New Insight on ProcrastinationThe reasons people procrastinate include personal proclivities (some people are especially prone to the problem) and distaste for certain types of tasks (e.g., completing administrative paperwork, writing performance appraisals). Now a quartet of psychologists have gathered evidence for another causative factor the way in which a task is presented to the person being asked to carry it out.
Sean McCrea (University of Konstanz, Germany), Nira Liberman (Tel Aviv University), Yaacov Trope (New York University), and Steven Sherman (Indiana University Bloomington) report (pdf) the results of a suite of three studies that suggest people are less prone to procrastinate if a task they are given is represented in concrete terms rather than abstractly.1
For example, the first study the team carried out compared the degree of procrastination between two groups:
- The first group was asked to write a couple of sentences about how one would go about engaging in ten specific activities, such as opening a bank account.
- The second group was asked to write a couple of sentences about the traits of people who engage in the specified activities.
This pattern was repeated in the other two studies. In sum, "the way the task is represented influences when individuals complete it."
An obvious implication of this research for business is that assignments given to individuals and teams should be defined as concretely as possible. On the other hand, the drive to describe assignments in concrete terms should not overwhelm the need to start out at a fairly high level of abstraction in some cases, such as when a business is investigating opportunities for innovation and is still at the divergent thinking stage of the process.
1 "Construal Level and Procrastination," by McCrea, Liberman, Trope, and Sherman, was published in Vol. 19, No. 12 (2008) of Psychological Science, pp. 1308-1314.