A friend of mine (let’s call him John) told me that he was planning to apply for a vacation scheme at a well-known firm. The company accepted applications on a rolling basis so he was reluctant to leave his application until too late.
The deadline for all applications was the 1st of December.
But John told me that he’d set himself a self-imposed deadline of the 15th of November, knowing full well why he had done so. He wanted to apply a few weeks before the deadline to make sure his application would be considered.
Leading up to his self-imposed deadline however, John was increasingly worried that it might have already been be a bit too late to apply.
He kept worrying that the firm might have received enough applications by then to close the application process early.
Each day leading up to his self-imposed deadline of the 15 of November he kept worrying, the pressure and uncertainty mounting with each passing day.
A few weeks later I check in with John. It was the 26th of November and he still hadn’t submitted his application.
But this time round, his mindset and reasoning was drastically different than before.
“It should be fine” he said.
Mere days before the actual application deadline, he’s rationalising the situation to his advantage as to why he left it so late. He’s trying to convince himself that the situation is under control and that everything is fine.
This is the mindset of the now.
And deep down, John knows that he fell prey to it.
The friction between two mindsets
Why was my friend so worried before?
And why was he so relaxed weeks later when in fact the situation was much worse than before?
After all, the decision to finish the application before the self-imposed deadline was the decision that had a greater overall value to him.
Finishing the application before this deadline was a rational decision on his part. He felt that this would maximise his chances of his application being properly reviewed.
Then why did he totally disregard that mindset? In other words – why did he fall into the mindset of now?
You could say that there was a lapse in preparation and organisation on his part. He procrastinated. He failed to gather his resources and allocate an appropriate amount of time and effort to get this task out of the way.
Oh how many times we’ve tried to explain these types of situations using these general statements.
In reality though, this sort of thing boils down to a few core psychological principles that, once you know of and are cognisant of, you can counteract and use them to your advantage.
The processes behind the mindset of the now
Ever postponed an application like that? Or a personal statement or cover letter that you had to send to an employer?
What about planning to be productive over the weekend but once it loomed large you just wanted to chill and lie in bed all day?
Or what about setting up plans with a friend for a hang out in a week’s time only to cancel when the time came because you were too tired, couldn’t be bothered, or neither of you guys didn’t follow through with each other in the end?
These are classical examples of where we fall into the mindset of the now and that can be best explained with the combination of two psychological concepts: construal level theory and delay discounting.
Let’s break it down.
The future is abstract, the present is concrete
According to temporal construal theory, the more distant an event is (i.e. a deadline, the weekend) the more abstract that event will be thought of. Conversely, the closer an event is in time, the more concretely it will be thought of.
Because distant events are viewed in abstract terms and are generally gist-based (i.e. lack details), we don’t realise how many little practicalities have to be done once they get closer in time.
Let’s look at a neat experiment by Liberman and Trope (1998) that investigates how we go about planning our life and perfectly shows what we are talking about.
In their experiment, psychology students chose an assignment based on reading a textbook chapter which was either easy (i.e. based on readings in Hebrew, the students’ native language), or difficult (i.e. based on readings in English, a foreign language for these students).
More, they could choose the topic of the assignment based on how interesting it was.
They could either choose an interesting topic (i.e. “gender differences in jealousy and romantic love”) or a dull topic (i.e. “historical trends in social psychology”).
There were two deadlines for the assignment. The deadline was either for next week or in 9 weeks’ time.
It was found that when the focus was on “next week”, the students preferred:
- The interesting topic to the dull topic
- The easy assignment to the difficult assignment
In this scenario, what mattered for the students is the mindset of ‘how do I get this thing out of the way with as little hassle as only possible’. They wanted to free themselves of the burden of coursework so that they can shift their focus to more enjoyable things.
When focus was on the deadline of the assignment in 9-weeks’ time however, the students showed exactly the opposite trend. They preferred the dull topic to the interesting one, and the difficult assignment to the easy one.
In this scenario, the long-term effect of their university experience mattered to them more. That is, they wanted to challenge themselves as a psychologist, and expand their interests, and develop into a more well-rounded individual.
This is why they were perhaps more inclined to choose the dull, difficult assignment as it would be great learning experience and opportunity for them to grow.
So let’s consider my friend with his application problem once again.
For him, it was easy to say that he’ll finish the application next week.
But once that day approaches he didn’t realise that he had to think of practicalities like researching the company’s websites, tailoring your CV to accentuate your strengths, and thinking of what to write in your cover letter.
Sometimes, you realise that there are too many practical things that need to be done. It’s too much effort, it’s time consuming, and so we postpone.
Smaller-Sooner > Larger-Later
But we also tend to postpone because of delay discounting which is the process of devaluing future outcomes (e.g. Green and Myerson, 2004). Essentially, it concerns the overvaluing of smaller-sooner rewards and discounting the value of future larger-later rewards.
To illustrate this, consider an interesting experiment by Read, Lowenstein, and Kalyanaraman (1999) which shows just how delay discounting can influence our decisions about which movie to watch.
Read and colleagues presented their participants with two choices of movies: “Sleepless in Seattle”(i.e. a low-brow movie ) and “Schindler’s List” (i.e. a high-brow movie).
“Sleepless in Seattle” is a classic romantic-comedy that offers a few laughs and a predictable story, but on the whole is a enjoyable movie to watch when you’re in a mood to just chillout and watch something that isn’t challenging.
“Schindler’s List” is more of a high brow movie and is the more intellectually stimulating option of the two.
In the experiment, participants were asked two questions:
- Which movie would you like to watch today?
- Which movie would you like to watch next week?
It was found that participants preferred to watch “Sleepless in Seattle” today and watch “Schindler’s List” in a week’s time.
When the future was far away (i.e. a week away), they chose the option to watch a high-brow movie. They wanted to have an intellectually stimulating experience. This is supportive of construal level theory mentioned earlier.
However, they experienced a present-bias in present moment, opting for a low-brow movie for today.
That is, the option of watching a low brow movie was overvalued in the present moment at the expense of watching a high brow, insightful movie that could have possibly given them a new perspective on things.
In the present moment, they just wanted to relax and watch something that wasn’t challenging at all. The smaller-sooner reward of relaxing was overvalued at the expense of a larger-later reward of enjoying an enriching movie experience.
So when you plan to be more productive over the weekend ahead of time, you realise that you value getting some constructive work done over the weekend (i.e. larger-later reward) more than simply relaxing (i.e. smaller-sooner reward).
But once the weekend approaches, you realise you prefer to relax or get drunk and indulge in instant gratification (i.e. smaller-sooner reward) at the expense of getting some constructive work done (i.e. larger-later reward).
That’s because relaxing or getting drunk has become a present-biased preference whereby the value of that behaviour is overvalued in the present moment while the value of getting some work done is heavily discounted.
How can we fight against the mindset of the now?
It’s easy to fall into the mindset of the now.
But the part of you from a week ago, a few days ago, or even 2 hours ago wanted to achieve something, wanted to get things done. That’s why you had told yourself to get things done over the weekend. That’s why you had set yourself a self-imposted deadline.
Very often, we are our own worst enemies and get in our own way in doing the work that matters to us most.
How can we help ourselves?
We can use various commitment devices.
These are supposed to help you follow through on promises you may have made to yourself a while back.
So if you want to meet your friend next week, use a commitment device of making reservations or buying cinema/concert tickets. This will make sure that both of you find the time for each other.
If you want to work on your application form or any other valuable piece of work that needs your attention – head out to the library or to your favourite cafe where you know you’ll be efficient. This will bring you one step closer to getting proper work done.
(If you want to read more about commitment devices, stay tuned for an upcoming post.)
It’s important to know of our inherent psychological tendencies.
By being cognisant of them, we can counteract these natural tendencies and use them to our advantage.
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