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Reminder Cues Could Be The Cure For Those Who Procrastinate On Their Intentions

Have you found that you constantly put tasks on the back burner and they stay there? 20 percent of people chronically avoid difficult tasks and deliberately look for distractions which are always available. Whether it’s paying the electric bill or taking the clothes out of the dryer, there are many daily tasks that we fully intend to complete and then promptly forget about. New research in Psychological Science, suggests that linking these tasks to distinctive cues that we’ll encounter at the right place and the right time may help us remember to follow through.

When we're in our passion, we have endless energy, we're never bored and we are always striving to improve ourselves doing what we love. Procrastination is minimized for this group. For others who have not found their passion, the route is more difficult. Procrastinators may say they perform better under pressure, but more often than not that's their way of justifying putting things off. The bright side? It's possible to overcome procrastination.

There are many ways we can try to remind ourselves to do something in the future - we can set a calendar alert, jot down a quick note, or even use the old-fashioned string-around-the-finger trick. But the problem with many of these strategies is that they don’t provide a reminder that will be noticed when we need it most.

From an evolutionary standpoint, impulsivity makes sense: Our ancestors should have been inclined to seek immediate rewards when the next day was uncertain.

Procrastination, on the other hand, may have emerged more recently in human history. In the modern world, we have many distinct goals far in the future that we need to prepare for -- when we're impulsive and easily distracted from those long-term goals, we often procrastinate.

Far too much of the procrastinator's precious time is spent toiling in tasks they later regret - time that could have been spent enjoying satisfying, well-earned leisure if things had been done on a more logical schedule. They often end up underachieving and fail to reach their potential, which eats away at them over time and fills them with regret and self-loathing.

In the past 20 years, the peculiar behavior of procrastination has received a burst of empirical interest. With apologies to Hesiod, psychological researchers now recognize that there’s far more to it than simply putting something off until tomorrow. True procrastination is a complicated failure of self-regulation: experts define it as the voluntary delay of some important task that we intend to do, despite knowing that we’ll suffer as a result. A poor concept of time may exacerbate the problem, but an inability to manage emotions seems to be its very foundation.

"Our results suggest that people are more likely to follow through on their good intentions if they are reminded to follow through by noticeable cues that appear at the exact place and time in which follow-through can occur," says study author and psychological scientist Todd Rogers of Harvard Kennedy School.

Rogers and co-author Katherine Milkman of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania hypothesized that "reminders through association" may be a tool for remembering and following through. By design, these cue-based reminders don’t depend on any technology other than the human mind and they are delivered exactly when we need them.

In one study, 87 participants completed an hour-long computer task. During the task, they learned that they would be able to have $1 donated to a food bank in addition to receiving compensation for participating. To ensure the donation would be made, however, they would have to pick up a paper clip when they collected their payment. Some students saw a second message stating that an elephant statue would be sitting on the counter where they collected their payment as a reminder to pick up a paper clip; others were simply thanked for their participation.

This simple cue effectively boosted follow-through. The results showed that 74% of the students who received the elephant statue as a cue ended up taking a paper clip compared to only 42% of those who didn’t receive a cue.

But this doesn’t mean that any cue will do; additional studies conducted online indicated that distinctiveness matters - a reminder cannot work if it is not noticed.

Again, participants learned about an opportunity to support a charitable organization. To have a donation made on their behalf, they would have to choose a specific answer on a specific page of the survey they were about to complete. On that page, they would see a cue to remind them to select the correct answer.

The results revealed that cues that were distinctive relative to the other cues in the surrounding environment were more effective reminders. In one experiment, for example, Rogers and Milkman found that a distinctive cue - an image of one of the aliens from the Toy Story movies - was more effective than a written reminder when both cues were surrounded by other flyers and promotional signs.

Data collected from customers at a coffee shop suggest that the "reminders through association" approach may also be useful for organizations that want to help their clients remember to follow through on intentions. Over the course of one business day, 500 customers were given a coupon that would be valid at the coffee shop two days later. Only some customers were told that a stuffed alien would be sitting near the cash register to remind them to use their coupon. About 24% of the customers who were given a cue remembered to use their coupon compared to only 17% of the customers who received no cue - a 40% increase in coupon usage.

While distinctive cues may serve as helpful reminders, people don’t always make the most of them. Results from another online study with 605 participants showed that participants failed to anticipate the limitations of their own memories - in doing so, they missed out on potential earnings by choosing not to pay a nominal fee to receive a cue-based reminder.

Taken together, the findings suggest that reminders through association offer a no-cost, low-effort strategy for remembering to complete the tasks that tend to fall through the cracks in daily life.

Rogers and Milkman hope to build on this research to explore whether reminders through association might also be useful for boosting adherence to medical and other health-related regimens.

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