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So researchers devised a study to get participants into one of these two modes of thinking. Half of them were shown a painting and told it was a good example of neo-impressionism in which the artist was using order and colour to invoke emotion and harmony. This is a good example of an ‘abstract construal’. Meanwhile, the other half were just shown the detail of the painting and told that it demonstrated a particular technique of using contrasting points of colour to build up an image. This is a concrete construal.
Both groups were then asked to complete a survey and return it within three weeks. Their answers were irrelevant – the only thing the researchers wanted to discover was how long participants took to return the questionnaire. This was their measure of procrastination. Those thinking about abstract issues such as emotion and harmony took almost twice as long to return the survey as those who were thinking about specific techniques and details. Taking on board findings from other research in this area, the answer is clear: to avoid procrastinating on a task, you should keep the ultimate abstract goal in mind but also focus on its details and use self-imposed deadlines. If you can be bothered.
Philip Hesketh is a professional speaker on the psychology of persuasion. His new book ‘How To Persuade and Influence People’ is available from August 25th 2010.