How To Reach Long-Term Goals: Thinking In Days (Not Years) Will Help You Accomplish More, Study Shows

As spring turns into summer, those New Year's resolutions are receding into the past quickly — maybe you've already forgotten about them, or maybe you're setting new long-term goals now. I'm sure I don't have to explain to you that changing your ways and improving your life is hard, especially when it comes to very long-term items, like saving up money for retirement (or paying down some huge student loans before you're over the hill). But, via Big Think, science has investigated the matter, and it has discovered a new motivational trick: thinking in days (not years) will help you reach your long-term goals more effectively.

At bottom, a failure to treat our future self in the way that we think we should is a procrastination problem. Your tendency to procrastinate may be genetic, but procrastination certainly isn't good for you, so you still need to figure out a way to fight it. But the conventional wisdom on procrastination — just to "try harder" — doesn't work, because willpower is a limited mental resource. Instead, you need tricks to get more out of the willpower you have, and to decrease the need to exert much in the first place.

Some general willpower hacks were already available, but this new psychological research suggests that thinking of your timeline in smaller units will become another powerful trick in your anti-procrastination arsenal. Psychologists led by Dr. Daphna Oyserman of the University of Southern California conducted an experiment to analyze subjective assessments of time. They asked their participants to imagine ordinary scenarios, like shopping, saving, and planning various events.

As published by the researchers in the journal Psychological Science, the experimental participants reported that the dates measured from the present in days (instead of months or years) seemed sooner, and that they'd start taking preparatory action sooner too. Above the helpful effects of just breaking up the goal into smaller chunks of progress, specifically thinking in days instead of months or years seems to work because it helps our present selves connect to the future.

You seem like literally a different person from who you were 10 years ago, and you'll look back on your present self that way in 10 years, too. On some level, our minds seem to grasp this identity change, so it almost feels as if helping your 10-years-from-now self is like helping a stranger (who cares about her retirement savings!). But when you think in days, you realize that our identities are basically continuous. Since it's obvious that each day goes by so quickly, the months and years will go by pretty quickly too, and soon you'll be stuck with the consequences of your actions in the far past. So go ahead and write it down, and let the subconscious pressures work their magic — for instance, if you have a five-year goal, that's just 1,825 days left to go. Better get cracking!

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