Healthy Mind

The Counterintuitive Trick To Get People To Follow Through on Their Promises

Photo: Getty Images/Tim Robberts
When you need help with something that’s not incredibly urgent, it makes sense to give someone a bit of time with the deadline. But, according to research, that flexibility-minded strategy may not be the best way to get people to follow through.

For the study, which was published in the journal Economic Inquiry late last year, researchers conducted a field experiment to test out how willing people were to complete an online survey. There was an incentive for filling out the survey—a donation would be made to a charity for the survey respondent—and various study participants were given a deadline of a week, a month, or no deadline at all to respond.

The researchers found that people with the one-month deadline were the least likely to respond, while those with no deadline were the most likely to respond. People in the no deadline and one-week deadline groups were also the most likely to respond earlier compared to other cohorts. “Providing a one-month deadline appears to give people permission to procrastinate,” the researchers wrote. “If they are inattentive, they might forget to complete the task.”

Lead study author Stephen Knowles, PhD, a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, tells me the impetus to the study was to explore why people procrastinate with charitable donations. “I would often receive emails or letters from charities asking for a donation, and I would often decide to donate, but never get around to doing so,” he says. “We were curious as to whether giving people a deadline by which the donation was needed would reduce such procrastination.”

While the study’s focus was on charitable giving, Dr. Knowles says that the results can apply “in any setting where you want someone else to do you a favor.”

"When you give someone a long deadline to do a task, this signals that there is no urgency to complete the task. It gives people permission to delay, so they do." —Stephen Knowles, PhD, economist

But why does no deadline seem to be the most effective? Dr. Knowles’s study didn’t explore this specific question, but he does have a theory: “When you give someone a long deadline to do a task, this signals that there is no urgency to complete the task,” he says. “It gives people permission to delay, so they do, and then they procrastinate.” When you don’t set a deadline, he says, it still “conveys urgency”—the person you’re asking the favor of just has to put it on themselves.

Terri Kurtzberg, PhD, a researcher and professor of negotiation strategies and tactics at the Rutgers University Business School, says that the findings are “spot on.” “It resonates with my experience in the classroom,” she says. “If I give students three weeks to do an assignment, they will do it the night before.”

When there is no deadline attached to something, people are still aware that it needs to get done and can put pressure on themselves to work through it sooner, Dr. Kurtzberg says. “It’s low-hanging fruit. You want to answer it immediately and check it off, so you feel like you accomplished something,” she says.

While the research and anecdotal evidence both support the notion that a shorter deadline as opposed to a longer one always encourages people to do things much faster, Dr. Knowles says believing this to be the case as a constant might not be the most effective strategy to hold. “With a very short deadline, there is every chance the person won’t have free time available before the deadline to complete the task,” he points out. In the case that you're asking for a favor, then, someone might be less likely to be able to help you on a tight deadline, just by virtue of the tight timeline you've imposed.

So, whether you know you need a hand moving or want help with a work project, it could be helpful to leave any kind of deadline out of the equation. “If people know they’re never going to get a moment of pressure, they have to put it on themselves—and they usually will,” Dr. Kurtzberg says.

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