Griffith University researchers have developed a new way to help people reduce procrastination via a brief smartphone interaction.

Dr Jason Wessel

“Despite problematic procrastination affecting as much as 20% of the general population and 50% of students, there are few intervention strategies to reduce it,’’ says lead researcher Dr Jason Wessel.

The random-controlled study, published in Applied Psychology,involved 107 university students who received smartphone prompts twice a day for two weeks asking them to disclose how much progress they’d made on their assignment and answer one of four open-ended questions (selected at random) which prompted them to reflect on:

  • how they’d feel if they didn’t do the task,
  • what successful people do,
  • what the next immediate thing they need to do is, and
  • the one thing they need to do to finish on time

“I call the questions ‘reflection prompts’, but the name doesn’t really matter,’’ Dr Wessel says.

“What matters is they regularly think about why things are important, how to succeed, their short-term behaviour, and their behaviour at a high level where they can think about how they procrastinate.”

The researchers found students given the reflection prompts twice daily made progress on their assignment in a linear fashion, while those who did not receive the reflection prompts delayed progress.

“This approach is very quick to deliver and participate in, which means people are more likely to stick with it. There is a high dropout rate with most other procrastination interventions.

“But more importantly, it’s scalable. We can send reflection prompts to whoever has a smartphone.”

The study’s success has galvanised Dr Wessel to pursue other areas of behavioural change including building a weight-loss app using this approach.

He says the study has implications for a range of areas.

“Anywhere people have a habit of procrastinating, not because they don’t know how but because they lose motivation. From quitting smoking, losing weight or fixing your lifestyle after a health scare. It could even help people do more about climate change. There are probably a lot of applications I haven’t thought of.”