Human nature being what it is, probably the best strategy to ensure you’ll sock money away and achieve long-term savings goals is to involve your fickle, easily distracted brain as little as possible. As renowned economist Richard Thaler explained in a recent Q&A with MONEY, it’s very difficult for humans to control our impulses, and therefore the wisest approach to saving is to remove it as a choice. Invariably in our lives, stuff comes up, and if it’s an option, we’ll find more pressing and seemingly good uses for money other than incrementally trying to hit goals that won’t be realities for decades.
“Here’s a model of saving for retirement that’s guaranteed to fail: Decide at the end of every month how much you want to save. You’ll have spent a lot of the money by then,” Thaler said. “Instead, the way to really save is to put the money away in a 401(k) even before you get it, via a payroll deduction.”
A new study published by Psychological Science has other insights about how to boost savings. In this instance, the trick isn’t turning your brain off but tweaking the way you think about savings goals. The gist is that you must think about the future as now, rather than, well, way off in the future. And the way to go about this is to consider deadlines for your goals in terms of days rather than years.
“The simplified message that we learned in these studies is if the future doesn’t feel imminent, then, even if it’s important, people won’t start working on their goals,” said Daphna Oyserman, co-author of the study and co-director of the USC Dornsife Mind and Society Center. “If you see it as ‘today’ rather than on your calendar for sometime in the future, you’re not going to put it off.”
In one part of the study, hundreds of participants were asked about when they would start saving for their (theoretical) newborn child’s college education. Some were told they had 18 years to reach this goal, while others heard their deadline would arrive in 6,570 days. These are the exact same amounts of time, yet the people who thought about the deadline in terms of days said they would start saving four times sooner than those who considered the event in years. A similar experiment concerning retirement savings yielded equally compelling results, indicating that thinking in days makes goals seem more imminent—and kicks people into action much, much sooner.
The takeaways don’t apply just to savings, but to sidestepping procrastination in order to reach goals at work or school as well. Tricking yourself into thinking about goals in terms of days rather than years, Oyserman said, “may be useful to anyone needing to save for retirement or their children’s college, to start working on a term paper or dissertation, pretty much anyone with long-term goals or wanting to support someone who has such goals.”