A recent study published in Psychological Science reveals a simple answer to getting tasks done. Make it concrete!
Sean McCrea (University of Konstanz), Nira Liberman (Tel Aviv University), Yaacov Trope (New York University) and Steven Sherman (Indiana University Bloomington) published their paper "Construal level and procrastination" in a recent issue of the journal Psychological Science. They based their research on Construal-level theory.
As the authors explain, "Construal-level theory holds that greater psychological distance is associated with more abstract, higher-level construals [of objects or tasks], such that more distal objects are represented on a higher level, and also that objects represented on a higher level seem more distant" (p. 1308). In other words, when we think of a task in a more abstract way we think of it as something that belongs more to the future, and vice versa. Of course, this has obvious implications for procrastination. They reason that concrete construal of a task will lead to more timely completion, and they set out three studies to test this hypothesis.
As always in my blog, I will provide only an overview of the basic design. The complete reference to the paper is provided below for readers who want to digest all the details.
In each study, McCrea and his colleagues manipulated their participants' construal level to be more abstract or concrete. They did this in three different ways, hence the three studies. The simplest way they tried to affect the participants' construal (Study 1) was to have the participants either write about the characteristics of the activity (abstract-construal condition) or write about how they would go about each activity (concrete-construal condition). Perhaps the most interesting manipulation to achieve the same potential effect was in Study 3 where they used the painting "La Parade" (1889) by Seurat where in one case they focused on how the painting evoked "harmony and emotion" and in the other case, using a color print close up, they focused on the contrasting points of color (the pointillism technique). Respectively, these conditions reflected the abstract- and concrete-construal manipulations, and they were effective as in the first two studies.
What they did
In each case, participants were randomly assigned to one of the two conditions described above, and in the context of the task, they were requested to follow-up by providing their response by email within 3 weeks. Importantly, their participation payment was contingent on their reply. Although they had 3 weeks to reply, the earlier they replied, the earlier they got compensated for their participation. The time that participants replied was the main outcome measure in the study. The researchers' expectation was that those in the concrete-construal group would respond more quickly.
What they found
Their results from each study confirmed their expectation, "participants were more likely to respond in a timely fashion in the concrete-construal condition than in the abstract-construal condition . . . and participants responded sooner in the concrete-construal condition" (p. 1310).
The authors conclude by noting that their results indicate that ". . . the way the task is represented influences when individuals complete it. Across a variety of manipulations of construal level, we observed that procrastination was reduced when participants were induced to construe the task more concretely. . . we think that the effect of construal level on completion times reflected an association between concrete construal and sooner time" (p. 1313).
Comments and Caveats
Certainly this is an interesting study and it makes a contribution to our understanding of procrastination. As the authors note, their results are consistent with much earlier research that suggests that goal pursuit is more successful when goals are represented at a more concrete level (see Vallacher & Wegner, 1987).
There is one significant limitation to this study, however, and that is the nature of the task. As the authors write, ". . . we designed the tasks to be relatively easy and only moderately important to participants . . ." (p. 1313; emphasis added). Of course in my experience and from my own research on procrastination, relatively easy tasks that are only moderately important are NOT usually a problem in terms of procrastination. In fact, I doubt that making the construal of the task more concrete would have much of an effect on difficult tasks that are very important and not very pleasant to us. This remains an empirical question for a future study . . . in fact, one of my thesis students is working on a study right now that might address this issue.
Finally, although of interest, these results are only part of the "research conversation" in this area, and previous research has found conflicting results. For example, in terms of chronic procrastinators (as opposed to the temporary behavioral delay used in the present study), Dewitte and Lens (2000) found that chronic procrastinators actually construe their tasks less abstractly than non-procrastinators. Dewitte and Lens argue that one explanation for these results is that focusing on the details is overwhelming; low-level, concrete construal doesn't get chronic procrastinators moving faster as the present study would suggest.
New research results are always, and at best, penultimate. New results raise new questions, and on it goes as we search to understand any phenomenon more clearly. In the case of procrastination, this study published by Sean McCrea and his colleagues does add to a literature that says concrete plans make implementation more likely. My earlier blog on Gollwitzer's implementation intentions and procrastination is one good example of this previous research.
In the end, I hope you can see that it simply makes sense to ask yourself, "how am I going to do this task?" In asking this question, you're more likely to move forward from a plan to action in a timely manner. If you can manage your emotion and not get overwhelmed as Dewitt and Lens argue might happen (careful, don't give in to feel good), then I think that the more concrete the construal, the more likely that you'll "just get started!"
Dewitte, S., & Lens, W. (2000). Procrastinators lack a broad perspective. European Journal of Personality, 14, 121-140.
Gollwitzer, P.M. (1999). Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.
McCrea, S.M., Liberman, N., Trope, Y., & Sherman, S.J. (2008). Construal level and procrastination. Psychological Science, 19, 1308-1314.
Vallacher, R.R., & Wegner, D.M. (1987). What do people think they're doing? Action identification and human behavior. Psychological Review, 94, 3-15.