Close your eyes. Imagine yourself finishing that tedious months-long project you’ve been dreading.
Think about the papers you’re preparing on your desk, documents you need to print, the conversations you’ll need to have to finish the project and even what you’ll wear on presentation day or how it will feel to finally ace the project – the more vivid the picture is in your mind, the better.
Most of us aren’t particularly good at picturing how our immediate actions will affect us long-term
The exercise seems simple, but some recent research suggests that visualising yourself in the future could be a novel way to beat procrastination.
The theory goes like this: most of us aren’t particularly good at picturing how our immediate actions will affect us long-term. But if we’re constantly picturing ourselves at a later point in life, and how our daily decisions affect this future person, it can help us make better immediate decisions because it’s easier to imagine the long-term consequences.
Saving for the future
Part of the idea comes from research by Hal Hershfield, psychologist and associate professor of marketing at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, who studies how our perception of time can alter decision-making.
In a series of four experiments, people were asked to interact with their “future selves” – digitally altered portraits which showed them in old age – through a virtual reality program. Hershfield found that those who interacted with their future selves were then more likely to allocate money towards a hypothetical retirement savings account.
You might also like:
- Why some people are always running late
- Due tomorrow? Oh, I'll start tonight
- Can you really trick your brain to work more efficiently?
Hershfield says we often behave in ways that can be detrimental in the long term: “It’s very similar to eating unhealthy today and suffering the consequences over time.”
But “when we help people visualise and more deeply consider their future selves it increases the tendency to act in ways that are more future-oriented.”
The act of visual imagery is used in sports but can be applied to any part of your life where you’re procrastinating
This idea can be applied to time management. For example, it may feel inconsequential to put off a project for another day and scroll through Facebook for the afternoon. But by picturing yourself dealing with the extra stress caused by this small decision once the deadline arrives a month down the track, it can help you get back to work.
To be sure, the practice isn’t new. The act of visual imagery is also used in sports – the practice is a must for Olympians – but can be applied to any part of your life where you’re procrastinating, says Eve-Marie Blouin-Hudon, a PhD candidate at Carleton University in Canada who published research on the topic last year.
In her study, she worked with 193 university students who were assigned to either a present-focused meditation or a future-focused mental imagery meditation. She found that those who regularly practised visualising their future were better able to empathise with their future selves and experienced a so-called “future-self continuity” due to less procrastination “People who procrastinate feel disconnected from that future self,” she says. “The more you imagine yourself in the future the more emotionally connected you feel to that self.”
Not all people who procrastinate do so for the same reasons, so it’s important to understand the cause
Of course, this idea is not always the key to ending procrastination or altering behaviour, because not all people who procrastinate do so for the same reasons, adds Hershfield. Instead, it’s important to understand the cause of procrastination.
For example, if the reason for procrastination is simply that you don’t enjoy doing a particular task or are afraid to fail, imaging yourself in the future may make someone even more anxious, he says. “If you are procrastinating because you are really anxious that you are not doing that task well, then visualising the future self might exacerbate anxiety.”
So how do you do it?
Srini Pillay, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Tinker Dabble Doodle Try, has developed a method to foster this behaviour.
He recommends visualising the completion of an entire project by paying attention to every step of the task, not just the end result. “The thing to imagine is not putting up your hands in that trophy moment – it’s actually working on the project,” he says.
Decide on a scene that’s not only specific, but also believable so your brain can better process the visualisation. “Imagine something that feels realistic and congruent with who you are,” he says.
He suggests trying the visualisation both in first-person (where you are living through the scenario) and third person (where you are watching yourself experience it) – the two perspectives can help you solidify the scenes you are imagining, Pillay says. He recommends choosing a time of day where the mind is in a “natural slump” such as the mid-afternoon, and devoting 15 minutes each day to the practice.
Don’t expect to master the visual exercise in one session. The task can be stressful for some people, finds Blouin-Hudon, who guides visual imagery sessions for her work. She advises people to repeat sessions until they feel more comfortable with the practice.
Of course, not everyone is capable of imagining challenges. The practice is also more difficult when the reasons behind your procrastination are vague or tougher to understand.
Ultimately, the exercise can help you understand why you’re procrastinating about something that you’re trying to achieve and help you move forward, says Pillay.
“Tinkering with your imagination turns on this unfocused circuit and helps you put together the missing puzzle pieces.”
To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.