'Concrete' Ways to Beat Procrastination

Study Shows Thinking Concretely Can Triumph Over an Abstract Approach

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on January 15, 2009
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Jan. 15, 2009 -- Go ahead, do it. Don't wait. It won't get easier. There won't be a better time. So start. Right now. Just stop procrastinating, already!

Chances are you've given yourself such admonitions many times, and chances are also good you will again, concludes an international team of psychologists.

Procrastination is a costly psychological trait that almost all people share, but it may be possible to conquer it, says Sean McCrea of the University of Konstanz in Germany, who led the team of psychologists that studied the phenomenon. The study is published in the December 2008 edition of Psychological Science.

So what did they find? People are more apt to procrastinate when they think of tasks abstractly instead of in concrete terms.

The psychologists conducted a series of three studies of university students. For example, the first study handed out questionnaires to 34 students and asked each to respond by email within three weeks.

The questions had to do with mundane things, such as keeping a diary or opening a bank account. But different students were given different instructions on how to answer the questions.

The idea was to get some students thinking abstractly and others concretely about the same kinds of tasks.

So some students were instructed to write about characteristics of each activity, such as what kind of person has a bank account. Others were instructed to write about the nuts and bolts of doing such activities, such as speaking to a bank employee, filling out forms, or making a deposit.

The researchers recorded the response times of the students to see if there was a difference between those asked abstract questions and those asked concrete questions.

The study shows that students who answered the more abstract questions were much more likely to procrastinate -- that is, delay their answers. The researchers found that students who were focused on the concrete technicalities of a task, such as how to open a bank account, answered more quickly.

The study suggests it's easier to handle a question of how than one of why. "Merely thinking about the task in more concrete, specific terms makes it feel like it should be completed sooner," which reduces procrastination, the researchers write.

An approaching deadline can spur procrastinators into action. "It may be only when a deadline is looming that they first consider the specifics of a task, including what will be required to complete it, the context in which it will take place, and other details," the researchers write. "If thinking about a task more concretely enables people to get started, manipulating this variable directly should affect when they are likely to complete the task."

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McCrea, S. Psychological Science, December 2008; vol 19: pp 1308-1314.

News release, Association for Psychological Science.

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