The sweet lure of tomorrow

Do you feel like this when you get back from a holiday break?Just sending out your holiday cards today?

Do you feel like this when you get back from a holiday break?
Just sending out your holiday cards today? Rushing to get gifts you'll need to distribute in 48 hours? Frantically filing your 2008 expense reports, due last Friday? Don't worry, you're in good company. Because I meant to discuss this topic with you last week, and then earlier this week, and then yesterday but you see, if there were a Patron Saint of Procrastination, I may indeed be deified.

Procrastination rarely fits a learning curve -- even if putting things off has gotten you in trouble at work, killed your productivity or caused all sorts of harried messes, odds are, you haven't learned your lesson or sworn off the phrase "I'll do it tomorrow."

Creating this psychological distance is at the heart of procrastination but what is less understood is why -- why put off starting a diet or workout regime until January 2? Why let the inbox pile up only to feel overwhelmed every time you look at it? Why bear down on your job responsibilities and start pushing for that promotion after your vacation?

An international team of psychologists began exploring these questions, wanting to see if there was a link between how we think about a task and our tendency to postpone it, and their preliminary findings were reported in the December issue of Psychological Science. What they found was that people who were primed to think about tasks in a concrete manner (i.e. "First I'll delete spam and newsletters, then respond to yes or no questions first..." versus "How did this inbox get so bad? How will I ever get through this?"), were much less likely to put them off. Those primed to think in vague terms about the tasks they had ahead rarely got to them.

So, if you're heading into your holiday break simply daunted by the amount of stuff you have left to wade through on your desk, the suggestion is that instead of worrying about how you'll get it all done, to view the tasks as concretely as possible: one email at a time, all infinitely answerable. You know, instead of your initial plan of hitting "Delete All" and then running for the hills.