A procrastinator's guide to getting stuff done: 3 brain-based tips

Researchers provide useful strategies to stop you from putting off that task until tomorrow.

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“Why do it now when it can be done tomorrow?”

Sometimes, there are good reasons to put things off — maybe you really do need a break or better information will be available later — but in most cases, procrastination can end up hurting you and your productivity.

Thankfully, researchers didn’t put off their work for another time and completed studies with useful brain-based strategies to help you get stuff done.

3. Think in terms of days

Research out of the University of Southern California and published in the journal Psychological Science has found a seemingly simple way to beat procrastination that requires some brain power: think of the future in terms of days away rather than months or years.

In the first set of studies, 162 participants had to imagine themselves preparing for future events, such as a wedding or a work presentation. Participants who thought of the event in terms of days reported that the event would occur on average 29.6 days sooner than those who thought of the event as months away.

In the second series of studies, over 1,100 participants were asked when they would start to save money for college or retirement. In the first case, participants were told college would start 18 years or 6,570 days in the future. In the second case, the participants were told retirement would begin 30 or 40 years in the future, or in 10,950 days or in 14,600 days. Participants were found by researchers to begin planning to start saving four times sooner when they thought of the event’s timing in days instead of years.

“The simplified message that we learned in these studies is if the future doesn’t feel imminent, then even if it’s important, people won’t start working on their goals,” says Daphna Oyserman, lead researcher and co-director of the USC Dornsife Mind and Society Center. “So when I think in a more granular way — when I use days rather than years — it makes me feel like the future is closer. If you see it as ‘today’ rather than on your calendar for sometime in the future, you’re not going to put it off.”

2. Look positively on the past

If you want to avoid procrastinating in the present, you need to have a positive view of the past while also planning for the future, according to a study out of the Higher School of Economics. The researchers analyzed the time perspectives, procrastination levels, and life-purpose orientations of 120 managers at the top and middle levels working in Moscow.

Participants were asked to evaluate the level of their agreement with 56 statements based on their relations to time and a questionnaire consisting of 20 statements to gauge their procrastination levels. Overall, top managers had lower levels of procrastination, which was linked to their perceptions of time.

“High levels of procrastination of middle managers may be explained by the influence of their attitude to the past: they are full of memories of the past and do not pay enough attention to their future time orientation,” according to a release summarizing the findings. “Top managers have lower levels of procrastination, reflecting their ability to self-regulate and set targets when building their careers.”

These top managers were found to have positive views of the past, agreeing with the statement, “I'm happy thinking about my past,” while also believing “every morning a person should plan his or her day.”

1. Limit how much you review options

It’s often tempting when making a decision, whether that’s choosing a business strategy, hiring a new team member, or researching places to vacation, to review your options repeatedly until you feel you have fully grasped all the information. But according to research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, this type of procrastination is not the best way to make a decision.

University of Waterloo researchers conducted three studies that looked at two types of “maximizers” who search through options to find the best one. The example cited above is that of “the assessment-focused maximizer,” who approaches decisions with a concern for evaluating and comparing options. These decision-makers often run into what the researchers dub “fear of a better option.”

“It's OK to look through your options thoroughly, but what especially seems to produce frustration and regret when making decisions is re-evaluating the same options over and over,” says study co-author Jeff Hughes. “Doing so invites you to keep thinking about all the options you had to leave behind, rather than enjoying the option that you chose in the end.”

Meanwhile, the “promotion-focused maximizer” is concerned with approaching gains and avoiding non-gains. The researchers found this type of maximizer is able to find the best choice in a way that is satisfying and avoids regret.

“We don’t want to suggest that being thorough with really important decisions is a bad thing, but if you’re as thorough with your decisions for lunch as you are with your decisions about your career, this could be a problem,” Hughes says.


Researchers have often disagreed on how to define maximization, leading to conflicting conclusions about its potential benefits or drawbacks. Drawing from motivation research, we distinguish between the goals (i.e., wanting the best) and strategies (e.g., alternative search) associated with maximizing. Three studies illustrate how this differentiation offers insight into when maximizers do or do not experience affective costs when making decisions. In Study 1, we show that two motivational orientations, promotion focus and assessment mode, are both associated with the goal of wanting the best, yet assessment (not promotion) is related to the use of alternative search strategies. In Study 2, we demonstrate that alternative search strategies are associated with frustration on a discrete decision task. In Study 3, we provide evidence that one reason for this link may be due to reconsideration of previously dismissed options. We discuss the potential of this approach to integrate research in this area.
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