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TOKYO, Japan — We’ve all been there — a big task is looming over our heads, but we choose to put it off for another day. Procrastination is so common that researchers have spent years trying to understand what drives some people to chronically postpone important chores until the last possible moment. Now, researchers from the University of Tokyo have found a fascinating factor that may be the cause of procrastination: people’s view of the future.

The findings, in a nutshell

Researchers found evidence that having a pessimistic view about how stressful the future will be could increase the likelihood of falling into a pattern of severe procrastination. Moreover, the study published in Scientific Reports reveals that having an optimistic view on the future wards off the urge to procrastinate.

“Our research showed that optimistic people — those who believe that stress does not increase as we move into the future — are less likely to have severe procrastination habits,” explains Saya Kashiwakura from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo, in a media release. “This finding helped me adopt a more light-hearted perspective on the future, leading to a more direct view and reduced procrastination.”

woman in headphones procrastinating instead of cleaning
Researchers from the University of Tokyo have found a fascinating factor that may be the cause of procrastination: people’s view of the future. (Credit: Ground Picture/Shutterstock)

Methodology

To examine procrastination through the lens of people’s perspectives on the past, present, and future, the researchers introduced new measures they dubbed the “chronological stress view” and “chronological well-being view.” Study participants were asked to rate their levels of stress and well-being across nine different timeframes: the past 10 years, past year, past month, yesterday, now, tomorrow, next month, next year, and the next 10 years.

The researchers then used clustering analysis to group participants based on the patterns in their responses over time – for instance, whether their stress increased, decreased or stayed flat as they projected into the future. Participants were also scored on a procrastination scale, allowing the researchers to investigate whether certain patterns of future perspective were associated with more or less severe procrastination tendencies.

Results: Procrastination is All About Mindset

When examining the chronological stress view patterns, the analysis revealed four distinct clusters: “descending” (stress decreases over time), “ascending” (stress increases), “V-shaped” (stress is lowest in the present), and a “skewed mountain” shape where stress peaked in the past and declined toward the future.

Intriguingly, the researchers found a significant relationship between cluster membership and level of procrastination. The percentage of severe procrastinators was significantly lower in the “descending” cluster – those who believed their stress levels would stay flat or decrease as they projected into the future.

Study Limitations

While providing provocative insights, the study did have some key limitations to keep in mind. First, it only included participants in their 20s, so whether the findings generalize across other age groups is unknown. The study also did not incorporate any interventions, so the direct impact of altering one’s future perspective on reducing procrastination has yet to be tested.

Takeaways

So, what do these findings mean for chronic procrastinators looking to change their ways? The results suggest that cultivating an optimistic view about how stressful the future will be could help overcome the tendency to prioritize short-term gratification over long-term goals.

As the researchers theorize, procrastinators may disregard the future because they pessimistically assume it will only bring more burdens and stresses than the present moment. By fostering a more hopeful outlook – that the future may be less stressful than today – people may be more motivated to take on challenging tasks in the present that will pay off down the road.

“We hope our findings will be particularly useful in the education sector. We believe that students will achieve better outcomes and experience greater well-being when they can comprehend their procrastination tendencies scientifically, and actively work on improving them, rather than blaming themselves,” says Kashiwakura.

“Thoughts can change with just a few minutes of watching a video or be shaped by years of accumulation. Our next step is to investigate which approach is appropriate this time, and how we can develop the ‘right’ mindset to lead a happier and more fulfilling life.”

Of course, changing one’s deeply ingrained perspectives is easier said than done. However, cognitive techniques like positive future visualization could potentially help reframe one’s view of the time ahead in a more optimistic light. At the very least, the findings highlight how powerful our subjective sense of the future can be in shaping our daily behavior and motivation — or lack of motivation!

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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