The present takes precedence."

In one experiment, 162 study participants were asked to imagine themselves preparing for a future event, such as a wedding or work presentation, and then told to consider the event as either days, months or years away. Those who thought about the time until the event in terms of days imagined that it would occur an average of 30 days earlier than those who thought in terms of months or years.

In another experiment, 1,100 participants were asked when they would start saving money for retirement or for a child's college education. Some participants were told they would retire 30 or 40 years from now; others that their work life would end in 10,950 or 14,600 days. Likewise, some participants were told that the college money would be needed in 18 years; others that college was looming in 6,570 days.

The result: People planned to start saving for a child's college or their own retirement four times sooner when they thought about that event as being days rather than years away.

That finding could be very useful in optimizing a savings plan, especially when it's a long-term one.

If you're just starting out in your career, retirement probably feels like a lifetime away. But imaging the end of your work life as some 15,000 days away (yes, it's a lot) could help motivate you to start saving and keep saving.

The technique is effective even when the goal is very far away, Oyserman said, because people tend to focus more on the unit of time -- the short period of a day -- than the actual number of days.

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