New study unlocks secret to avoiding procrastination

Macquarie University/The Lighthouse
Appropriately selected deadlines can signal urgency and importance of a task, which could put an end to procrastination, Macquarie University and Otago University experimental economists have found.

Deadlines keep us on track and help us organise our lives by motivating us to perform tasks in a timely fashion. Put simply, deadlines can stop us from procrastinating.

Is that the time?: We all tend to procrastinate about some things in our life, says Professor Servátka.

But the length of time given is ultimately what impacts whether and how long we’re likely to procrastinate about a task, as researchers have found that different deadline lengths may have different effects.

For example, while increasing the deadline length gives us more time to complete a task, it also means that the task could be postponed until later and possibly forgotten.

Macquarie Business School Professor Maroš Servátka and his Otago Business School co-authors Stephen Knowles, Trudy Sullivan, and Murat Genç conducted a field experiment to study the link between deadlines and the likelihood and timing of task completion.

The results show that associated deadlines indicate whether we feel that we need to complete the task promptly or whether we’ve essentially been given permission to procrastinate.

It is the first study to document a significant dip in completion rates for a long deadline relative to both a short deadline and no deadline at all.

We all tend to procrastinate about some things in our life, Professor Servátka says.

“But naïve procrastinators who postpone completing the task until tomorrow because they don’t want to do it now often don’t realise that eventually tomorrow will become today and they will be faced with the same problem,” he says.

“If they postpone the task once, they might do so again and again and possibly forget about it and miss the deadline.

“We conjectured that apart from giving people more or less time to complete the task, the deadline length might signal urgency and thus also the importance of the task, which in turn would impact the likelihood of the task being completed quickly or postponed and possibly forgotten about altogether.”

No deadline sends surprising signal

The experiment invited a nationally representative sample of 3276 New Zealanders to give up five minutes of their time to answer a survey, and in doing so, earn $10 that would be donated to charity by the researchers.

Later, gator: The more time you give someone to complete a task, the more likely that someone is to postpone it, the researchers found.

To test the effect of deadlines on completion rates, the research team gave one group of people a week deadline to complete the survey, while a second group were given a month. A third group of people were not given a deadline at all.

The completion rate was lowest for those given a month to respond. It was higher for those given one week’s deadline while the most surveys were completed when no deadline was specified.

People also responded quickly to no deadline or a one-week deadline, while providing a one‐month deadline led to much slower responses.

If we are given a short deadline, this means that the task is urgent, and therefore we are likely to prioritise that task.

The results show that associated deadlines indicate whether we feel that we need to complete the task promptly or whether we’ve essentially been given permission to procrastinate.

“If we are given a short deadline, this means that the task is urgent, and therefore we are likely to prioritise that task,” he says.

“If we are not given a deadline, the urgency is implied by the request itself. No deadline seems to signal that the task needs to be completed as soon as possible. If you tell me that it’s important and it’s going to generate value to you, then I place more weight on it in my mind and do it quickly.”

On the other hand, the more time you give someone to complete a task, the more likely that someone is to postpone it.

“By imposing a long deadline you are sending a signal that this task probably isn’t that urgent. So you are giving me an excuse to postpone the task. Eventually, I may even forget about the deadline.”

The findings have important policy implications both for maximising response rates for surveys, and charitable giving but also when assigning a deadline to an employee to finish a report or trying to get your spouse to complete a DIY project.

Hence, when you are trying to get people to do something for you, give them a short deadline or no deadline at all to imply urgency. Appropriately selected deadlines can signal the importance of the task, which increases the chance of completion as people are likely to get things done early on. This is particularly important in situations that do not feature natural reminders because once people postpone the task, they might forget about it.

Professor Maroš Servátka is the Director of Macquarie Business School Experimental Economics Laboratory.

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