What makes some tasks harder than others to tackle? It turns out the time allotted for the work matters less than how our mind perceives the deadline. When a deadline feels like it is part of the present—say, falling within the current calendar month—we are more likely to begin the task.
In one experiment, researchers asked 100 undergraduates when they would start a data-entry task that they had five days to complete. For some, the hypothetical assignment started April 24 or 25, whereas others got the job April 26 or 27. Although the groups had the same amount of time, the students with a deadline in early May were less willing to begin the task right away, according to the study, which appeared in the Journal of Consumer Research.
An experiment involving 295 farmers in India had a similar outcome. At a finance lecture, the farmers learned they could earn a monetary benefit if they opened a bank account and saved a certain amount within six months. One group's six-month deadline landed in December, another group's in January. Farmers whose deadline came before year's end were more likely to open the account immediately and more likely to meet the six-month savings goal.
The findings illustrate how the brain divides time into discrete categories, with boundaries at the end of a month or the start of a new year, for instance. To motivate yourself to start a task you are putting off, try thinking about time boundaries differently. For a deadline next month, you might call it three weeks instead—or design a new calendar for yourself that does not break up the months. The researchers also suggest dividing a task into incremental steps with their own deadlines, which will feel more immediate.