For example, take our friend Irrational Cosi who wants to visit the national museum to watch the exposition of the great renaissance master Emilín. Even though the exposition will only last one month, Cosi has the perception that there is a lot of time to plan the visit and he’ll probably pay attention to other things that he considers more important at the time. However, just as the end of the month approaches (deadline to watch the exposition) he’ll realise he doesn’t have more time and will probably go to the museum on the last weekend of the month (along with thousands of people that think just like him).
We’re always overconfident about the future, as in it, we visualise ourselves accomplishing all of our goals in time and shape. But why is it always so hard to accomplish our deadlines? Could it be because the future is well… in the future, and right now we see it as something distant with not much importance? The fact that time passes doesn’t mean that our perception of it is the same. Sometimes we think we’ve plenty of time to do things, but the truth is we don’t. Sometimes the real problem is just that we start doing things too late.
Tu & Soman (2014) said people categorise the timing of future events into two main categories: “like-the-present” and “unlike-the-present”. In the first category people deal with future events and tasks in the same temporal space as the present, making them more prone to start a task sooner in order to achieve a goal than in the second category. To prove this categorisation they ran five different studies, we now comment two of them.
In the first of the experiments, they asked two groups of farmers in India to open a bank account and save 5,000 Rs at the end of six months; if they achieved it, they would get a monetary gratification. The first group was asked to start in June with a deadline in December, and the second was asked to start in July with a deadline in January; they had total freedom to open the account and start saving whenever they wanted. Even though they had, in both cases, six months to achieve the objective, the farmers with a deadline in December were more prone to open an account right away (31.86%) than those with a deadline in January (8.09%). In the same way, the first group was more prone to save the required amount (27.95%) than the second (4.42%). A similar test was conducted in the lab with students from the University of Toronto, getting very similar results.
In a different experiment, participants were asked to answer how soon they would start working in a certain task if they had to start in April 24 (vs. 25, vs. 26, vs. 27) with a deadline in April 29 (vs. 30, vs. 1 of may, vs. 2 of may). Results showed that the willingness to start working diminished considerably when the deadline moved from one month to another even though they had the same amount of days to do it.
In both cases, the change of year and month, respectively, served as a reference point to categorise the time that participants had to achieve their goals. The participants with deadlines in December and April categorised their deadline as “like-the-present”, and the perception of immediacy moved them to act, while the participants with deadlines in January and May categorised theirs as “unlike-the-present” and the perception they had of being “far away” did not make them focus to accomplish their goals on time.
A simple and adequate categorisation of the time we have to achieve a certain goal can generate a change in our perception of time and may help us avoid stress, sleepless work nights and problems. If Irrational Cosi starts framing his deadlines in a way that he perceives them, as being in the present and not in the future, do you think he’ll be more likely to accomplish his future goals like buying a sailing boat?