Don't Delay

Understanding procrastination and how to achieve our goals

Will You Remember to Read This Post Later When You Have Time?

Did you know that memory is related to time management?

Don't forget stickerA study published this month indicates that people who report that they manage their time well also report having good prospective and retrospective memory. Setting goals and priorities as well as a preference for being organized was also related to better memory.

The title of my blog post today is an adaptation of the title of a study just published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. Therese Macan (University of Missouri), Janet Gibson (Grinnell College) and Jennifer Cunningham (University of Missouri) entitled their most recent study, "Will you remember to read this article later when you have time? The relationship between prospective memory and time management."

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These researchers explored an interesting individual difference related to time management - memory processes. Basically, they built on research that already indicates that time management is not applicable to everyone in the same way (but what is?).

Using a sample of 425 undergraduate students (62% female, average age of about 27 years), they collected self-report data about the participants' time management and their memory. The memory measure included prospective and retrospective memory. Prospective memory refers to remembering something in the future, like remembering a task intention later at the appropriate time or place (hence the title of their paper). Retrospective memory is the memory for past events, which can be important to goal pursuit as it is part of recalling past similar tasks, as well as the steps and time required.

My interest in this work is all about the focus on goal pursuit (or how it breaks down as is the case for procrastination). As the authors' note, "Taken together, the constructs of prospective memory, retrospective memory, and time management are concerned with behaviors that require intentions to complete tasks within a given period or sequence . . ." (pp. 725-726). Although I don't believe that procrastination is simply a time-management problem, certainly to the extent that an individual has time-management problems (perhaps related to memory), goal pursuit may become problematic.

Their results
They found that time management behaviors (i.e., goal setting and priorities, preferring an organized approach to projects) were positively related to self-reports of memory for future (prospective) and past (retrospective) events. Concern for the passage of time was also related to both of these memory processes.

Interestingly, for those who reported good memories, there was not a consistent finding regarding the use of lists or other mechanisms to assist memory. As the authors note, "Thus, it is not clear whether individuals who think they have good memories do so because they use these time management strategies or those with good memories don't use these time management strategies because they don't think they need them" (p. 728). I found this interesting, particularly in terms of task lists, because list making itself can be a problem. Even the authors note that "Excessive list making might detract from accomplishing goals" (p. 728).

Although there is much more research needed (as the authors themselves note), what is clear from this research is that "a one-size training approach to time management may need to be reconsidered. Some time management strategies might work better for those individuals who have good prospective memory than those who don't or vice versa" (p. 729).

I couldn't agree more. Individual differences matter in so many ways as we consider enhancing effective goal pursuit. The challenge for researchers and each of us as individuals is to understand these individual differences well enough in the context of particular lives to provide effective assistance for goal pursuit. As the old saying goes, "different strokes for different folks."

One person's list as a memory tool may be another person's attempt at short-term emotional regulation, as depicted in our cartoon below.

Carpe Diem Cartoon (copyright Pychyl & Mason)

Now, what was I suppose to do next? Where's my list?

Reference
Macan, T., Gibson, J.M., & Cunningham, J. (2010). Will you remember to read this article later when you have time? The relationship between prospective memory and time management. Personality and Individual Differences, 48, 725-730.

 

Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specializes in the study of procrastination.

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