To beat procrastination, avoid deadlines — unless they’re short

By Emily Reynolds

Procrastination can get to the best of us. Whether we’re avoiding going to bed, failing to study, or trying to avoid a hated task at work, sometimes it just feels easier to put something off than get it out of the way. For those waiting for chronic procrastinators to deliver, the dilemma is how best to encourage them to do so on time.

A new study, published in Economic Inquiry, provides some suggestions. While shorter deadlines were, perhaps unsurprisingly, more likely to see results than longer deadlines, the most responses were delivered when there was no deadline at all.

Participants were randomly selected New Zealanders who were told they had been invited to take part in a 5-minute-long survey, after the completion of which $10 would be donated to charity. Participants were placed into one of three conditions: in the first, they were given ten days to complete the survey; in the second one month; and in the third, there was no deadline at all.

Short deadlines were preferable to longer ones: 6.6% of those in the one week condition completed the survey compared with 5.5% in in the one month condition. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to any chronic procrastinators — an impending deadline is often a key driver in work finally getting done.

What might be more surprising, however, is that those with no deadline at all were more likely than those in either condition to respond, with 8.3% returning the survey. So of all the options, having no deadline was the most fruitful in terms of getting results.

In terms of when participants responded, the second day of the experiment was the most productive for all three conditions. In the no deadline condition, there was a spike during the first few days and a long tail of responses, with most replying within one month. Respondents in the one month condition also responded in flurries at the beginning and end of the allotted period, though there were fewer very prompt responses than in the other conditions. The team suggests that specifying a longer rather than shorter deadline or no deadline at all gives an impression that a task is not urgent; this then gives permission to forget about it rather than pushing it up the priority list.

Why would this not hold for the no deadline condition, which also comes without a sense of immediate urgency? The team’s explanation is that charitable donations come with an implicit sense of urgency — we are used to being asked to “act now”. This, they say, could be why the no deadline condition is similar to the one week condition in terms of promptness and response rate.

There are obvious practical ramifications to the results. If charities are looking for donations or organisations are looking for participants in surveys, knowing how to frame the deadline could increase responses. If both short deadlines and no deadlines successfully encourage donations, avoiding that middle ground may be key.

Procrastination and the non-monotonic effect of deadlines on task completion

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest