How to get started on that tricky task

By Robin Mordfin     
November 17, 2014

From: Magazine

As Mary Poppins knows, there's no time like the present to begin a chore. Photo by Walt Disney Studios.

Mary Poppins proclaimed, “Well begun is half done,” when persuading her charges to clean up their nursery. For many people, that first step is by far the hardest.

Research by Chicago Booth PhD candidate Yanping Tu suggests that the more people view a task deadline as in the present, the more likely they are to start it. Conversely, they’re less apt to begin a job that seems to be part of the future. “The key step in getting things done is getting started,” she explains. “But that urgency, which is needed to actually work on a task, happens when that task is seen as part of a person’s present.”

Tu and her coauthor, Dilip Soman of University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, conducted five studies to determine the relationship between the way people categorize time and their propensity to start a task. Among their findings: study participants began a job sooner when a deadline fell on the same day of the week as the current day, which made the finishing date seem more like the present. They started projects more quickly when the due dates fell in the same month rather than in the next month, even if the amount of time granted to complete the assignments was the same. And when looking back on a deadline, they remembered it as being closer to the current day if the researchers showed the current day and the deadline day in boxes of the same color rather than in different colors.

In another study, in rural India, 295 male farmers were told in either June or July 2010 that if they managed to save 5,000 rupees within six months, they would receive a financial bonus. Tu and Soman then gave the farmers an opportunity to either open a savings account immediately, or wait and open one at a local bank branch later.

They find that farmers with deadlines in December 2010 were more likely to immediately open the account, because the deadline appeared to be in the present. On the other hand, those with deadlines in January 2011 saw saving as something that would take place in the future, so they felt less urgency to get started. Even though the deadlines were only a month apart, the jump to the new year made the cutoff point seem distant.

In a separate study, the researchers used two calendars, one with the same background color for the entire week, and the second with one background color for the weekdays and another for the weekends. Forty-two undergraduates at the University of Toronto were given a task on a Tuesday that needed to be completed on Saturday. Participants were more likely to begin the task when the week was shown all in one color than when it was divided into two colors.

“When people are busy, they have to figure out if something needs to be done right away or whether it can be done later,” Tu said. “We only categorize those things we don’t have enough of.” People who believe they have plenty of time simply do not feel any impetus to start a task, even when a due date is actually looming.

If teachers want their students to complete an assignment, or managers need employees to finish a task, it might help to give them a sense of busyness so that they will categorize their time, Tu says. “After that, they may be more likely to get started if we assign tasks in a way that makes them seem like the present, not in a way that makes them seem like part of the future.”

Yanping Tu and Dilip Soman, “The Categorization of Time and Its Impact on Task Initiation,” Journal of Consumer Research, October 2014.