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Your Deadline Is Now

We get started faster when deadlines feel like they're in the present.
(Photo: jonathan_bliss/Flickr)

(Photo: jonathan_bliss/Flickr)

The hardest part of getting things done, it seems, is getting them started. If that sounds like you—or more to the point, the people you depend on—here’s a tip: Don’t let your deadlines drift into the future. Set them for right now.

To be clear, “right now” doesn’t mean right this second, but it does mean now, as in this month, this year, or whatever time-frame feels most like the present rather than the future.

Don’t let your deadlines drift into the future. Set them for right now.

Yanping Tu, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and Dilip Soman reached that conclusion after conducting a series of experiments that manipulated the way that people thought about time—in particular, how they categorized a particular event as being in the present or in the future. Deadlines set in the present ought to encourage people to get going with their work, the researchers hypothesized, while setting them in the future—early next month, say, or early next year—could encourage procrastination.

To test that idea, Tu and Soman first recruited 295 farmers in rural India who had attended a lecture on financial literacy in June and July of 2010. After the lecture, researchers approached the farmers one-on-one and encouraged them to open a savings account and deposit 5,000 rupees in it. The account came with an additional incentive: a matching fund that would add an additional 20 percent to what farmers deposited, but only if the deposit occurred within six months. Remarkably, the farmers approached in June were four times more likely to open an account on the spot—32 percent compared with just eight percent of those contacted in July. They were also more than six times as likely to open and fund the account by the deadline. Just 4.5 percent of those contacted in July did so, while 28 percent of those contacted in June managed to do so.

The difference, Tu and Soman argue, is how the deadlines were framed: Six months from June 2010 is still 2010, but six months from July moves the end date into early 2011—in an abstract way, the future. They replicated those results using University of Toronto business students, whom they offered consulting work with deadlines either before or after a traditional formal student dinner. Those who had to complete the work before the dinner were much more likely to say they started sooner than those with a due date later in the year.

The implications are clear for professors, managers, and others who set deadlines, Tu explains. “They should definitely think about time categories,” she writes in an email. It isn’t hard to do—it could be as simple as setting a due date to “this Friday” rather than “next Monday” or color-coding a calendar to emphasize a connection between a project’s start and end dates.